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Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Sixth Grader and the Battered Baritone

You know, for all the horror stories that I have from my school days (and believe me, I've listed off several examples over the course of my blogging ventures), there have been some interesting and fun stories that have also stemmed from my school days. 

Allow me to use this space to tell you one of those stories.

If you attended grade school (and I'm assuming that 99.8% of you have at some point in your lives), did you have a concert band?  I would imagine that unless you went to a school that had extreme budget cuts, your school likely had one.

Sure enough, my grade school had one.  And, from watching the school band play a concert back in my kindergarten days, I had my heart set on being a part of the school's music program.  I just knew that it was something that I really wanted to take part in, and being one who eventually developed a love for all things art, I knew that it would be a fun opportunity.

Only problem is, I had to wait six years before I got the chance.

You see, even though we had regular music classes all throughout my elementary school stint, we actually were never allowed to play any of the instruments until we reached the sixth grade.  Apparently the school felt that children under the age of twelve weren't mature enough to play the instruments, and so between the ages of first and fifth grades, we had to settle for music theory and lots and lots of singing.

And, I'll be perfectly frank.  My singing is so bad, I would probably cause The Voice judges Adam Levine and Blake Shelton instant nausea even before I sang my first note!  I was one of four children who was actually kicked out of the junior choir before I even had the chance to join it!  Oh, the rejection!

And, thought I had problems with my regular teacher in first grade?  I absolutely despised my first grade music teacher too.  He was so mean and scary, and he even grabbed me out of the line to go back to class and yelled at me because I was trying to get the attention of one of my friends.  The jerk.

(Though, I do find it quite amusing that both he and my first grade teacher quit my elementary school after they had me.  You think I ended up being their final straw?  Whatever the case, I think I did the kids who attended that school after I did a favour by getting rid of them both!)

Anyway, from second grade onward, I liked most of my teachers, so all was good.

So, for five years, I struggled with vocal abilities, and when it came to dancing in class...well...I was no Michael Jackson.  I wasn't even Pee-Wee Herman.  Really, the only things that I ever did well at in music class prior to the sixth grade were the days in which we watched music related films such as "Annie", "Peter and the Wolf", and "The Wizard of Oz".  How could anybody fail the "watching a movie" portion of the class?

By the time sixth grade arrived, I was seriously having some doubts over continuing on with music education.  I couldn't sing, I couldn't dance.  What was the point of it all, I thought?  Of course, I couldn't just drop the class because I was forced to take it until graduation.  But really, what else was there for me to do?

Ah, but wait.  Didn't I just say that sixth grade was when we were finally allowed to play instruments and try out for the concert band?  As it turned out, that little clause in our music classes for elementary school was my saving grace.  That little silver lining in a sea of blackened clouds, if you will.

It's absolutely scary how much detail I actually remember from that crisp autumn day in September 1992, but I remember exactly how we ended up choosing the instruments that we would be learning throughout the whole sixth grade year.  And, I also remember that if we chose our instruments successfully (a.k.a. choosing an instrument that we could play somewhat half-decent), our teacher would recommend us for placement in the school concert band for seventh and eighth grades.

So, all of the instruments that we could select from were scattered all over our music room, and we had a chance to try each and every one to help up make our final choice.  And, I'll admit that for some kids, choosing the right instrument was a huge challenge.

Not for me though.  The choice for me was ridiculously simple.

I couldn't even blow into the flute hard enough to even make a note, so that was out of the question.  Truth is, I didn't really even want to play the flute anyway.  My original choice was going to be the alto saxophone because I remember watching "The Simpsons" and seeing how much fun Lisa Simpson had playing her saxophone.  Unfortunately, I also had (and still have) a super killer overbite which posed a dangerous threat to the reeds used for the saxophone.  So, alto sax was out of the question, as were clarinets, oboes, and any other instrument that required reeds.

(Which was just as well, since in elementary school, most of the "mean kids" played the woodwind instruments.  And who wanted to share the concert stage with the mean kids anyway?)

