Friday, February 20, 2009

20: ensemble

I play the bongo drums in a local orchestra.

I also play bass drum, suspended cymbal, woodblock, and glockenspiel. After this weekend's concerts, I'll join the oboe section. In case you're wondering, I don't plan on switching to cello or trombone after the next concert.

Playing music has been an essential part of my life for, well, pretty much forever. I remember tinkering on a Little Tikes piano/glockenspiel combination and, later, on our little (like 15") Casio keyboard. My sisters taught me to play the basic melody of "Lean on Me," and we played it over and over. And over. Having only four notes, it is both very easy to learn and very sticky. Even now I can hear the sequence repeat itself in that oddly charming synth sound, a bit clunky and uncertain under a novice's little fingers.

One day in the third grade, I came home from school and (so the story goes) I exclaimed, wide-eyed, to my mom: "Did you know you can learn to play an instrument in school?!!" Supposedly, my parents had tried to encourage the other kids to take a serious interest in instrumental music, but to no avail. Then I came along and shocked them, in that where did you come from, you weird child? sort of way.

So, where I went to school, you could pick up a stringed instrument as early as third grade. For wind instruments you had to wait another year. Wait? Who could wait? I was going to play the violin. For some reason I chickened out at the last minute. I don't remember why. In fact, I remember distinctly that there wasn't a why, and my not knowing why I was upset and suddenly didn't want to play the violin only made me more upset.

That passed, though, and by the time I hit fourth grade, I had made up my mind. I was going to play the oboe. I'm not entirely sure how that came about. How many nine-year-olds even know what an oboe is? (Besides the children of music teachers. I have a good friend who is an instrumental music teacher, and not only his six-year-old daughter but also his three-year-old twins can identify just about any instrument by its sound in any given recording. Amazing.)

Unfortunately, oboe was not an option in elementary school. Not to be defeated, though, I started playing clarinet. That was fun. And the reeds were really inexpensive. But I think I always knew it wouldn't last. My double-reeded love was waiting for me to discover it. Even though I used to spend hours at a time with a plastic recorder flute, practicing songs we learned in general music class, transcribing other familiar melodies, even making up my own tunes, all that was just tiding me over until the right time.

I first picked up an oboe in the summer preceding sixth grade. And that was it. I was hooked. Three years of middle school band; four years of high school wind ensemble, marching band (where I picked up percussion) and various extracurricular bands and orchestras; and five years of university orchestra later, I found myself in California, no longer enrolled in school and therefore suddenly thrown out of the easy ensemble-joining circuit that I had gotten used to over the previous dozen years.

It didn't hit me immediately, but as soon as I started to feel settled, it suddenly became very clear to me that I needed to start playing again. So I contacted this orchestra, asking if perhaps they had room for an oboist. Not until the next concert set, they said, but, in the meantime, we're short a percussionist... can you play? It's worked out rather wonderfully so far, and it feels great to be playing in an ensemble again.

My best friends in middle and high school were people I played in the band with. (My brain keeps looking at those last two words and wanting to make them bandwidth.) When I played ensemble music, it was with a lot of people that I knew rather well. What a wonderful sense of active community.

I've been playing in my current orchestra for only a month or so. I know very few people: just my colleagues in the percussion section, one of the oboists, and a few of the viola players.

My report: It's still marvelous to make music together with a room full of people that you don't even know. And as I come to know them, we will always be linked by these memories.


Vanessa Swenson said...

I miss hearing you play in the back room. I also miss hearing you try to figure out Close Encounters.

chrome3d said...

Having something in common with strangers is sometimes a relief. That was a good story and I liked to read it.