Monday, February 13, 2012

The horn

I got my horn when I was in 11th grade, and was one of just a handful of kids in my school who had my own brass instrument.  By that time, I had been playing for about two years and my horn teacher had recommended that I get my own, as most brass instruments in my school pretty much had one foot in the scrap metal coffin.

Several hundred rehearsals, lessons and concerts later, I think my parents were surprised when I told them that I wanted to study music in college, probably because the notion of making a living as a professional musician was something that they knew very little about.  (I had initially thought I was going to Harvard to be a doctor.  But then I realized that I wasn't much for the sight of blood.)  But my parents were supportive nonetheless, and carted me and my horn to my teeny-tiny dorm room 300 miles away.  And after five undergrad years - because I needed an extra year to finish a concurrent equally useless degree in English Literature - I knew that I needed a change of scenery.  I was fortunate to have options: stay in the same city and change career paths altogether, or head to a small town on the East Coast or Chicago for grad school.  I hedged my bets that I would have better luck with freelance work in Chicago (and in finding a gay community), so with my worldly possessions in the back of a 12-foot truck - and the horn secured between the driver and passenger seats - I headed west.

While my gamble paid off and I was able to pick up a good amount of freelance work around town (including one freakishly bizarre incident where I mixed up the address for West Lake Street in Chicago versus West Lake Street in Oak Park, and arrived just two minutes at the right place before rehearsal was to start), I have to honestly admit that I did not enjoy my grad school experience.  Maybe I was burned out after my undergrad years and didn't realize it at the time, or I was frustrated by the horrific lack of practice space at my school, or my confidence was beaten down until I couldn't stand it, or my heart was just not in it anymore.  But something in me had gradually changed, and when I was done the degree, it was with more a sense of relief than accomplishment.  Music was no longer "fun" as it had once been.  Rather, it had become "work," and I had the realization that if this was how I was going to make a living, I wasn't sure if I was cut out for it. 

After I graduated, I started working in arts administration, because I needed a job, and I figured that I would still have one foot in the musical door.  But, over the years, I found it became more and more difficult to actually be in the arts.  I loved my colleagues, and the audience members and donors with whom I interacted, but I found myself listening to music less and less.  It was as if I had tapped into a raw nerve - my own shortcomings as a performer, and almost knowing too much about what went into putting on a concert that when the final product came to be, I couldn't bear to watch or listen to it.  So I didn't.  And it all became perhaps too easy a justification for me to just...let it go. 

And so I did.  I went from playing 4-5 hours a day in school to 1 hour a day while I was still teaching, to 1 hour a few times a week, to almost none at all.  And for several years after I finished school, I hadn't seriously picked up the horn, except for the occasional attempt to poorly honk my way down memory lane.  Or that time I got suckered into playing a few tunes for a friend's theater production, where I also had three costume changes in 15 minutes, and played the role of a waiter in Paris (even though I told her no speaking lines).

But it was hard.  For so many years, I had identified myself as a musician.  I was going to school as a musician.  I was planning to be a professional musician.  So giving up that label  and finding a new one for myself was challenging.  Hell, even now, I'm not sure what that label should be.  (Recovering musician?) 

Do I miss it?  Sometimes.  I miss having a ready group of friends and colleagues with whom to play chamber music on a regular basis, and being able to play all the repertoire that I loved.  Some of my favorite memories were playing Carl Nielsen's woodwind quintet for my senior recital, the Brahms horn trio, and the Alex Wilder horn, tuba and piano trio with Mike R., who now plays in the Boston Symphony.  I don't know if I'll ever have the opportunity to play this stuff again, or the things I never got to play, but have always wanted to, like Mozart's Quintet for piano and winds.  And I miss sounding halfway decent.

But on the upside, I certainly don't miss having to put up with bullshit conductors.  Or practising.  Or having to play in band.  Seriously, I had to endure so many years of excrutiatingly-bad band throughout college and grad school that I've made a pact with myself never to play in a band - sitting, standing, kneeling, marching, or otherwise - again. And if I ever see or hear that horrendous band arrangement of Finlandia again, I will so have a hissy fit.  (Like Sarah Palin when confronted with geography.  Or facts.)

Do I regret it?  Nope.  Life is full of coulda-woulda-shouldas.  I don't regret where life has taken me, because otherwise I wouldn't live where I do, I wouldn't have stumbled into a profession that I consider myself pretty decent at doing, and I wouldn't have become the man I am today.  Sure, I could have practiced more and maybe been more competitive.  But I could have practiced until the cows came home, and I still wouldn't have been able to stay in Chicago without a full-time job.  At least legally.

And so that M.Mus. - the one that I wanted so much to be over and done with - actually came in handy, and helped get me a green card.

But the beauty of being a somewhat proficient amateur - with a full-time job on the side - is that I can now do things that I couldn't when I was in school.  Like afford to get my horn thoroughly cleaned for the first time in more than a decade (with a chemical bath to boot), or get a screw bell conversion so I can get one of those nifty Marcus Bonna flight cases.  And not have to put up with bullshit conductors.  And practise when it fits in my schedule as something that is part of my life, but that doesn't drive it, and that doesn't bring home the bacon.

And for it to be fun again.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I just started laughing when I read "Finlandia."

And thanks, by the way: I'll be hearing that over-and-over in my head for at least two days!