The Reluctant Saxophonist

Not One of My Happier Memories

Not One of My Happier Memories

There are three things that I absolutely cannot do—and they are all connected to music:

  1. I cannot play music well.
  2. I cannot move in time to music.
  3. I cannot sing or carry a tune.

It took me ten years to discover these things, ten long years. It all started at a music store in downtown Cleveland (very near Prospect and Ontario). I was a little boy who was moderately interested in playing a musical instrument, say a trombone, for example. My parents and the sales clerk both agreed that a trombone would not suit me because I did not have buck teeth. Are buck teeth a requirement for trombonists? I wondered.

My parents talked me into choosing the alto saxophone. I was snookered into it, not even knowing what a saxophone looked like or sounded like.

I was soon to find out. The first thing I found out was that reed instruments like the saxophone are very mucky. All the gook in the mouth congeals around the reed, adding occasional squeaks from hell.

Then I found out I had to take lessons (with Jack Upson on East 4th Street) and practice half hour a day. And to make matters worse, my parents’ favorite piece of music was “The Londonderry Air,” which they called “Danny Boy” after the first line of the lyrics. My brother Danny was sure to add to my pleasure by smirking through the piece.

At Chanel High School, I was in the marching band. A marching band with only about 25 participants is pretty sure not to make a big impression, especially when the only thing anyone could hear was the drums. Because I memorized the scales, I was appointed First Saxophone, even though Chuck Matousek, who got Second Sax, was far better than me. He always played “Night Train” on the bus on the way to the football games. Me, I couldn’t play without the music in front of me. I had zero improvisational skills.

My big chance was in college. I was 600 miles from home, so I didn’t practice. I made a desultory attempt to join the Dartmouth Marching Band, but then said to myself, “Who’s going to know if I just quit?” And so I did. It turned out to be a good decision, though my parents were cheesed off when they discovered the truth.