How I Became an Ex-Saxophone Player

(Pictured: Arturo Toscanini conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra, circa 1944. My relationship with a putative Toscanini did not end well.)

Let’s file this under Off-Topic Tuesday, since it is.

A picture showed up on Facebook the other day. It was a newspaper photo from 1978, a picture of the senior band members at my high school who were about to take part in their final week of concerts. It didn’t matter that the picture was very hard to read—I could recognize the faces. Many of my closest friends were in it—a couple of whom I’m still fairly close to today.

I am not in the picture.

In the summer between fifth and sixth grade, I took up the tenor saxophone, mostly on a whim. For the next four years, I would be a not-very-good tenor saxophone player. Part of the problem was the same thing that made me an ex-piano student a couple of years before: I didn’t like to practice, or even to attempt anything that was challenging. But I was also frustrated because Scott, the other tenor sax, was so much better than I was. (We didn’t know then that Scott had rare musical gifts, for he grew up to become a tenured professor of instrumental music who plays in a symphony orchestra.) When I could just honk away at my part in rehearsal every day, however, I liked it well enough.

When I got to high school, the bands were directed by one of the great oddballs I have ever encountered. The marching-band arrangements of popular songs favored by the junior-high director were not for him; his taste was much more artistic, and so was his temperament. You never knew what his demeanor would be from day to day. But there was also this: gifted students who consistently played well were singled out for lavish praise, and many of them became almost cultlike in their devotion to him. Those of us less talented were often singled out for scorn, and it wasn’t long before playing became no fun at all.

Eventually, what some of my fellow students saw as artistic temperament I saw as a Napoleon complex, and I sometimes called bullshit on him, in class or out. One day, he interrupted rehearsal for some kind of nonverbal communication exercise. It came from so far out of left field that when he said, “Does anyone have any questions?” I raised my hand and asked, “Yes, have you flipped?” Another day, he responded to a poor rehearsal by storming into his office, shutting the door, and refusing to continue. I started packing up my horn. “You can’t leave,” said one of his cultists in a horrified tone. “Why can’t I?” I asked. “If he’s leaving, why should we stay?”

The last straw was the day he announced that the next year, we’d have three bands instead of two, and that there would be a new division of them. Instead of by class (freshmen in one, everybody else in the other), there would be tryouts. We’d be placed by ability, he said, but the bands would be equal. I raised my hand and asked how they could be equal if we’d be placed in them by ability. He insisted that they would be. I insisted that they would not: “You’re going to end up with a good band, a mediocre band, and a poor band,” and I knew which one I was going to be in.

One day in the spring of 1975, we were called into the band office one by one to learn our assignments. The director’s assistant sat behind the desk; the director sat in a nearby chair with his head down. I spoke first: “Before either one of you says a word, you should know I’m not going to play in the band next year.” The assistant’s face fell. The director, head still down, asked, “Is it really so terrible?” I replied, “Yes, I guess it is,” and I walked out of the office an ex-saxophone player.

If you had asked me three years later, during that emotional week of farewell concerts, if I missed being in the band, I would have vehemently insisted that I did not. But when that picture showed up on Facebook the other day, I realized that I really did miss it—in 1978 and now. That week, I watched them with my nose pressed figuratively against the glass, wishing I was sharing their experience. Just a few days ago, looking at a picture from that time, I wished the same thing again.

8 responses

  1. I finally grew the stones required to quit band my senior year of high school. I immediately picked up a guitar. My penis forever thanks me.

  2. Sorry to hear that some jerk’s personality took the pleasure out of performing music for you.

    My HS band director was also a major oddball, and also tended to inspire either adulation or mockery among his students.
    The members of my HS garage band all crossed his path at some point, and we worked out our cumulative frustrations by singing uncomplimentary songs about him.

  3. I became an ex-bass player when I transferred schools and my new school was too inflexible to schedule me into orchestra. So I reluctantly joined band and soon became an ex-cornet player. I regret the former, but not the latter.

  4. Good stuff, jb! (It took me longer to become a former cornet/trumpet player. I stayed in orchestra through high school and then played in a concert band my first quarter in college. I was good enough in high school, but I realized soon enough that, like the good-enough-for-high school running back, I wasn’t fast enough and didn’t hit hard enough to make it in college.)

  5. I had the rare privilege of having a stupendous high school band director who remains a close friend to this day. He’s in his late 70’s and though long retired he still owns/books/conducts an 18-piece band that plays at festivals and civic gatherings all over the state. He opened so many professional doors for me. He got me my first paying music gig. He embraced ALL young musicians, whether they were in his band or not. In the early 60’s there were a lot of “garage bands” of kids trying to play guitars and drums and emulating the Beatles, and this band director created a semi-annual event to showcase THEIR talent along with his bands in a huge community forum. He made it a point to find a piece of music that he could adapt to showcase the talents of even those who only honked on the sax or squeaked on the trumpet, right along with those of us who had a bit more musical talent. We were treated as equals and while those of us who could play pretty well did get a bit more intense coaching and encouragement, no one was allowed to think less of those classmates whose true talents lay elsewhere, but were members of the band and as such, elements of the whole. His name is Ernest Broeniman and he’s a great teacher and tremendous role model.

  6. Nicely written, as always, jb.

    Having attended the Stanford School Scheduling Project in 1964 and ’65, one of the assistant principals at my suburban high school convinced the administration to adopt modular scheduling in the Fall of 1967, my junior year. The ’68 yearbook was dedicated to “the father of modular scheduling at” the school, with the dedication page featuring a dotted outline, in which the words “paste IBM card here” were printed. The accompanying punch card (mine had a string of numbers at the top, followed by “rune juice 32 oz”) was overprinted with his image repeated four times. Just one year in and it already looked like a legacy piece.

    I don’t do Facebook, but my older sister contributes to our hometown’s page. The subject of modular scheduling came up and she read me all of the responses. There were a couple individuals who thrived under the flexibility, but the heartbreak revealed in post after post revealed that most kids struggled mightily without the structure provided under traditional scheduling. I have no idea when mod scheduling was jettisoned at the school, but it wasn’t too many years later.

    Like the band director who felt anything less than honing mini-Mozarts was beneath him, the mod scheduling guru failed to foresee that a system designed for the highly-motivated college-bound elites could scar so many of the others for life. How’s that for leaving a legacy?

    It gets better: mod scheduling was introduced the same year the school took steps to address a serious overcrowding issue. Most smaller classrooms were halved, separated by a wall, which allowed passage on either end. Unfortunately, said wall fell a few feet short of the ceiling, allowing the the proceedings on the opposite side to be nearly as audible as the class one was attending.

    There was a bright side, however. Not even the universities offered classes in French trigonometry.

  7. […] about my attempts at being a musician. That’s because I wasn’t very good at it, and my career ended up a disappointment. A radio story about modest moments of fame achieved by more successful high-school musicians is […]

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