On the camaraderie of high school band

My transition between eighth grade and high school was a lot more disjointed than I feel most others’ were. I feel like the summer assignment I had to complete for Honors English 9 didn’t quite give me the “introduction to high school” experience for which I’d hoped (though it did provide some uncomfortable foreshadowing — I hated the book I had to read for that class, and I disliked many other required books during high school. But, I digress). The assignment was a simple, five-paragraph essay; something I’d been doing in my sleep since seventh grade. So when I handed it in, along with an accompanying poster about the book, I felt secure that I would maintain my B+ average that I’d had throughout middle school.

For reasons I still can’t discern, my teacher gave me a C- on the poster and a D on the paper. (Yes. A 70% on what was assigned as an art project.) I was furious, but even more so, I was embarrassed. I wasn’t used to getting below a B on anything in my life. Even though I’d only started receiving letter grades in sixth grade, I had sort of gotten used to receiving As and Bs. To this day, my sole 4.0 GPA came from the second semester of my seventh grade year. I pretty much had it made, until this Honors English teacher came along and started me at a D+ average for my first semester in high school.

But, much as I’d still like to almost 10 years later, this post is not about this particular teacher (though I believe she was fired within a couple of years anyway). Instead of dwelling upon my first big blow to my academic career — which turned out to be worthless in the grand scheme of things — I’m going to talk about the first class in which I truly felt comfortable.

Any guesses? Because, clearly, it was band.

After some initial distress, having signed up for the class not knowing I’d have to march at home football games and miss the second half of my JV soccer games that season, things finally started falling into place. I made 4th chair flute out of 12 or so of us, I became friendly with some classmates from middle school band who I didn’t speak to back then, and I picked up on marching without any issues. Our field shows were solid, there were a lot of great musicians that I could look up to, and my director may have remembered my name once or twice (which is an accomplishment, considering she only tended to memorize the names of unruly or musical-prodigy-type underclassmen).

At that point, I didn’t know much about the other groups in the music department. My freshman year was the last year the school marched with a flag corps, but there was also the jazz band and two choirs: one auditioned, one not. I knew a few people from my middle school in the groups, but not well enough that I could ask them about it.

I think the most exciting part about band was somehow just learning that they traveled to festivals every year to perform. And when I saw all of the articles in the newspaper about our own music department’s trips, I wondered how I had missed them in the past. They’d been to Orlando, Anaheim, Vancouver, and even London, and had picked up several top awards during the events.

Having anticipated four years of new adventures, in the end it was a little disappointing that the four tours we took were all places I’d visited before (I know, #firstworldproblems or whatever). Freshman year, it was Anaheim. I’d actually just visited a month before the school year began, also with friends, but I remember that trip being one of the most fun I took with the music department.

Taken on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. We were so cool. (2005)
Taken on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. We were so cool. (2005)

Sophomore year, it was New York City (and, incidentally, I had just been there the summer before). All I remember from that trip is how tired everyone was. We took a redeye flight from San Francisco to Newark that ended up being delayed three hours, so we didn’t make it to Newark until almost 8:00 the next morning. Most of us hadn’t slept on the flight. We bleared through breakfast at the hotel, bleared through Beauty and the Beast on Broadway (which is quite good, by the way), and bleared through our dinner at a strange Italian restaurant with lots of singing and dancing on top of tables wearing napkins. I think the highlight of that trip was performing at the Riverside Church, which had a bowling alley that we were not allowed to use. We were cranky about that because we were all so tired, even though there wouldn’t have been a chance in the world anyway.

Look how prestigious we are, going to Juilliard. (2006)
Look how prestigious we are, going to Juilliard. (2006)
A terribly unattractive photo of me (and my not-at-all-unattractive friends) at Ellis Island. (2006)
An unattractive photo of me (and my not-unattractive friends) at Ellis Island. (2006)

Junior year was Anaheim again, as we traded off between “big trips” and “small trips” (a.k.a. Anaheim) every year. I like to refer to this trip as the “Pokémon Trip,” since Pokémon Pearl and Diamond had been released months earlier and so everyone brought their Nintendo DS systems and played the games during our downtime. My highlight of the trip was beating the game, if that tells you anything about how little I remember about the rest of that trip.

