I remember the night. The wind was cold in the bleachers, with smoke smelling of hotdogs billowing past from the concessions stand. My fellow 8th grade band class and I sat to watch as the band marched on the crunchy field. The cacophony of instruments shined as the band glided across the field, their uniforms crisp and white against the slowly dying grass. As they performed, the show seemed effortless, the students moving through forms with practiced ease.
I was going to be in that band. If I had any doubts about staying, they were completely crushed that night. From the time I was eight, I had wanted to play something. My sister had a violin that she used to play in a symphony before we moved from Virginia. She never practiced and soon quit taking lessons. But whenever I could sneak a touch of her precious violin, I’d pretend I was a great musician, waiting for her own instrument.
The most I had done was listen to music and play theme songs of Harry Potter and cartoons on my little plastic piano. I wasn’t Mozart, but I was proud of being able to copy songs after practicing them. Granted, the songs usually consisted of the melody and nothing more, but at the age of ten, I thought my playing as a huge progress.
While growing up, my dad was a Commander in the Navy, an engineer. While he was serving, we moved everywhere: Rhode Island, Texas, South Carolina, Virginia, and even Naples, Italy for three years. Unfortunately being three in Italy, the only memories I have are of trash on the roads, the egg smell of Mt. Vesuvius and visiting Pompeii with my grandparents.
When my father retired in 2004, we decided to go move to my mom’s hometown, Hickory, North Carolina. Moving around so much, our family had never lived in one house for more than four years at a time. That can be a little imposing on a child when trying to develop friendships. But since Dad retired, we were here for as long as we wanted. I wouldn’t have to make friends and lose them after only a few short years. I could make life-long relationships in Hickory. I was absolutely terrified.
I was so used to going through the stop and drop: picking up friends, being close for a few years, and then almost forgetting them whenever I moved. I don’t talk to anyone I knew then. Looking back, that fact depresses me, that I missed so many opportunities to keep friends. I vowed I would do my best to make friends here, friends that lasted beyond a few years.
Sixth Grade consisted of a cold and rusting playground, embarrassing elementary school adaptations of Treasure Island and Lewis and Clark, and where I was first introduced to the most common words in the state, such as ‘Y’all,” “Yes, Ma’am” or “Naw Sihr,” and drawing out any word for two or three unnecessary extra syllables.
But as the year went on, I met a small group of friends who weren’t exactly normal. Half of us were the lonely fat kids, some too tall for their age, a few with awkward faces they hadn’t grown into, one with a stutter and one who kept completely to herself unless the subject was about anime.
All of these students became future band and chorus members.
When we graduated to middle school, the group slowly fell apart, attracted to the infamous cliques. These cliques consisted of athletes, smart kids, unpopular kids, weird kids, and music kids. Out of the former group I was the only to stay out of cliques, wishing to make friends with more than a few people. Then one day, I found the haven for the strange: band.
Picking an instrument was probably the hardest choice a middle-schooler could make. I was attracted to the clarinet. Maybe because of the way they shined, or the big range, or maybe it was just because clarinets looked complicated enough to be interesting, but I knew I wanted to try that puzzling instrument. The entire class was awful the first few weeks of school, but progress followed to quickly build our confidence to be creative.
Band was basically a hangout, where hormone-driven children made funny sounds with big expensive instruments, which were little more than noisemakers to us. When playing another’s instrument proved too strong a temptation, like playing with the percussion equipment, we would be scolded and given practice time as punishment, but we would still mess around when the teacher had her back turned.
We first saw the Fred T. Foard Tiger Marching Band when we were in eighth grade and heard for the first time what band could be outside of playing “Hot Cross Buns.” That same year my eccentric no-nonsense band teacher, who was trying to organize a jazz band, introduced me to jazz.
She had approximately enough people for every part, but she wanted to incorporate a saxophone deeper than a tenor. Since it was roughly the same fingerings, I learned how to play within a few months. We were a horrible jazz band, but we weren’t terrible for being a first-year band experiment. How I loved the Bari-sax: it was a nice change from the clarinet, closely related, but different enough to play to keep band entertaining.
