When I tell people that Dave is in a band, they get all excited, until I explain that it’s a concert band. And yes, the band does play some Sousa.
Well, said band has not had a French horn player for a couple of years, and due to circumstances that I’ll get into in a moment, I play the French horn. Although I’d been asked to join by several people, including Dave, I had repeatedly refused. Practices are two hours in the evening on Thursdays, so Dave would be gone, giving me a much-appreciated couple of hours a week to myself. I often wrote letters or drank whiskey and read poetry out on our back deck. So I kept protecting that free time by not joining the band.
This is how I came to play the French horn. I have a very musical family, despite my lack of rhythm and pitch and any natural ability. My aunt Nancy was a professional violist for a while, and she took on the musical education of we three kids when we were little. We all began on half-size violins, playing the DAD song (the D string, followed by the A string, followed…you get it). My mom plays the piano and she loves to play the recorder. My uncle, the flute. Another aunt, the clarinet. My brothers and I were exposed to music and learned to read and play it as kids.
I played the violin in school through seventh grade, making it to second chair in the middle school orchestra. (The beautiful and perfect Stacey Meyer was first chair, as befitted the natural order of the middle school universe. She was also dating Bryan Zabelle, the beautiful and perfect boy with whom I was in love.) At the beginning of eighth grade my family moved from Cleveland Heights to Sagamore Hills. The Nordonia school system didn’t have an orchestra, so I was asked if there was a band instrument I’d like to play. I chose the French horn because my best friend from Heights, Erin, played it. (She was actually very good.)
They gave me a horn and put me in the boiler room off the band room. Then they sent in the most terrifying eighth-grader I’d ever seen. This girl was tall, brash, and had very long hair—a characteristic I thought of as mine. She clearly didn’t want to teach me how to play. She grilled me about my old school and taught me one or two scales. Then she plopped the music we were playing in band on the stand—Marriage of Figaro. Good heavens!
Looking back, I suppose it was nearly as humiliating to be stuck in the boiler room with the new girl as it was to be the new girl, stuck in the boiler room with the fearsome Elaina Styblo. (Those of you who know me well are laughing, wondering if Elaina and I reminisced about the boiler room on our last motorcycle trip together. We became the best of friends, partly thanks to the horn and partly thanks to a Christian ranch.) We competed for first chair throughout high school. When I finally won it, thanks to daily practice, she still got to play the solo in the incredible Lord of the Rings Suite, by Johann de Meij. One of these days, that will lose its sting…
So I played the French horn through high school, practicing diligently and trying not to bonk my mom on the head with it when she hummed the notes I was missing. I took lessons, first from a high school guy named Jeff Smith who wrote out Stairway to Heaven for the French horn and made me play it. (I had never heard of the song.) He also brought one audio tape per lesson for me to listen to: not Dennis Brain, the famous horn player, but rock music I didn’t know. I was particularly charmed by Roll the Bones. Then I took lessons from Mrs. Daniels, whose small son falsely accused me of hurting him. That taught me something negative about justice (she believed him!) and gave me nightmares.
I continued playing the horn through college, although I stopped practicing and happily accepted the last chair spot. My roommate Laura was wonderful and fully deserved the first chair; I just wanted to blend in, below the Springfield High School kid and anyone else who wandered in with a French horn tucked under his or her arm. It was a constant source of mortification that I had to audition every year; no one was refused entrance, and I was happy with last chair, so why? My senior year our band director agreed to guess what I was playing as a more informal audition. Halfway through Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, it was clear that he was still stumped.
I didn’t own a horn, so ten years passed in which I didn’t make much music. About once a year I take out my violin and screech around with the four hairs left on the bow, then happily put it away again. A couple of years ago Dave and I got a PlayStation to play Guitar Hero, so the plastic guitar became my instrument of choice. Then, for some reason, my traitorous mind began to feel a little sorry about not playing music.
I kept trying to tell myself “no,” but I think that habits begun at the age of four sink deep into the unconscious. It would be kind of fun, I thought, to sit on the band side at the concert, contributing to the music instead of trying to stay awake. (It’s always really hot in there.) So I finally agreed to join. The first night was really fun! There was an excited murmur when I showed up with a rented French horn. (Remember that they’ve been longing for one for more than a year.) And it has such a beautiful sound! Unfortunately, ten years of hiatus and no natural rhythm caught up with me. We’re playing really hard music! With lots of little rests peppering the page! With horrible key signatures and time signature changes! Not to mention that I’m never sure if I’m hitting the right notes or what the heck the fingering will be for an F concert scale in thirds. And I sit next to Dave, so he can hear every faux pas.
But I’m tooting away, nevertheless. Dave, who is a wonderful musician, helped me practice yesterday. I hope I won’t embarrass myself too badly at the concert. (It’s mostly the family members of band members, so it’s not too intimidating.) I’ve said plenty of bad words about my difficulties (although I try to wait until our new friend Katie, a masters degree clarinetist who joined the band with me this semester, is safely in her own car heading home).
In the end, you know what? It’s kind of fun to be fussing with my embouchure and oiling up my valves. It’s a good challenge to be puzzling out those awful Charles Ives rests. And I can only get better!