Music and Me

An Alto Saxophone: How It Consumed Ten Years of My Life

It is possible to love music and at the same time be a total incompetent when it came to performing it. It all started with voice after I joined the choir at Saint Henry School. I did not know, but soon found out that I sounded like a crow when singing the great Latin hymns of the Catholic liturgy. At least, it kept me from becoming an altar boy and having to wake up at 5:00 am to help officiate at the 6:00 am Mass, and memorize a ton of Latin in the process.

Both of my parents wished that their parents had let them play musical instruments. So they asked me what I would like to play. I quickly answered that I wanted a trombone. Mom and Dad took me to a music store at Prospect and Ontario in downtown Cleveland. The salesman agreed with my them that I did not have the right teeth for either a trombone or a trumpet, but that an alto saxophone was “very nice.”

Well, “very nice” translated into a whole new set of responsibilities, such as joining the band in high school and practicing for 30-60 minutes every day. All four years in high school, I played the sax in concerts and marched in formation during halftime at Chanel High’s games football games. It’s kind of hard to march in formations when there are only twenty or so members of the band, but we were game.

The only problem was that I didn’t much like playing the sax. There is something mucky about what happens to your saliva as it accumulates on the underside of a reed. Plus, I was pre-asthmatic, which probably should have disqualified me from any wind instruments. My parents, however, were determined to recover their $100+ dollar investment in the instrument by forcing me to play against my will.

Although I took my sax to college and even joined the Dartmouth College band, I saw that I was in with a group that was so much advanced over me in musical ability that I was only too happy to retire the sax and forego any further practice after only a couple of sessions. (Yay!)

My Musical Career

I Thought It Would Be a Neat Idea, But What Did I Know?

One of the problems of being the firstborn son of poor parents is that you are elected to fulfill their unfulfilled wishes for their own lives. When I was nine years old, they decided that I should play a musical instrument. That sounded fine to me; it’s just that I didn’t realize the extent to which the hook was baited.

For some reason, I wanted to play a trombone. At the music store, my mother and father got the salesman to point out that my teeth weren’t right for playing the trombone. They both suggested I play the saxophone instead. I didn’t even know what a saxophone was. So I foolishly said, okay. Before I could say “Help: Get me out of here!” I had a music teacher downtown who would teach me the ways of the alto saxophone.

What follows resembles an episode of Leave It to Beaver. Each Saturday morning, I had to take the 56A bus downtown to Prospect and Ontario, from where I trudged with my instrument case to East 3rd Street where Mr. Jack Upson tried to make a musician out of me. The lessons were okay, I suppose, but the daily practice sessions were, quite simply, horrible. When I wanted to go outside to play, I was sternly reminded that I had roped my family into buying me a saxophone, which they couldn’t afford; and I had damned well sit down for an hour and practice. My mom’s favorite song was “Londonderry Air,” which she knew as “Danny Boy.” Just to make things totally untenable, my little brother Dan would show up for the song and grin while I tootled away while staring daggers at him.

At Chanel High School, I joined the Firebirds marching band. Just imagine what it was like to take the field at halftime and do formations with only twenty-odd instruments. All anyone in the stands ever heard was the booming of the drums.

This nonsense continued until I went away to college. Although I showed up for several Dartmouth band practices, I immediately saw that I was among people who knew how to play their instruments and who loved performing. I quietly left the band before the first football game and never picked up my saxophone again. After all, in Hanover, New Hampshire, there was no one to make me practice—and several classmates who would have tarred and feathered me if I had.



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.