It’s been more than a decade and a half since I even pretended to have any sort of musical talent, and that last time hardly counts, because it was a brief period in college when I bought a used saxophone and taught myself to play it one summer. And even then, the stuff I’d learned in four years of playing clarinet and then bass clarinet at Lake Elementary and Lake Middle schools – fifth through eighth grades – was pretty well gone and buried.
My daughter’s in fifth grade now, and she plays the viola. Practices four or five nights a week in the back room of the house, but the sound carries easily through the kitchen and into the living room. Her first orchestra concert was a little over a week ago.
The mental trips between past and present began as soon as I got home from work at six that evening. It’s December, so it was already dark. My daughter had eaten her supper already and was upstairs getting cleaned up and dressed, and my wife and I had a hurried dinner so we could leave by six-thirty. I caught a faint pull in my gut of that “something special on a
school night” feeling, like the little thrill of seeing that old CBS “Special Presentation” logo spinning on the television screen that meant it was time for a Charlie Brown or a Rankin/Bass holiday show.
The school district – yes, we live in the same school district where I grew up, and my daughter has actually had classes in some of the same rooms I did, and being back in those halls on meet-the-teacher nights is still a fun and kind of a surreal experience – has a real community theatre these days, just a few years old. In my band years, we played in the middle school gym, two bands on the floor and the oldest group of kids up on the stage.
Watching my daughter file in with the other fifth graders and take her seat on the stage, I thought about the half-hour before our band concerts, how it was weird to see kids from school but not actually in school, and everybody a little dressier than normal. (The next day, you’d see a lot of us wearing those same outfits in school, minus maybe the ties and jackets if we had them. We had sensible moms, I guess, and an outfit worn for a couple hours during a band concert clearly doesn’t count as being worn at all.)
I remember being in fifth grade and thinking how OLD those eighth-graders looked. My God, that guy had a beard! And those girls – they were, uh, shaped differently than the ones in our band.
In sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, about a week or two into every summer vacation there was a weekend band festival in the parking lot behind the high school. Seeing kids there was even more odd than seeing them at night, but it was also more fun because we didn’t have to dress up, and when it wasn’t your turn to play, you could run around and play all the goofy carnival games like Chuck-A-Luck and the ones where you threw ping-pong balls into miniature goldfish bowls.
My daughter’s up on stage and the orchestra’s tuning up, and the kids are plucking their strings while the teacher goes around and makes an adjustment here or there, and I remember the utter dread that came with playing a woodwind: The fear of SQUEAK!ing on concert night. Solos were never for me, thanks very much, I’m happy to sit here in the second clarinets with my buddy Mark (we’d both take up the bass clarinet in seventh grade – the only two basses in the band – and get to move back by the tubas) and let others run the risk of public SQUEAK!ing.
The fifth graders played their songs (all plucking, no drawing of the bows at their first concert), and I watched my daughter’s
concentration and her fingers and her chin tucked onto her viola and I wondered if I ever looked that serious, because wow, do I remember band as being a place to really goof off. (Which would probably explain why I never really considered my playing a ‘talent.’) Maybe the strings just come with a little more class than I had between the ages of 10 and 13.
After they finished, they left the stage and sat in a few rows of seats down front, and the other three orchestras played their sets, and eventually, the concert was over and we wedged our way into the narrow halls behind the auditorium, wading into the chaos to find our kid. And here she came, music folder tucked under one arm, viola case in hand, winter coat on, shuffling
through the packed and noisy hallway.
Outside, it was easy to breathe, and cold, and it was a quiet ride home.
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