I always hated PE.
It was everything about it. Sweating in the middle of the school day, wearing those gross polyester gym uniforms, running the track….and the general expectation of some athletic ability. Ick. Hated it.
So when high school came along, I learned from my sister that people in the marching band didn’t have to do PE. What an elegant solution. That’s it. I’m joining the marching band.
One problem: I didn’t play an instrument.
“Never fear,” my sister said. “It’s easy.”
It was easy. For my sister. She played all kinds of instruments. We both took lessons on various instruments throughout our childhood. Organ (my mom had a lovely Hammond organ), and guitar, for example. I always did OK in the beginning when we were learning simple stuff, but my sister always kept going and became very good at each one. She was particularly good at percussion, and played tympani in the All-State Orchestra.
She assured me I could do it, though, and it would be fun. She took me under her wing, and I joined the percussion section, with my sister as my Section Leader. I learned an interesting thing that year: I can play by ear. Lori could play almost anything, and I would play it back to her. Whenever we got new music, she played it, then we played it together. I should have been learning to read music, but instead I was sharpening my ear and memorizing every piece we played. It worked like a charm. I became pretty darn good, thanks to my sister, and we had a bang-up time.
Then winter came. The time of year when Marching Band moves inside and becomes Concert Band. Not a good thing for me. The Director would present the class with new music and lift his baton. What? Can’t we have a minute to decode this thing? Nope. It was off to the races.
I’ll tell you something: I should have immediately switched to clarinet or flute. My daughter played sax in the middle school band for a year without playing a note and no one was the wiser. You can’t fake it in the percussion section. And when you wing it, bad things happen.
I was busted.
And what’s worse, my sister eventually graduated and abandoned me there in the back of the band. With gongs and chimes and xylophones. Loud things. Things that added dramatic emphasis at the perfect moments in the music. It was just not clear to me when those moments were approaching.
We had a great Director called Mr. A. He was generally a good-humored guy, but he didn’t end up having much patience for an ill-timed gong. He swore at me and threw his baton more than once. I mean, the guy had a right to expect a percussionist could count beats, right? I cringe now – 35 years later – at the expression on his face when I crashed that gong at the wrong time – or missed the crash altogether out of sheer terror.
Lacking confidence in my ability to keep track with the music, I had begun to read Mr. A’s expressions better and use those (versus the music) for my cues. His eyebrows would climb higher and higher, then he would appear to take a breath and his baton would quickly dip then climb extra high in my direction, and when it dropped, his eyes were at their widest and trained on ME, so I would bang that gong when the baton dropped as though I had composed the piece myself. It worked! We were communicating. Well, at least, I was picking up on these reliable cues Mr. A didn’t even know he was sending. Until once when Mr. A must have widened his eyes for some other reason. I launched into action and let ‘er rip. Mr. A was so shocked at the random release of my great gong that he dropped his baton and burst out laughing. “You are hopeless, Adams!” he cried. Thank God he was laughing.
Ironically, my favorite instruments to play in the band were the xylophones, marimba, and vibes. We played some pieces requiring four sticks, and I learned to play them by following my sister’s example. We actually played them in the Marching Band. Forty-five pounds of fiberglass and metal tubes extending on a rack in front of you, strapped to your shoulders and hips. Great workout, and musically very cool. We would carry those things up and down hills on parades in the heat of summer, sweating like fiends and marching in the sun without missing a beat. We carried them all over the foot ball field in rehearsals and competitions. It was hard work, but it was a blast.
How crafty was I to avoid PE by joining the band. What a cagey move to trade a lap around the track in polyester shorts for endless hours of rehearsals and marathon parade routes carrying 45 pound xylophones in long-sleeved wool uniform with full length pants, black shoes and spats. How very wise.
And I still can’t read music.