I remember my first experience with live music. I was 4 and in children’s church. I don’t remember many specifics, because…come on I was 4, but I remember being fascinated by the drums. Cliché, I know, but true. What young child isn’t fascinated by the loudest instrument in sight?
Then, when I lived in South Carolina I had a music teacher who had extremely high standards. Unlike today, where you get an A just for showing up, this teacher was about quality over quantity. This elementary school had an elite group of singers who did little stage shows, performed songs outside of school, and even had a uniform. The teacher (I really wish I remembered her name) auditioned every fourth grader every year and allowed new fifth grade students to audition on arrival.
I made it into the “Singing Aces” (Why can I remember that name, but not the teacher’s?) in fourth grade. That meant extra practices/classes after school. A couple weeks later the strings teacher, Mrs. Webster, came around to all of the fourth grade classes and played the theme to The Pink Panther on her violin. I went home and begged my parents to let me learn to play the violin. They agreed, but I really didn’t understand that learning to play an instrument meant practicing and learning the basics first.
I balanced learning the violin and singing during fourth grade with no problems. Then, during fifth grade I discovered the trombone. However, when I couldn’t even make a sound on the mouthpiece I decided that I didn’t need to learn that yet. Sixth grade was the only year that I didn’t participate in vocal music while in elementary school. When I moved to Arizona, I discovered the Double Bass. I didn’t learn to play for another year.
I took choir and orchestra in seventh grade because I missed singing. The teacher chose me and two classmates to go to all-state choir that year. It was an amazing experience! Midway through seventh grade, I switched permanently from violin to bass. I enjoyed playing the larger instrument so much, that I started spending my lunch periods learning what I could to catch up to my classmates.
Also while I was in seventh grade I learned that my middle school offered a beginning band class for the students who still wanted to play in band, but weren’t able to in elementary school. It only seemed natural to me to take that class so I could finally learn to play the trombone. My mother thought I was signing up so I could learn to play the flute. Well, it turns out that beginning band is for kids with no music experience whatsoever at all. Once I’d learned how to make sound on the trombone, and I figured out how to find the different notes, I took my trombone home and finished learning the book we were playing from in about 2 weeks.
This pattern continued throughout the rest of eighth grade. I already knew how to read music on both the treble and bass clefs, so it was just a matter of figuring out the fingerings and embouchure (mouth muscle) differences to get sound. Once I had the sound and fingerings down enough to play through the book (again) I would ask for a different instrument. I eventually learned to play the flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone, baritone/euphonium, tuba, and I even learned some snare drum and glockenspiel (orchestral bells). The only instrument that outsmarted me was the horn in F (French horn)…but I got back at it when I was in college.
Also in eighth grade, I’d gotten a little bored with the bass since I could play my parts with relative ease. In steps the band teacher. He had a friend at the local university who was looking for middle school musicians who could play well and wanted to learn to play jazz as part of his doctoral degree. He heard about me from my band teacher, and I was asked to play bass in his middle school jazz band – it was later named “The All-City Middle School Honor Jazz Band.” This was when I truly learned the value of practice. It turns out that middle school orchestra bass parts are ridiculously easy, but beginning jazz bass parts are ridiculously difficult.
I started my freshman year of high school only playing the bass even though I wanted to continue playing trombone too. Midway through the year I finally approached my orchestra teacher, since he was also the band teacher, about playing with the band even though wasn’t in that class. I told him I played trombone, but that I’d need a school instrument. He agreed that if I could learn the parts on my own, I could play with the band. I continued playing with the band and orchestra throughout high school – and only taking band as a class for one semester.
During high school more opportunities opened up for me musically. My orchestra and band teacher recommended that I take bass lessons, so my dad found a teacher for me. I only studied with him for a few months, but I improved enough to play harder parts in addition to learning how to practice. Remember the jazz band I played in in 8th grade? Well, the director couldn’t find a new bass player the following year, so I was asked to play for one more year. I was also given opportunities to audition for the annual local regional orchestras which could sometimes lead to all-state orchestra. I never made it to all-state in high school, so I was glad to have had the experience in middle school.
Every year in high school I auditioned for my local youth orchestra. The first year was my worst audition. There were seven seats with two additional alternates for a total of nine spots. I placed as second alternate. That was before I’d taken lessons. The surprising part was that I eventually made it into the orchestra that school year. The experience helped to prepare me for what was expected. The next two years I did better, but I always wound up being the last chair bass player. My final year in the local youth orchestra, I got a phone call from the director the day of auditions. It turned out that I had the best bass audition that year. I was first chair! I was excited for about 10 seconds…then the director went on to tell me that there were extenuating circumstances for my unusual placement. I didn’t really care, because it was still an honor to me. That year, I wound up ending the year as 5th chair.
Also while I was in high school, I wound up singing and playing some percussion for a nearby church. I don’t remember exactly how I got started there, just that I was the youngest musician there. I eventually wound up playing electric bass for them until I was asked to leave the team when I was 18. When I was 20, I wound up playing drums for the team for about a year. I didn’t play or sing with that church again.
There is more to this story after this point, but it’s best to let that intertwine with the rest of my history. To be continued…..