Music lessons

Two clarinet cases, open, next to each other. The case on the left is brown, the one on the right is black.

Music saved me once. When other parts of my high school life were very chaotic, music was where the chaos wasn’t. Sometimes, I felt like the only power I had was a destructive, devastating power to mess up (or mess up someone else’s life). In contrast, in my music life, I felt empowered to be authentic and creative and to explore my capabilities. I wasn’t consciously expecting music to rescue me from the chaos. I was, however, drawn to the relief of belonging and our mutual investment in each other’s best work. Through music, I participated in a complex ecosystem of communities of peers, mentors, and mentees where I could be both vulnerable and courageous. 

As I journey thirty years later through another set of difficult life experiences, I feel nostalgic for those high school days in musical groups. It’s not that I’m wishing I could go back and relive those days. Rather, I look compassionately at the ecological contours of that time (thanks, ecology PhD!), the populations, communities, and ecosystems that influenced my path, and the aspects that specifically supported my growth in holistically healthy ways. 

First, a little mix-tape soundscape of my time in high school. On the pop music radio of the late 80s and 90s was a wild mix of tunes: Faith (George Michael), Need You Tonight (INXS), Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen, thanks to the 1992 Wayne’s World movie), Kokomo (Beach Boys), Pour Some Sugar On Me (Def Leppard), Red Red Wine (UB40), Under the Bridge (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Baby Got Back (Sir Mix-A-Lot). My senior prom was held at the Franklin Institute, a children’s science museum in Philadelphia. On a double-date with my best friends, we took a horse and carriage to prom. Our last dance song was U2’s One. Like I said, it was a bit bananas.

I had the same piano teacher, Fiona, for over ten years and took annual performance and theory certification tests. I had the same clarinet teacher, Jim, for over eight years; he played as a full-time professional for the city orchestra. On weekends, I attended a prominent city music school where I had a second clarinet teacher, Mary, and received schooling in performing in chamber orchestras. Attending the music school refined the foundational skills I learned with Fiona and Jim and provided additional training that was part confirming, part complementary, and part counterbalancing. These teachers, coaches, and other students helped me develop skills, theory, repertoire, body awareness, goal-setting, self-leadership, and an internalized rubric as a piano player and clarinet player. Challenging lessons became internalized self-evident truths. They were champions and sponsors who offered opportunities to be part of the larger populations of pianists and clarinetists.

By middle and high school, I was intensively involved in multiple music communities. My formal education, social life, family life, daily routine, and paid labor were largely organized around clarinet and piano performance. At the hub were my school orchestra and chamber ensemble, both mentored and conducted by our music teacher, Imants. I was a member of the orchestra’s clarinet section, where two to four of us sat near the middle of the stage behind the violas and to stage right of the violins. [Side bar: We refer to each other as our instrument, not the people who perform with those instruments.] I was also in the school chamber ensembles – quartets and quintets from the orchestra. At every rehearsal, Dave the pianist would play the opening bars to Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Our concerts included Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, Ravel’s Pavane for a Dead Princess, Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major. The most bananas thing I remember was playing Bach’s Concerto for Four Pianos. We squeezed four pianos AND an orchestra on a school auditorium stage. Even more bananas was that one of the principal pianists had carpal tunnel surgery a couple weeks before performance; I stepped in, rehearsed one of the piano parts for hours every day, and performed with the other three pianists. 

