My earliest memory of being a band member is fifth grade, about 1953. Mother and Daddy bought my clarinet on time. This is also one of my earliest memories of the sacrifices our parents made for Joan, Sue and me to have special opportunities. Maybe to any other kid seeing that little payment coupon book from Parker Music Company wouldn’t have meant much, but I knew how hard our parents worked.
I wouldn’t trade my band years from grades five through college graduation for any amount of other treasure. Call us geeks, fairies, if the joy that a percussion line still sends through my body could be bottled, I’d be rich.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, as I alternately sat and stretched out on the grass in front of the bandstand in Federal Park, I was reminded of gifts untapped for four decades. And this took me to the music store in De Vargas Center the following Monday morning to rent a clarinet. I hadn’t touched a horn for 30 years, the last time I owned one that I bought used from one of my eighth grade language arts students who was a band dropout. Any thought I had back then that I would do something interesting with that clarinet—like play it—quickly got lost in other passions pulling me one way or another. I moved that horn through a series of residences, and now I have no clue about what became of it. I guess I gave it away, hopefully to some deserving kid.
As the music store owner and I talked about my revived interest in playing, I truly had no idea of what would come out of the horn the first time I put it to my mouth. Would it be that evil squawk that has annoyed scores of thousands of parents and siblings as aspiring musicians have practiced their instrument since the advent of school bands? As bizarre as it seems, one of the dreams I still have has me with an instrument in band and no reed, or a reed that is too damaged to be of use. Monday morning of course included a discussion of reeds, along with the quality of instrument I was renting for the requisite three months, an elementary clarinet book, and my options if I should decide down the road that I want to purchase a quality instrument. That $200 used Buffet clarinet that my parents bought my senior year in high school—and which I stupidly let be stolen from my unlocked locker in the music building of Sam Houston State Teachers College—is at least a $3000 instrument these days.
The proof is in the playing. Back in my condo, a little concerned that my noise would travel out my balcony door into the unwelcoming ears of neighbors, I opened the instrument case, greased the corks of my rental, assembled it, and finally, moistened the reed between clenched lips before securing it on the mouthpiece. Then I pulled the balcony door almost completely closed. Keying chart unfolded on my make-do music stand, I brought the clarinet to my mouth, covered the holes to play a lower C note, and blew. An amazing solid sound emitted from the horn, and my bodily memories, the same ones that enable us to get on a bicycle after years of absence, kicked in. I quickly made my way through Lesson 8, two octaves, and exercises from whole notes to eighth notes, nailing simple intervals with unexpected aplomb. I beamed with satisfaction, puzzling over routine things like how to get rid of saliva buildup inside the barrel of my horn.
So I’ve made my initial re-commitment to musicianship. For the past several days I’ve had company from Texas, and the horn has stood assembled, leaning against the living room wall. Alone again, I am returning to my journal, to my clarinet, and to the continuing rediscovery of the boy to whom my older cousin Jimmy from Santa Fe said with a friendly, 17-year-old clever smile, in the summer of 1954, “I understand that you are a mugician”. “Musician,” I innocently corrected. Make me a mugician any day.
Recollections of a Band Geek—Santa Fe, New Mexico (July 30, 2008)
R. Harold Hollis