Fourth Chair

Even though I didn’t know how to play any type of jazz instrument, when I was a junior in high school I decided I was going to join jazz band.

Ours was a fairly typical suburban high school arts program: understaffed, under appreciated, underfunded. The light board for our school’s auditorium was run by a combination of the same circuitry used to send the first telegram and black magic. The music program consisted of marching band, concert band, jazz band, and chorus. Our plucky leader was Mr. Claussen, one of those superior teachers who happily gave up his Sunday to run marching drills, who felt like everybody’s Dad, and could always be counted on to sport one of those “I’m With The Band” novelty t-shirts in a variety of colors and sleeve lengths for every season.

I had been a band nerd since starting clarinet in the fifth grade. The early 1980s were a wonderland of inherent gender bias and patriarchal malarkey that insidiously infiltrated every aspect of a girl’s life. It was a glorious lava flow seeping from misogyny volcano with no where to run to and nowhere to hide, as the song lyric goes, baby. Boys were channeled to instruments like trumpet, trombone, or percussion. Girls were encouraged to take up flute or clarinet—pretty, small, fragile instruments that came in compact cases. No metaphor here. Nope.

There were outliers. My best friend at the time, Kerry bucked the trend and signed up for saxophone. We thought this made her an alpha weirdo in our small group of misfits and oddballs. Every Wednesday when we had lessons, Kerry would climb on the bus lugging her oversized saxophone case, banging it against the seats as it practically led her down the aisle. I would stare out the window so she wouldn’t see the envy smeared all over my face.

By the time I got to high school, I had absorbed a few things about what happens when girls stick to the script given them by culture. Maybe nothing controversial or upsetting, but certainly nothing interesting either. I was hardly brave enough to shave my head or start wearing combat boots and army jumpsuits in order to eschew feminine conventions. I wouldn’t even know what the word “eschew” meant until college and feminist indoctrination by Ani DiFranco was still many years off. But I could do one thing: I could trade in my clarinet, which I essentially tolerated, for a seat in the brass section. The parts were simply better and usually more melodic, especially when it came to soundtrack scores, a staple of most high school band rosters. There’s a reason the overture to the 1990s action/adventure flick Robin Hood starring Kevin Costner and his very American accent, kicks off with the bay of trumpets and not the squeak of a piccolo. Brass sections are hard to ignore, by virtue of their size, volume, and obnoxiousness of their players.

I told Mr. Claussen I wanted to switch from clarinet to “something brass” (helpful) and because I was not the only one who found brass appealing—there were roughly 80 trumpets and 40 trombones—he suggested I give the French Horn a try. Did it have a mouth piece? Did it have a bell and valves? Sold. Wasn’t it just like a trumpet smooshed up in the shape of conch shell? How hard could it be?

Very. The French Horn is a beautiful, arresting instrument that when played well produces a sound that is deliciously smooth and mournful, as if sunlight were music. In my hands the horn sounded less haunting and more haunted, like a small animal were trapped in the instrument’s coils clambering to be set free. I performed well enough to avoid any glaring sonic errors and may have secretly felt a smidge superior playing such a difficult and temperamental instrument.

Or not so secretly as it turns out. I actually posed along with my French Horn for my senior portrait. Maybe they don’t even do these anymore, but senior portraits were a pretty big deal. It was quite possibly the only time in your life besides your wedding day when you were guaranteed to look stunning in a picture. A professional photographer would come to the school on a couple of designated days and you’d get 30 minutes and as many clothing changes as you wanted. The result was an ultra-touched up photograph of you that made you look either like a movie star or Sears catalogue model, depending. There’s only so much the miracle of technology could do at the time.

To this day, my senior portrait sits prominently on my mother’s dresser in a cheap gold frame. My hair is a nest of cascading curls that would rival a Vegas showgirl’s prize weave. I’m wearing a silky, hunter green dress cut in a v-neck. Before me on a small pedestal lies my shiny French Horn. My hands are posed on the horn as if I’m caressing it like one of those game show spokesmodels stroking a prize—a state of the art dust buster! A super deluxe toaster oven! My head is tilted ever so slightly and my lip glossed smile is weirdly suggestive making the whole thing seem very quasi-pornographic. Yet no one tried to talk me out of picking this image out of the fifty plus that were shot. No one. Is instrumentalphilia a thing? I shudder.

