When I was in middle school, we had the opportunity to join band, which was a big deal and almost everyone signed up. Kids chose which instruments they wanted to play, their parents would usually rent or buy the instrument outright. Those were the kids who picked flutes, clarinets, trumpets, and trombones. You occasionally had some baritones, and the drummers.
For those kids who couldn’t afford the rent or buy option, the school had some “loaner instruments”. Usually, they were the large brass types, dented and dull, which could still play a tune in the right hands. Tubas and french horns. You could take them home for practice, but at the end of the day, they belonged to the school.
My grandfather, a huge aficionado of classical music, convinced me that the french horn was a beautiful instrument, and could not go wrong in picking it. So, I did, meanwhile secretly envying my classmates with their dainty little instruments. I was given a “school horn”, which looked like someone drove over it with their car. Initially, I would take it home every day, and practice, until my parents would yell at me for being too loud. Coupled with the fact that the horn, in it’s case, was too damn heavy for any 6th grader to lug around, I stopped bringing it home.
My grandfather was right in that the french horn is a beautiful instrument. My ear can discern the french horn in an orchestra; a lovely, regal sound.
However, with new french horn players, the part is limited to playing the PAH-PAH to the newb tuba’s OOM!
Our spring concert rolled around, and my parents attended to see their daughter in her first big band concert. After, my dad remarked on how it didn’t seem like I got to play much. Did I like playing the french horn? Not really. Would I like to play something different? Yes!
After talking with my band instructor, he said I could switch instruments and play something else the following school year. The caveat being that I needed to practice during the summer to catch up to the other students.
Now, which instrument to pick. I flirted with the idea of playing the flute, only because my aunt had an old one I could have.
“What about drums?” My father had asked. A guy he did work for had an old kit that his son used to play on, but had lost interest. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the idea of trading a french horn for an even louder 5-piece drum set, but relented. So, Dad shelled out $100 and I got an old, silver drum set in my room. The heads were worn, and needed replacing, but it would be a good starter set. I didn’t have drum sticks, so Dad fashioned some sticks for me, and all summer I spent pouring over books of rudiments, learning sticking and music. I made sure to play the drum set only when my parents were working.
The following school year, I was excited to participate in band. The school had their own drums, so I didn’t have to worry about buying or renting a snare. I just used theirs. The same went with the sticks until I was able to order a pair of my own from my band teacher. Beautiful honey-colored drum sticks! I loved playing the drums, although there was a huge downside to being in the percussionist pit. My school bully also switched to drums. What was my joy, became my own personal hell as she picked on me for the hour we were in class (not to mention before and after), to the snickers of those close by, and the apparent oblivion of our band teacher.
As far as our band teacher (Mr. T) went, I think he was fairly ambivalent about me. He definitely had his favorites, but I was not one of them (and I was completely fine with that). However, he always was willing to stay after school and help me with a challenging rudiment or piece of music. He was always frank, tough, and demanded nothing short of the best of our abilities. He made me mad more times than I could count, but I always came out of it a better than when I started. From him, I learned that I need to keep doing something until I get it right. Never give up.
When my parents divorced, Dad uprooted us and moved to middle-of-nowhere Nebraska. The band wasn’t as great, and the percussion pit was heavily sexist. Boys get to play the drums, and if you had a vagina, why don’t you go over there and play the cymbals or the xylophone? Assholes.
Our first chair drummer managed to break him arm during a wrestling tournament, right before our Christmas concert. Our teacher, one-by-one, called all the boys in the pit to step up to the kit and play to music we had be rehearsing for the concert. Turns out, the boys in the group didn’t know much about playing a full trap. After a few awkward minutes, I stood up, grabbed my drumsticks, and took a seat at the stool. Some of my classmates snickered and made snide remarks, my teacher sneered. “You know how to play??” he asked. I nodded. He wanted me to demonstrate my abilities, I told him to just have the band start playing the damn song. So, he shrugged and raised his baton.
At the end of the song, everyone in the class turned around and stared. The concert came, and I played, just as I always done. My parents had long stopped attending my concerts, so I didn’t think too much about it until my Dad approached me the following week.
“Some guy at the gas station asked if you were my daughter.”
“He said he saw you play the drums last week at the school concert. He said he’d never seen anything like it. I guess you can play pretty good?”
“I guess so.”
He later was approached by three other strangers, all asking about “that little blond girl who plays the drums”. He never said it, but I’d like to think that made him proud.
A lot of band nerds out there get shit on for being band nerds. Anything with the arts is dismissed as being frivolous and not possibly amounting to anything but a hobby. The thing with being in a band, is that music doesn’t care what you wear, what you look like, who or what your parents do, or where you live. Music transcends anything material, and can take you to a place where you forget about your problems, your alcoholic father, your absent mother, or that the electricity was turned off in your house. Making music, being in a band or even solo, is like creating something that is bigger than yourself. If it was band-related, I soaked it up. Marching band, Symphonic Band, Pep Band, Conference Band. My hands would have blisters and callused from all the playing I did. I knew I always wanted this in my life, and made the decision during my sophomore year of high school, that I, too, wanted to be a band teacher. But, life happens and you end up taking a sharp right turn.
After the whole “little blond girl who can play drums” incident. My classmates accepted me better. My music teacher respected me. He even had me instructing the newly minted percussionists in the junior high in basic rudiments. Four girls signed up to for percussion that semester, and a few of my “students” went on to play for large university drum corps.
My husband surprised me with a drum set for my birthday. A beautiful kit, which I have added to and play once in a while. I’m excited to have it in my life, even more so about the idea of teaching my daughter how to play. It’s a shame that more emphasis isn’t put on the arts as they used to be. American education is geared towards tests and test scores, and not about learning and personal enrichment.
Band nerds are still cool to me. Anyone who doesn’t think so can suck it.