Freshman year of high school was an amazing change: more freedom in classes, a better attitude in every class, and more friendships than cliques. Foard was a very laid-back high school, with a large population of country students (the word redneck was banned from use after several fights ten years previous), and mostly a white school, but with a small population of black, Asian and Latino students. Everyone worked with each other with no real dilemmas to worry about.
At the same time I was in both bands in high school (jazz and symphonic), I dabbled in my church’s handbell team, our youth band and our youth’s choir. I took deep pride in being in so many music classes. Each one brought me a sense of belonging to a bigger group of friends, and groups that connected with each other. I rarely walked through church or school without greeting less than a few friends from one group or the other.
My older sister was in chorus at school while I was in band, and she was always trying to get me to try out for chorus during the two years we were together. I didn’t think I could manage band and chorus at the same time, with marching competitions and concerts to worry about. I also thought that if they sounded anything like my church youth choir then I could do without having to be the only one to sing out in yet another chorus. One year both spring band and chorus concerts were on the same day, and since it was my sister’s senior year, my parents went to her concert instead. I was always afraid that the concerts would be on the same day again, and I would disappoint one or the other. My sister kept insisting that chorus was well worth it, and that it was amazing beyond just a music class. Finally at the end of my sophomore year, I tried out for the Concert Choir class, almost certain that I wouldn’t be accepted in.
However, the Friday afternoon that the list came out, I was beyond shocked to see my name there.
The fall term started with Concert Choir, which was the middle level of chorus, Chorus 1 and 2 made for beginners, and Honors Ensemble for the elite and practiced choir students.
I was a leader in the alto section, mainly because sight-reading pieces in band for four years had helped me develop a strong ear. When I was absent for a band competition, the alto section literally fell apart, missing notes, rhythms and entries into the melody. Apparently I needed more challenging music to tackle, and the altos needed to learn to fend for themselves without relying on me. I was asked to move up to Honors Ensemble. I realized how hard chorus was, and just how much I loved being apart of it.
As the year passed, I got involved with chorus beyond what I thought possible, attending almost all performances outside of school, fundraisers, trips and more. Juggling band and chorus at the same time wasn’t as much of a chore as I had dreaded.
One afternoon when I was helping a friend with a song, I realized how much I wanted to work in music education. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be involved in band or chorus education, but I finally knew I wanted to be a teacher. I became involved with my church choir, conducting for Youth Sunday and eventually for the Youth choir itself. It became clear that I was leaning toward choir when I tried out for All-State choir and was the only alto to be accepted from my school, and was also voted for and accepted into my school’s Women’s Quartet my senior year.
Choir definitely wasn’t just a music class. Mr. Ousley, my director, had done a wonderful job in making his own program after the previous teacher had left Foard. Mr. Ousley made it based on how the students got along with each other, even if it meant that there was less time to work on the actual music. He had subtly created a family within the school. Every chorus member was part of the program, and they were connected throughout the school in every different program it offered.
He had made high school easier for students, offering a place to come to if they ever needed company or friends, and in that bond, that trust, that he created, the chorus program gave an effort to be more unified and to sing as one choir instead of singing for the individual.
When I realized what he had done for the school, it struck me how I wanted to do the same. To be able to influence young students in a positive, constructive way that was as much social as it was musical.
To grow from a mere child who didn’t make friends well, to being in a band setting with many different types of people, then being a part of a music family, I realized that growing up isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In growing up, we see changes in ourselves that might not have occurred if we hadn’t embraced our age, and experienced what could happen if we try new things.
Music changed my entire childhood. Instead of being the quiet student at the back, never talking to anyone, I was given an outlet. I finally knew I could excel at something, and had a place where I felt I belonged and could grow instead of struggling or merely existing. I found my artist’s canvas, I found my author’s typewriter and with music, I can show the world that I’m more than a student at the back of the class.