Jazz came into my life by a boy I dated for about a year. He was sweet and kind and funny (and more importantly, thought I was hilarious) and a talented piano and trombone player. He was into Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker—all the usual jazz suspects. He made quick work of getting me a mix tape (the twentieth-century equivalent of sharing a Netflix que) of his favorite jazz artists. I listened to them incessantly and intently—how else are you going to catch the subliminal I-AM-MADLY-IN-LOVE-WITH-YOU-LET’S-RUN-AWAY-TOGETHER messages in the songs—and they became my favorites as well.

To be fair, it wasn’t just about the boy, though after we broke up I took great dramatic pleasure in sprawling on my bed sobbing to the lilting strains of “Satin Doll.” Jazz was unlike anything crashing out of the speakers in my brother’s bedroom. No distorted electric guitars or thundering drums. Nor was it like the synthesized cotton candy pop leaking from the pink radio boombox on my nightstand. Jazz was otherworldly. Men in suits and hats. The notes careening up against one another in a high-speed car chase of sound. Solos unspooling for miles. It was the first time I heard instruments as paint brushes, creating scenes and moods and entire stories. Jazz was cool. I was not, but, the small voice of reach whispered, the one we all hear that could be our inner Rocky or maybe just our inner idiot which, regardless, lights the spark of action, said to me “you got this.”

I did not.

Mr. Claussen found me a loner trombone and agreed to meet with me over a few of my study periods to teach me the bone basics (my words, not his, gross no!). Right out of the gate it was clear that I was not going to seamlessly glide into a newfound career as a jazz trombone player. Whereas the French Horn is compact, the trombone is long and tubular, requiring you to push a lot more air through the instrument. Sustaining a short series of notes made me feel like a life-long smoker trying to run a marathon.

And then there was the matter of the slide, the instrument’s long, skinny arm that you adjust to produce each note. The slide has seven positions, corresponding to all the major notes in a scale. Each position can get a bit arbitrary. For example, the edge of the trombone’s bell is loosely used as a marker for third position, except that position is actually “slightly” before the bell, not really at its rim. It’s like the GPS telling you to take a “slight right.” Not helpful. Because I was a pity add to the ensemble and the equivalent of a baby musician, I was given fourth chair parts to play. No furious solos, no shredding breaks; fourth chair parts are the reliable generator that hums along to keep the fridge cold and the lights on, at least in the high school arrangements we performed and mercifully so, I would add. Fourth chair was a lot about the seventh position, the end of the slide, the one that required my arms to be about six inches longer than they anatomically were. I would extend the slide out practically holding it with the tips of my fingers to get it in that sweet spot, which I was also probably getting wrong and out of tune. I was never entirely sure because I had such a weak lung capacity that most of the sounds I was able to make came out sound like I was snoring softly into a pillow.  

This was something of a waking nightmare that I had signed up for. Everyone else was a native of their instrument and this genre. I was a jazz tourist, a sloppy one at that with her wallet spilling out of her giant fanny pack and her head buried in an enormous map wondering out loud how to find the nearest ATM in order to extract an alarmingly large amount of spending money. The ensemble was kind, charitable; I’m sure they wondered what the hell I was doing there as much as I did ultimately.

I was actually doing something that used to be somewhat second nature to me before too much overthinking and over analyzing and underestimating took hold: moving in and out of my comfort zone. I was bad at the trombone in a way that was a dog-performing-brain-surgery level of terrible. But I didn’t care. I hunted around for the shame or self-consciousness I should have felt, but came up empty handed. I was driven by the simplest and maybe most pure desire to “just do it;” I didn’t even pause long enough to ask if I even could do it—a charm that seems granted early on, though whether or not it sticks is entirely up to us.

That’s what I think about when I recall my very short stint “playing” jazz. I call up my youthful ignorance and fearlessness and strain to hear if I can still pick out the notes.

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Sheila C. Moeschen I am a writer from Boston. Visit sheilamoeschen.com for more.

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