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Beginning Band

It's coming up fall in North Idaho - that means rainy days, curls of fragrant woodsmoke, the hum of studded snow tires on roads yet bare of snow, cold noses at football games and the growly diesel roar of buses ferrying thousands of children back to school.

    This particular fall, Amy is in fifth grade. I love fifth grade, with its big, loopy, cursive handwriting, studies of kings and knights and serfs, Mrs. Albertson's fish dollars and marine decorations. It's the last year I can give reliable help with math homework, the school year I first discovered The Phantom Tollbooth, and the last true period before the pimples and mood swings of puberty. It's also the year of beginning band at Amy’s elementary school in Hope.

    Misty, a budding young accountant who periodically explains to me how debits add money to an account, (I wish I could explain that to the bank) is now a young mother living in Spokane. Dustin has begun his first year in high school.  It's trite, but true, it seems only yesterday they were both in fifth grade. As Dustin points out to me, however, even on Pluto that would have been several days ago.

    So, several Plutonian days ago, Misty was also in beginning band. She chose the saxophone as her instrument, with a little prodding from a mother with no previous beginning band experience, but a nostalgic fondness for smoky little blues bars on Beale Street in Memphis. Memphis, however, is a long way from North Idaho.

    We lived on the side of a mountain at the time, surrounded by National Forest land and always thrilled by the endless parade of wildlife on our doorstep - Great Northern owls, yipping coyotes, herds of elk and the occasional bird-feeder-raiding bear. There were moose in those woods, too. Lots and lots of moose. And in the fall, along with the woodsmoke and rain and diesel fumes, were lots of teenage, horny, boy moose who couldn't tell the difference between saxophone music and the girl moose version of, “Hey, Big Boy.” As played by a beginning band student, I couldn't tell much difference either. I seem to remember we stayed inside a lot that fall.

    That saxophone cost me about $1400 by the time I quit paying for it, and that doesn't count the cost of repairs when I ran over it with the car at the bus stop. But by the end of the year, Misty could play two or three notes really well; after three years, she could play lots of songs whose names she can't remember now. That's about the time she discovered boys and volleyball, and quit band. The $1500 saxophone went up on a closet shelf.

    Approximately a Saturnian week later, I had a fifth grader again. My heart leapt at the thought of that $1600 saxophone being put to use once more.

    So Dustin chose to play the trumpet. It only cost me $700, but in lieu of the $1700 saxophone I would have preferred he choose the guitar. Or the keyboards. Or the harmonica even. Anything but another brass instrument with a secret cache for holding spit and an amazing ability to imitate animal sounds. But Anita Price, the choir "directress" (and doesn't that sound like a fitting title for the instigator of this new musical experience in my life), said NO to those ideas. She even laughed when I suggested the harmonica.

    I signed up to make payments 'til college on an $800 trumpet and brought the little beauty home to my son. I dutifully listened as he blew his first tentative notes - once he figured out the wind power, he had that thing wailing like a cow giving birth. To twins. I closed my eyes and envisioned Chuck Mangione playing “Feels So Good.” I thought of Sammy, my first love, who played the trumpet. (Or second if you count William whose Dad owned the newspaper. Third if you include Tim Mills from kindergarten). I opened my eyes, resigned to the trumpet, just in time to watch Dustin empty his spit valve on the carpet, shaking carefully to get every last drop, before he tenderly packed away his new treasure in its case, a beatific smile on his face. For a mere $900 I get this joy right in my own living room.   

    Now Dustin's in high school, and that was only yesterday, and that $1000 trumpet is gathering dust on a closet shelf. But in those 12 1/2 Venusian days,  Amy has begun the 5th grade. “The baritone, Mom,” is what she told me she wanted to play, and my heart sank. Not the bari-sax, mind you, but the baritone– something that looks like a miniature tuba and undoubtedly sounds like the saxophone and the trumpet and maybe even a trombone all mixed in together. “How ‘bout the saxophone?” I asked. “I’ve got it in at Sandpoint Music right now, getting a tune-up.” We’re in a new house now, and the moose don’t hang around quite so much. I think I could handle the saxophone again.

    Amy’s a good girl, and she dutifully agreed to play that $2000 sax, just as soon as I remembered to bring it home.

    “BLAT! BLAT! BLAT!” she honked on that poor little horn. “My teacher wants us to do that for you every night,” Amy said innocently as I tried to keep an encouraging smile on my face. “Who is this new music teacher?” I wondered to myself. “Maybe I should make her a tape of this, to listen to at home in the evenings for enjoyment at suppertime.”

    “BLAT! BLAT! BLAT!” she honked for her visiting big sister. “Aarrgh!” Misty yelled. “Don’t do that!” Ah, payback… it made me smile, even as I watched Misty teach Amy how to empty the spit valve on the carpet.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

education, music, band

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