I pulled out my clarinet today.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve pulled out my clarinet, and I’ll be honest; I was afraid I would be sad because I would sound terrible. I did sound terrible. I imagine I sounded something like a water buffalo in labor, but it didn’t make me sad at all. In fact, I was happy. Very happy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So many things came right back to me. I didn’t even have to think about how to put together my instrument. Once I opened up the case, I went on autopilot – checking the reeds in the case, selecting one, popping it in my mouth to soak, taking out the pieces, assembling the clarinet, holding down the appropriate keys to keep other keys from bending, and even leaving space between pieces to make the instrument longer because I had a tendency toward sharpness. I laughed at that. I knew I wouldn’t be anywhere near sharp, so I put the pieces together snugly and began assembling my barrel and mouthpiece. I teared up when I heard the familiar slap of a reed hitting the mouthpiece. I tightened my ligature, checked the seal on my reed (listening for a satisfying pop, but only getting a lackluster one), finished assembling my instrument, formed my embouchure, put my clarinet in my mouth, and blew.
I tried again.
Nothing happened again.
I tried again, this time forcing more air through the instrument and engaging my diaphragm.
I made some sound! The note was an open G (or at least an approximation of one – I’m sure I was wildly out of tune, if for no reason other than my chops, but also, the instrument hasn’t been touched in 20 years; it needs a tune-up as much as I do – the cork dust that flew when I opened the case nearly choked me). I depressed my left thumb in an attempt to play an F, but nothing happened.
I steeled myself again, sat up straight, put my feet flat on the floor, summoned up my intestinal fortitude and tried again. I warmed up my tongue on the G and made my way down to an F and eventually an E. The D remained elusive.
By this time I was exhausted. Did I really spend hours every day playing this instrument when I was in high school? I was nearly lightheaded from the amount of air I was moving through my body and my clarinet. Had I really spent so much of my life playing complex music on this instrument while marching around a football field?
If you have never played in a marching band, I strongly suggest you talk with people who have. The amount of mental and physical maneuvering that must happen simultaneously along with quality of sound is staggering.
Let’s start with the music. On the marching field we play complex pieces of music that must be memorized and played expertly. If the music is bad, the show will be bad. We have to pay attention to our notes, tones, rhythms, sections, all of the other musicians, and our drum majors. And that’s just the music.
We have to do all of the above things while marching our sets. In other words, we have to know how to get from Point A to Point B in the right time and in the right way. Maybe the path is a straight line. Maybe it isn’t. We have to roll our feet just right as we move so that our instruments don’t bounce as we march. It’s hard to play a clarinet that pops out of your mouth with every step. We have to think about clenching our behind cheeks to regulate how long our strides are. We have to know how many steps take you 5 yards, and we must be able to replicate that stride length indefinitely. We have to know how to perform a variety of different steps while maintaining the stride length and the formation. Then we have to know when to throw all of that out the window and hightail it to wherever it is we are going. We must remain cognizant of everyone and everything around us. You really need to know when the colorgaurd or drumline will come zipping by you. Oh yeah, and we have to memorize all of this, along with the music.
Don’t even get me started on the uniform. Well, since I’ve gotten started, I’ll just talk about our hats. It was imperative to have your visor and your feather at just the right angle. Doing so, however, often impaired your vision. OK. I’ll talk about stripes, too. The stripes on your pants must be straight at all times. You try marching around a football field at breakneck speeds and let me know if you think your stripes will stay straight.
And I loved it all. Every minute of it. But my 40-something body just couldn’t comprehend how I could do all of that and not pass out.
Then there was concert season after marching season. For sure, concert season was less physically strenuous, but the difficulty of the music amped up several notches. And I loved concert season, too. Every minute of it. My 40-something body is holding tight to the dream that perhaps I can get into shape enough to sit down for longer than 5 minutes and play my clarinet. Maybe one day, hope against hope, I’ll be in good enough shape to attempt to join a community ensemble. Probably not, but at least one day I’ll get into good enough shape to make it all the way through a song without passing out.
I didn’t actually pass out today. I stopped playing before that happened.
What did happen was elation at the return of my first love. I loved playing my clarinet before I met Jesus and before I met Chris. I don’t love it more, but I did love it first. Outside of God and family, the only thing that comes close to how I felt about playing my clarinet is how I feel about dancing. For those of you who know what dancing means to me, I think perhaps you can understand the joy permeating my soul at the return of my clarinet.
I stayed away so long because of fear. How silly. How silly to rob myself of 2 decades of a gladdened spirit. Well, not any more. Two decades was long enough. It might take me 2 more decades to make it through a song, but at least I started today.