I didn't even attempt to try the trumpet.  While trumpets were an awesome instrument, I knew that it wasn't going to be MY awesome instrument.  Just as well.  I played the trumpet horribly because I didn't like the way the valves were configured on them.

I also avoided the trombone.  It was hard enough trying to learn the notes with valves...when you added the slide into the mix, that was downright confusing!  I give kudos to those kids who did manage to ace the trombone.

So, this left me with only three options.  Percussion, Tuba, Baritone.

I thought percussion would have been the best choice for me.  After all, how many people don't love banging on things with sticks?  Problem was that I lacked the rhythm to keep in time with the music.  Plus, you really had to master the right way to hold a drumstick, and unfortunately, I never did quite get the hang of it.

And, while I could play a tuba quite well, I loathed the idea of lugging that thing home with me every other week to practice.  Tubas are very heavy things, you know.

So, that caused me to pick the baritone - the tuba's younger, smaller brother.  It was almost as if it were made for me to play.  And, on top of all that, I was the only kid in my whole sixth grade class who wanted to play the baritone, so I guess I could say that it was fate.

Of course, choosing the baritone was one thing.  Actually getting to play the one I wanted to play was a different thing altogether.  You see, when I was in the sixth grade, I was the only one who played baritone.  And there were four different baritones available to play.  Unfortunately, there were three other baritone players in the seventh and eighth grades, and they had called dibs on the first three baritones.  So, I ended up with Baritone #4.

And Baritone #4 was something that almost looked like a baritone, only it had turned red with rust, had dents and indentations all around it, and had a permanently closed spit valve.

In short, it was the baritone that only a mother...or a music enthusiast could love.  And certainly, many members of the concert band made fun of me because I played such a pitiful looking instrument, even though it wasn't my fault that I got stuck with it.  It was an old instrument, likely around since the school opened up in the 1950s.  It had been battered and bruised from years of immature grade school students lacking the ability to take care of it properly.  Even worse, my baritone was slightly smaller than the others in the school, and the other baritone players would tease me by saying that it was perfect because it was "a baby baritone for a big baby".

(Yeah...that's one thing that my classmates should fear if they try anything at my grade school reunion.  I remember EVERYTHING...)

But you know, aesthetics aside, there was absolutely nothing wrong with my battered, broken baritone.  Sure, it looked like something the cat dragged in...but it still played beautiful music.  And, my dad actually did the school a favour in treating the spit valve with a chemical that allowed me to open it back up again.  Why, I reckon he saved the school from having to throw the baritone away. 

And, the smaller size of the baritone made it much easier to carry!  Why, I say there never was a finer baritone!

I guess you could say that the baritone that I played in sixth grade was very symbolic when it comes to my own life.  I myself have been battered and bruised by people who weren't mature enough to know how to treat others with respect, and I was made to feel inferior from the other kids because I didn't dress in the latest fashions, or because I didn't style my hair like the others (basically my hair styling back then involved wearing a toque for hours on end), or because I chose to wear track pants instead of jeans for a long period of time.  Believe it or not, I was actually told to act my age and not my shoe size.  Talk about stretching.

(Especially since my massive feet ensured me that my age WAS my shoe size until I turned twelve.)

The point is that I gave the battered baritone a chance, and it ended up being the best thing ever.  And, I'm sure if more people would give everyone that same respect, they might be surprised to learn that they click too.

As for the baritone?  I liked it so much, I kept playing it straight through until eighth grade graduation.  Everyone in the school learned not to take Baritone #4.  That was reserved strictly for me and me alone.  It got me through the trips to the Lions Music Festival, it serviced me well through several school concerts.  And it was the very baritone that I played when I saved the spring concert by playing the baritone solo in "Ash Lawn Echoes" when the other kid who made fun of me for playing the "baby baritone" flaked out on the concert just hours before it started.

As I said.  I remember EVERYTHING.  And yes, our elementary school colours really were royal blue and Sunkist orange.  

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