6th Grade Band

Nehemiah 4:20

At the end of my fifth grade year the student body was called to the gymnatorium (remember those?) for an all school assembly. The junior high band director was recruiting for the sixth grade band. One by one, the woodwinds family, the brass family, and the percussion family were all paraded before our young impressionable persons. We all sat and listened as his prize students displayed their prowess on several different instruments. (Oh, they’re very good.) Who doesn’t love instruments. (I do love them.) Wouldn’t you want to learn to play one of these fascinating and fun instruments? (Yes, I would.)   I was old enough to know music moves girls; all I had to decide was which instrument. I reasoned the saxophone was my best bet (a la Grover Washington and Kenny G.).

I was excited to go home that day and tell my parents how band was now on my schedule for next year. I demonstrated what I would look like and sound like playing the sophisticated reed-toned sax.  They said they believed band might be good for me. They had no money for private lessons, as the band director suggested, but I was smart and I would catch on quickly. I was, and I did. But there were two surprises in store for my one-year band career.

The first surprise came from my parents. I was outside working on my seat-less, handlebar-less bicycle when they called me into the house. They had acquired a band instrument for me.  I rushed into the house to see, and there was a tan case sitting on the table. I opened it up to find…a cornet. (This is something like a junior trumpet.) “A saxophone costs almost $400. We found this at a garage sale for $40.” I was going to play the cornet – the B-flat cornet. There goes my social life.


Fall came, and I had resigned myself to my lot in life. I found the silver lining, though. The cornet has only three valves. The saxophone has…a lot more. Also, buzzing my lips through a mouthpiece seemed simpler than squeezing a piece of wood with your tongue. Surely, this would be a breeze to learn. At least it wasn’t a clarinet. That’s the death-blow for a sixth grade boy. Besides, the Bible has a lot more references to the trumpet than the saxophone, and this is almost as good as a trumpet. Maybe this was divine intervention.

The second surprise came from my cohorts in band.  From the first week, we were constantly measured by ability.  Friday was “chair contest” day. Each week, we were assigned a piece to play, then we were assigned a commensurate chair. The best performer was in first chair, the second best in second chair, and so forth. I’ve never cared much for competition, and I’ve always been puzzled by those who thrive on it. Nonetheless, I competed.  Week after week, the cornet section chairs consisted of Ben Coleman, Russell Thompson, myself, then everyone else.  Week after week, Ben, Russell, and I rotated first, second, and third chair, but it was always the three of us in the top positions. Sometimes I was first chair, sometimes second, sometimes third. It all depended on how hard I practiced the previous week. Both of the other two took private lessons and had already been playing their instrument a year earlier.  I was learning on-the-fly. (Did I also mention these two had also been best friends for several years?)

One particular week, I was first chair, and the other two were not pleased. They were so not pleased, in fact, that they cornered me in the locker room after gym class. Ben held my arms behind my back, while Russell punched me in the gut a couple of times. After that, I wasn’t interested in being first chair. In fact, the next week I was fourth chair, simply to create some distance between me and them. This created another problem  when I got home and my parents asked me what chair I made that week in band. Now it was my Mom and Dad who were not pleased. “You’re not trying. You’re better than that.” After all, they had invested $40 into my musical career. That was good money that could have been otherwise spent on something else, like groceries. What a dilemma. After some thought, I made an informed decision.  While fourth chair was unacceptable, third chair was… to both, my parents and my nemeses. Safety first, right? I stayed third chair for the rest of the year.

Years later, my second born daughter developed into a non-competitor, much like me. It seemed she came to this self-actuation from a similar experience in the running-track portion of junior high gym class. She told me, “Fourth place is just as good as first.” To which my oldest daughter responded, “Except it’s not.” (Alyssa became an orchestra conductor who had to deal with rowdy junior high boys.)


Published in: on August 6, 2018 at 5:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

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