That hub and home base with Imants served as a gateway and launching point for many formative musical sidequests. I learned to play with lots of different musicians, perform in many different concert contexts, and become familiar with a broad Western repertoire – classical, baroque, chamber, swing, big band, musicals, marching and concert band. I was in the pit orchestra for several school musicals: Brigadoon, Once Upon a Mattress (which included Brad Cooper – yes, THAT Bradley Cooper – in the cast), Grease, and Little Shop of Horrors. Those experiences led to a secondary sidequest with the pit orchestra for How to Succeed in Business with another school district; I got to play bass clarinet, something I’d never played before, with people I’d never met or played with before. I was in a community marching and concert band, playing (too much Sousa) for festivals, parades, and retirement communities. Our chamber ensemble played gigs for money and had a professional recording of Brahms Clarinet Quintet in b minor. I did a senior thesis on humor in music. The summer before I went to college, I taught clarinet lessons to elementary and middle schoolers, filed sheet music for the school music library, and was a pit orchestra instrumentalist as well as child wrangler for the school’s summer camp production of Annie. These experiences, excursions, and explorations were complex reorganizations of potential musician identities with many boundary-crossing affiliations and intergenerational mentorship. 

In each of those musical experiences, we learned to be in a community. We spent a lot of time rehearsing and learning how to harmonize musically and socially, getting in tune and attuned. Our collective wellbeing depended on our individual wellbeing and vice versa. We screwed up often, both musically and socially. At the same time, we were supported with kind, patient, and compassionate mentorship to work through mistakes, build trust, learn and rehearse, grow ourselves, and grow the community. We knew about each other’s romantic relationships and friend group dramas. We went to music festivals together as attendees. We did non-musical things together; I went antiquing with the bassoonist and hosted a brutal badminton competition with the theater crowd. We knew how to make a road-trip a memorable part of an off-site performance. We offered rides and snacks in relation to need and capability. We showed awareness and care around each other’s interests and fears. We gave courage and held vulnerability. 

Our musical communities anticipated and accepted change as a gift of the experience. Thus, passages, initiations, and transitions were opportunities to collectively honor what had been and celebrate what’s ahead. During my senior year, we created our own musical festival on a Friday night in the school cafeteria called “Wild Things,” a homegrown extravaganza including a drum circle (organized by our science teacher) and our class’ garage band, Pale Green Pants (my favorite song of theirs was “Chunky Monkey”). The cast of Annie gave me a rubber dog bone as a get-well present after I sustained a serious dog bite while working at a vet clinic that same summer after my senior year (yes, I had _four_ part-time jobs that summer of 1992). Boyfriends and prom dates from the ensembles became life-long friends and soul-siblings. Some music friends from high school came to visit me in college when I performed as a clarinetist in a college orchestra’s performance with a choir of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. At our 20th high school reunion, a bunch of us from theater and music broke away from the on-campus gathering, wandered to the Arts Center, and sat in the audience seats looking at an empty stage where we reminisced about our fondness for each other and for those experiences. 

Yes, I was refining my performance technique and I was learning about professional performance and musicianship. These experiences were intended to help me hone my skills and clarify what I wanted to be and do as a professional (as in, “what do you want to do when you grow up?”). Looking back, those experiences taught me more about being my most authentic self: how I feel and what I’m capable of. Words that came to my mind:

  • Felt calm and self-regulated
  • Seen, understood, validated
  • Authenticity and vulnerability
  • Courage and empowerment
  • Choice, agency, autonomy
  • Illuminating and engaging
  • Refining and clarifying

These were communities of belonging and care, mutualisms and symbioses creating safe spaces for our own and each other’s growth. I was more than my function as a clarinetist. I was a human being sharing experiences, emotions, pain, and dreams with other human beings. While I wouldn’t have called myself a musician then (as in having ‘musician’ as an identity or belonging to the guild of musicians), music did have a substantial, subconscious influence on my overall identity formation. 

I realize now, as I begin to remap my life post-academic employment, that I had a life map then. Music did save me. It taught me a lot about what meaningful life feels like, how to nurture a life of purpose, who I am, what’s important to me, who I surround myself with, how I create my own sustenance system, and how I check in with myself about how it’s going for me. I’ve turned to a similar map in subsequent difficult times in my life, particularly in the communities of graduate students and educational developers I’ve been in since then. 

I’m not lost. I don’t need rescuing. While I may not know with certainty what I’m going to do next, I do know how to show up and be. Not as human doing. As a human being.

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