Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Tales from a Pep Band Walk-On

My two oldest children have a piano recital this week. They've been taking piano lessons for two or three years now, and while neither of them is ready to go on tour with Billy Joel just yet, I can actually recognize most of the songs they are trying to play. (They're getting better with each lesson and practice.)

I never took piano lessons, and I wish now that I had. My older sister and brother both took piano lessons, but when it came my turn my parents either lacked the money or the interest in signing me up. (It might have been due to Third Child Indifference Syndrome.) Back then it didn't bother me at all. If you had given me the choice between practicing piano or watching reruns of Star Trek, Spock and Chekov would have won every time.

I've occasionally wondered if the chance to take piano lessons would have impacted my life. Maybe I missed my destiny as a piano-playing singer-songwriter. (If you've ever sat near me at church during the hymns, you can probably testify that I should avoid anything that involves singing.)

But, while I never got the chance to learn the piano, I did get an opportunity to flex my musical talents in fifth grade. That's the year students at our school were allowed to sign up for band.

Before you can join the band, though, you have to decide which instrument you are going to play. This is a pretty big decision for a fifth grader, because unless you are some kind of prodigy, you're going to be stuck with whatever instrument you choose for the rest of your life. This was the 1970s, so immediately any woodwind instruments were out. (Woodwinds were for girls, and heaven help anyone bold enough to cross gender stereotypes back then!) So, that left me to decide between brass or percussion. A couple of my friends picked the trumpet, and a couple chose the trombone, so I decided to follow my friends to the brass section. (One friend chose trumpet but was informed by the band teacher he had to switch to trombone because "your lips are too big.") (Apparently our band instructor was unfamiliar with the work of Louis Armstrong.)

It's all in the slide!
I chose the trombone mostly for two reasons. 1) I thought the trombone's slide looked cool, and wondered if I might be able to use it as a weapon. (It was like a light-saber that played music!) And, probably more influentially, B) my Dad had an old trombone I could use. Musical instruments are not cheap, so the fact we had access to a dusty old trombone that had been sitting in a storage shed since the 1950s clinched the choice for me.

I made it through 5th grade band just fine, learning how to play "When the Saints Go Marching In" as well (almost) as the next guy. But, for 6th grade we got a new band teacher, and it didn't take long for me to realize I didn't like him much. Why? Mostly because he was a trombone player, and he expected his trombone students to: A) practice their trombone at home, and 2) get most of the notes correct when playing a song. Looking back, these don't seem like outlandish demands, but to this particular 6th grader, they were a bit too much. (Have you ever tried to practice a trombone at home by yourself? I'm asking, because it's something I never did.)

So, I ended up dropping out of band in 6th grade. My musical dreams came to an end...or did they?

Most of my friends stayed in band, which was fine until it started to become a problem in high school. The problem? When I'd go to the football and basketball games and want to hang out with my friends, I couldn't because they were in Pep Band and I was not. This predicament reached its breaking point during my sophomore year when all of my friends spent several days on a Band Tour trip while I was stuck back at the school going to my regular classes. They came back with tales of all the fun they had, and I felt I was really missing out.

So, I came up with a harebrained scheme: I would re-join band, despite being almost five complete years behind everyone else. Luckily for me, the high school band teacher was very understanding, and I was back in band again, a junior in high school with the skill of a 5th grader.

Yes, I can still get into my old Pep Band shirt!
(No, I can't BREATHE while I'm wearing the shirt. Or play the trombone.)

Fortunately, my friends in the trombone section knew what they were doing, and they were able to cover for my deficiencies with the horn. And so, I was able to hang out with my friends in the Pep Band, and I even occasionally hit some of the right notes at the right times! I was able to go on two Band Tour trips with my friends, creating memories that would last a lifetime! (Like when one of my friends did a striptease in front of a full high school auditorium.)

Did re-joining the band help me realize all of my musical dreams? No, but I did have a lot of fun. And really, that's all I hope for my kids and their piano adventures: I hope they enjoy it. And who knows, if one of them wants to take up the trombone, I know where their Grandpa's old instrument is, and maybe it can still hit a correct note or two.

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