A Rumination on Playing Again

I‘ve commented before (here, for example) that I had initially thought to become a band director when I grew up. That I did so emerged in large part from my time in bands from sixth grade through the end of high school. Band was one of the few places where I found any sense of camaraderie at school, although I did not value fellowship then as it deserved, and one of the few places of happiness I could find outside of my broken-in rocking chair and the pages of books already many times read. As might be expected, then, I went into my undergraduate career full of love of the thing and hope that I would be able to do as had been done for me–but, by the end of my sophomore year, I was told that I would not be allowed to proceed in my program, and I gave up on that particular dream, soon taking up another that would ultimately fail to come true.

Since that time, since my sophomore year of college, since 2002, I did not play more than a few idle notes at odd intervals, only occasionally picking up a horn, and then not for long. I entertained no serious thought of playing again, no real notion that I would do anything other than look from time to time at an instrument I had never been worthy to play and barely to touch, and I rebuked myself for ever being so much a fool as to think I could ever really have done so. And seeing my brother do so well as he did–and is still doing!–musically served to remind me that my talents lie elsewhere than in winding a horn, and that I was better served by turning my attentions to other ends. But, again, doing even that and applying myself to the exercise of those talents I flatter myself that I have did not work out as I had hoped, and I drifted from failure to failure to failure, winding up where I am now. And if it is the case that I enjoy some success–because I do–it is still far, far from what I had ever thought I’d have. (Too, as many times as I have faltered, there is a part of me–a large part–that is waiting for me to fail again.)

The Magic Horn

Recently, though, a non-profit in Kerrville and the head band director at the public high school got together and set up a community jazz band. News of it reached me through the usual channels (thanks, Mom!), and, after consulting with my wife, I decided I’d join if they’d have me. After a couple of phone calls and emails, I found myself retrieving instruments from my parents’ house: a late-1930s King Zephyr alto sax that’s been in my family for generations and a Buescher bari sax my grandfather had owned and which I had inherited.

The alto was long familiar–and it is the instrument of which I am far from worthy. I have heard others wind it as it deserves, and I know I cannot match them; I tend to it, but I dare do no more. But the bari is another matter. It has not the ancientry of the alto, nor has it the mystique; the also is known in the family as “the Magic Horn,” and in the hands of those who actually know what they are doing, it lives up to the name. The bari is not of the same quality; Buescher has not the cachet that King does, and for cause. Nor, if I am being honest, was my grandfather the finest saxophonist–though he was better far than me, as is clear from his having succeeded in his musical goals, while I definitely did not. But when I did play, and when I was commended for playing such that I thought I might reasonably expect to make a life around it, it was a bari sax I played–and I do not devalue the horn that I have now, when I might otherwise have had none.

Me, in full harness, with the bari; photo by Sonya Elliott

And it felt good to wind it again! Oh, I am aware of how much I have lost of what little I had; I dare not deny it (and I am working to reclaim at least some of it, although I know that the intervening years will have taken more from me than I can ever recover). But when I wrapped my hands around the hollow brass, put my fingers on the keys and the reeded rubber into my mouth again, it felt right. I babbled through the horn, true, my falting utterances showing long disuse, but as I played, my fingers and lips and tongue began to remember what they had known. It was as if rust fell from me in the very act of playing again, and as I moved more, I was able to move more. And sitting in communion with others doing much the same…it was decidedly welcome.

So I shall be going back again, I think. Even if I will never be the sort of person who can make a living at it, I can be the sort who does a bit and enjoys what all is done–and I think that’ll actually be good enough.

Reeds are expensive! Help me buy some more!


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