Photo unrelated, albeit taken at an airport during a band trip. (2008)
Photo unrelated, albeit taken at an airport during a band trip. (2008)

Senior year found us in Orlando. Highlights of this trip? I suppose being chosen to accept the concert band’s award was pretty nice, even though we managed a fourth straight silver (a score of 80-89 out of 100). I also had a pair of neat solos that year, and it was the first time in my musical career that my anxiety melted away while performing. Otherwise, the Hulk roller coaster at Islands of Adventure was pretty neat.

Oh, and this.
Oh, and this.

The first time I felt solidarity with my senior class was that year, actually, when a bunch of fellow seniors and I made sure to attend fundraising meetings at the beginning of the school year to try to figure out how we could get the group to London. It was a much smaller group than the one they had taken several years before, which could have been a plus, but the department just couldn’t put enough effort into raising twice as much money as usual. Which was sad, of course, but at least we got to travel to Orlando (and make fun memories in the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport on our layovers there).

The second time I felt solidarity with my senior class was at the end of that year. As seniors, most of us had spent all four years taking this class together, so most of us felt more connected with our fellow band geeks than anyone else at the school (and we’re talking 18 people out of our graduating class of 350). It was customary for the senior class to give gifts to the director right before the last song we played as a group (not counting graduation, but I’ll get to that later). So I spearheaded secret meetings where the senior class would discuss what to get our wonderful director for putting up with us, and we ended up getting her a gold-plated whistle for marching band (with her name engraved on, of course) and a bag of M&Ms with personalized messages like, “Lunch is over!” — something she’d always say to those who were still hungry and decided to eat during our class, which took place after lunch. Of course, the gift-giving was a huge success, and we were all very pleased with the gifts we chose.

Jeanie, my fellow flautist, and me at a weird post-tour, pre-spring concert.
Jeanie, my fellow flautist, and me at a weird post-tour, pre-spring concert in 2008.

The third and final time I felt solidarity with my senior class was at our graduation. And while you, lovely reader, might think I’m finally talking about the entire senior class, you are sadly mistaken. It was always rather humorous that the last song that the seniors in band played was a) at our own graduation, b) motherfucking “Pomp and Circumstance,” and c) not even completed, because we had to rush away to make our entrance with our class.

Of course, this moment wasn’t as particularly fulfilling. As one could reasonably assume by now, the concert band had to play at graduation every single year. So after freshman year, sophomore year, and junior year, it felt like I’d already graduated three times. And until the end, that’s how it felt this time as well. I sat in the chairs of the graduating class with people from band, the only things missing our instruments; I also don’t remember much of the ceremony, much like the three where I was not 1/350 the center of attention.

Jeanie and me at graduation!

But when it was all over and the seniors went back to retrieve our instruments from where the band had set up, that’s when it hit me. This was the last time I would put away my instrument after a performance at this field, for this school, in this city. I was months away from moving to Washington for college, and while I had already been offered a spot in the wind symphony up there, I knew it would never feel like this. I would never have packed up my instrument at the end of my very last concert and thought about how much I would miss the solidarity within my class. Because while the classes are somewhat defined in college, the only thing you really do as a group is freshman orientation. If you don’t make friends with certain people there, you’ll probably never see them again.

I’m not saying I cried after my high school graduation or anything, but it definitely made me think for a few hours after the fact…and then again now, I suppose. We were always outcasts by default in band. Not that many of us didn’t have friends in the “mainstream” crowd (not an official name, but you’d probably know who I’m talking about), but we all had something in common that no one else at that school did. The band alone made up roughly 4% of the school, had just one class together most of the time, and yet were afforded the incredible opportunity to receive an education in the arts that was unlike any class offered at the school (with, in my biased opinion, one of the best teachers in the district).

I really hope music departments like this are still around when my children are in school, because the future seems bleak at best right now. But, that’s another entry for another day.

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