Quietly Making Noise

I sometimes wonder if our choice of musical instrument reflects back on who we are.

Remember, the baritone was not my first choice of instruments. Sometimes, my life is not exactly what I’d call my first choice, either.

The baritone is not a quiet instrument. This is probably obvious based on it’s size alone–you expect something big out of it. I mean, compared to the flute with it’s lithe construction and breathy sound the baritone with it’s extra metal and bends and turns and valves and brutish looks, you expect it to sound brutish, too.

Looks can be deceiving.

The odd thing about a lot of the music we payed in band was that baritone would often echo the melody being carried by the flutes and clarinets. Imagine the aural equivalent of a bull in the china shop–that’s how I would sometimes feel.

Many times, too, I would be the only baritone in the class. Which meant that if I made a mistake, EVERYONE heard it. Man, that really sucked. So I’d try to play softer, blend in more (despite the fact that I was meant to stand out) and my instrument sounded strangled, struggling, not quite right.

It’s not that I wasn’t confident in my abilities. My middle school band director (a dear, dear man who I’m still friends with) said that I had perfect pitch. I was one of his pet students. In high school there were 2 bands: Concert and Symphonic and I tried out over the summer (despite the fact that I’d just gotten braces and was relearning my embouchure all over again) for Symphonic band and got in. I’d also learned trombone in middle school and did a stint playing bass trombone in jazz band in high school and even tackled Tuba for an ensemble during festival season. I was good. I worked hard. I loved what I did.

But I was still shy.

Knowing this topic was coming up, I picked up my baritone the other day after at least 4 years of not playing. (I had lived in an apartment complex for those 4 years and didn’t feel comfortable practicing such a loud instrument with neighbors beside and above me.) First I was amazed that all of the keys and tuning slides still moved. In fact, it’s my fingers that are more sticky than the keys, the joints are so out of practice it feels like my hands have shrunk. The double-jointed-ness of my right ring finger became all that more apparent as it’s reaching for the 3rd key and bending in, instead of out. (Yeah, that’s a fun thing to happen just before halftime when it’s damp and cold outside and suddenly one of the 3 fingers you need decides to hinge the wrong way, lol.) Then I blew some air through the mouthpiece.

Nothing happened.

I wasn’t buzzing my lips (embouchure, again), wasn’t blowing enough air.

I was scared to make a sound.

Who was going to hear me? Our neighbors are somewhat close but not that close. Todd was in his office on the other side of the house and I knew for a fact that he couldn’t hear me (the fact that the interior wall of my office is actually the old, brick, exterior wall of the house, my office being the enclosed carport guarantees a certain amount of sound-proofing).

So I took some baby steps. I remembered how to buzz my lips inside to get a kazoo-like sound. I took the mouthpiece out of the horn and just buzzed through it for a bit, to remind myself how it felt, blowing a little harder this time. Then I tried it again, mouthpiece in the horn again, and tried for an open note. An F.

Then I played a B-flat scale. Because I could. Because I remembered the fingerings. Because I could. Because it was what the horn was meant to do.

So, the baritone wasn’t my first choice, but I remember the great sound it had and how, when called for, it could soar above the rest of the band in a solo or counterpoint. And girls playing lower brass instruments still isn’t incredibly common. My life is not what I’d thought it would be, wanted it to be, or even imagined. In many ways, though, it’s exactly as it should be and, in terms of daydreams versus reality? The reality is better.

Sure, I put the instrument back in it’s case and went back to the comic that I had been drawing. But my thoughts were on the box of sheet music in the library.

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