A Year in the Life, Week 45: Whistling (Saxophoning)

This week’s A Year in the Life exercise asked me to write about the role whistling, or humming, or playing an instrument, had played in my childhood. I wrote about my relationship with my saxophone, my first musical love.

I don’t remember ever liking to play piano, or even ever wanting to play piano. Perhaps it was only that my best friend played, and I wanted to be like her. But I was never as good as her, and piano was what convinced me I wasn’t good at music.

Photo credit: Anil Mohabir: http://www.flickr.com/photos/anilmohabir/4692209412/

But then I got my saxophone–my first saxophone was used, a little dented, and some of the keys stuck. It traveled in an ugly burgundy case. After the way I disregarded piano, I don’t blame my parents for not getting me a new one. And I remember that I had a cold at my first lesson, and Hazel was planning to come to my house afterward. I could not get a sound out of that thing. I don’t know if I made a sound my whole first lesson. I went home, tried to stay awake to eat a fish sandwich and watch Stella (because I had a crush on Bette Midler) and ended up throwing up my Tylenol. I laid in Mom’s bed while Hazel played with Krystl until her mom picked her up. I threw up all through the next day, and then I started fifth grade.

I wasn’t as good at the saxophone as Hazel was, but nonetheless I came to love it. I loved the little sticky sounds the keys made when I pressed them, the way the brass shone, the taste of the wooden reed, just a little sour, and its weight against my neck. The way I had to haul it on and off the bus, down that long driveway–that part I did not love.

Loving the saxophone surprised me because I wasn’t particularly good at it. Still, when Hazel told me she was quitting band in high school, there was no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be joining her. It seemed one of life’s ironies, that the one who was talented with music wasn’t the one to enjoy that talent. I even somehow ended up joining jazz band. I remember Mr. Carlson, his kind, kind eyes, the way he would find me when I hid out in the band room during basketball games and how he asked me what I could be reading in that huge book–it was The Mists of Avalon. I told him it was about King Arthur and followed a group of characters through about fifty years of their lives, and he said, “Well, I guess a lot can happen in fifty years.”

I remember competing in band competitions at SMSU, and how I did so on almost no sleep at all because Hazel had come over the night before, and we talked until late at night, one of our moments of connection that were getting more and more rare. That’s when I was still steeped in the deepest days of depression, and I was trying to explain it to her, and I could see that she wanted to understand and, in truth, I realize that she did, that she struggled with her own demons, too. But somehow that chasm between us kept growing anyway, and we just couldn’t wrap our heads around our separate but oh-so-similar pains.

I did poorly at the competition the next day, but that didn’t bother me–I never identified with the role of musician, never felt I was any good because Hazel was so much better. I remember bursting into tears when I was still in fifth grade, my first year playing, and I was frustrated. And I cried to my mom about how I felt that I wasn’t good at anything, but what I really felt was that I didn’t have any talent as distinct as Hazel’s gift with music. And when I bemoaned to my mom, truly believing it, that I didn’t really have any talents all my own, my mom said, “That’s not true–you have a wonderful imagination.”

And I cried, “What good will that do me?”

Eight novels later …

I realize how now little perspective I had on it all. My best friend was a musical prodigy. I think of high school, and jazz band, and Mr. Carlson, and how I felt like an impostor in band after Hazel left. If she left and she was better than me, what right did I have to stay? Yet, I can now see that Mr. Carlson never saw a musical failure when I put together my saxophone before pep band or went into Cottonwood on cold winter nights for jazz band practice. He just saw a teenager who found some joy and connection through her instrument.

And I did find joy in it, in a way I never did with piano. That’s why I stayed. I remember the summer when Mom bought me three books of “fun” saxophone music–Disney tunes, songs from the fifties and sixties, and Aladdin. I already had The Little Mermaid. And I remember playing those songs at the kitchen table, in the sewing room, using the sewing machine as my music stand, or at grandma’s dining room table, and the way she said, “You sound real nice, Lacey.” And how there were no thoughts of not being good enough, just the joy of the music moving through me. I later found that same joy in my guitar, that same sense of discovery when I reached a point where what I played sounded like real music.

My mom bought me a Lisa Simpson “Queen of the Blues” sweatshirt when I first took up saxophone. In high school she gave me saxophone earrings–I still have them–and a black t-shirt with all the different saxophones on it that said, “Pick your axe.” She saw me as a saxophone player, as a musician. So did my grandma as she enjoyed my music on that hot summer afternoon. So did Mr. Carlson, when he asked me to join jazz band. I think the only one who didn’t see it was me.

I wish I could go back and really own that title of musician, to feel confident when I had my instrument hanging from my neck and my sheet music spread out before me. I wasn’t the best, but I was competent. I stuck with it from the time I was ten to when I left high school at age 17, when I put it in my closet and never thought much about it again. Until now, when I can really acknowledge the joy it brought me during those years, how it might have played its own part in saving me from loneliness and despair, even as my guitar would five years later. Perhaps I wasn’t the most technically proficient musician, but I loved that feeling of disappearing into the music–and that, I realize now, is what it was really all about.