This has been a long time coming.
A few months ago, I took my euphonium out of its case. The same euphonium I begged my parents to buy me during my sophomore year of high school. The same instrument I lugged here there and everywhere.
I had only started playing Euphonium 3years prior, choosing it via school of all places. I had played cornet for years. Getting nowhere really. I played hymn tunes at church, a band of one, accompanying the congregation as I struggled to complete an entire song. In school, there were always a zillion trumpet players. I’d also get stuck near the bottom, somewhere near Scott Delaney and Chad Hamilton. There was only this one kid, who played baritone. Just one. I didn’t know how well he played, he was a section all to himself. That’s what I wanted. Just like that, I asked the school band director, Mr. Geisel, if I could switch to baritone.
I’m not saying doors opened, the heavens filled with sunlight , or white doves fluttered into the sky, but what I can say is from that moment on my music world changed at a rapid pace.
In the span of less than seven years, I went from picking up an instrument for the first time to being accepted into one of the top brass bands in the world. During those seven years I entered various soloist competitions, and played in various bands touring Jamaica, Argentina, Uruguay and places here and there across Pennsylvania. At the age of 20, I had performed at Royal Albert Hall even recorded at the BBC Manchester in the same room the Beatles once played. I was so fortunate.
Music was my everything. Music camps multiple times a summer, daily practices. It all came with relative ease. I really didn’t have to apply all to much of an effort. During my college days, my trombone instructor from the West Point Military band, waited for me to finish one of the pieces assigned as homework,
“I am going to give you some highest praise and the deepest cut of criticism all in one breathe”, he said, looking at me sternly.
“You have to be one of the best sight readers I have have ever seen. Now why aren’t you actually practicing. Why are you putting zero effort into this?”.
I couldn’t answer. I had always been like this. I didn’t think I actually had the attention span long enough to practice on my own.
I was my own worst enemy.
I loved playing. As the year went on, the opportunities to play became less and less. Instead of playing, I picked up the baton and became a bandmaster.
I’ve always loved conducting. It’s a graceful art form. It’s the convergence of mental/physical/emotional communication.
A bandmaster sets the tempo. A bandmaster uses their body to convey slight nuances desired for certain parts of the piece of music. A bandmaster, playfully makes eye contact with a member of the band as a way to reinforce something hashed out rehearsal after rehearsal.
I loved it, but it wasn’t playing. It was becoming more and more difficult.
In the late 90’s I walked away from The Salvation Army and pretty much my musical life…as diminished as it was. I attempted to pick it up and play in the church I was attending, playing a solo here and there, but it was not the same.
In my efforts to maintain my hatred of church worship music and also find a way musically to get involved, I joined the worship band playing trombone, anything not to have to sing those god awful cheesy mindless songs, but it was not the same.
When we officially walked away from the church in 2016, I packed up my trombone, put the euphonium back in the case and didn’t give them a second thought. I couldn’t .
Attached to the years of playing, was years of suffering at the hands of bullies, both physically and mentally. No matter where I went, I would always find myself in the crosshairs of someone who either wanted to beat the shit out of me or want to humiliate me. To separate the pain from good was near impossible.
I had enough to worry about. I had come out to my wife a year before and was navigating how to maintain not only my marriage, but also my job, my children and the friendships from over the years. It was easy to set it aside and live in the parts of the memories which were happy and positive. The memories of someone else. The memories of what I called “The Former Tenant”.
These days, I enjoy hearing my daughters play piano. Their playing has improved so much over the years. My youngest, has even started to play the cello.
I am one proud momma.
I am also a big stinking hypocrite.
For the past few years, I have been on my youngest to practice, nagging at times. Ironic since I was the type who would never ever practice and here I am, having my kid do what I was unwilling to do myself, hoping my kid develops her own passion for music while doing everything I could to keep mine buried and out of sight.
After awhile it starts to eat at you. This constant internal nagging.
But this entire time, as much as it was my past life, it was the life which belonged to someone else at a different time and even a different belief structure.
I wasn’t going to be able to figure this out on my own.
I opened up to my therapist how I was looking to join a LGBT concert band in Philadelphia. Due to COVID restrictions, the band hadn’t practiced in 23 months. I had joined their email list sometime during 2021 (oooh foreshadowing) and received an email how the group was getting together to start practices in early February.
As I was trying to explain my fears in attending the practice, I stop mid sentence and asked my therapist.
“Have you ever played Mario Kart?”
She nods her head.
“You know when you’re doing the time trials and you find yourself racing against a ghost image of yourself. A better version of yourself?”.
She continues to nod in agreement.
“This is what I’m feeling. I am going to pick up my instrument and instantly be in direct competition with my former self. Any time I play I’ll be comparing it to the me in the past. “
I wasn’t going to be deterred. I couldn’t keep this buried for music longer.
EDIT: This sounds so cheesy as I write these words, but it’s true. When you chop off a limb or some random body part the nerves may still act as if the part is still there, sending singles to your brain which involuntarily sends the hands down to ‘scratch an it which isn’t there’.
In the days leading up to practice, I inadvertently let out, as it was called, “the band geek” in me as I was a part of a livecast/round table discussion watching the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra perform the music of John Williams. Someone in the group wondered would it would be like to have the experience of someone in the orchestra.
That’s all took. As I explained what it was like, I couldn’t contain myself. I probably blabbed way more than I should. Even in my silence, I couldn’t hold back. I was totally immersed into watching the orchestra play.
If you want to know what it’s like to be a part of a brass band/concert band/orchestra or any time of ensemble, let’s hop into the way back machine.
It was 1994. The brass band I was a part of and 3 others from various part of the world were gathered in Toronto for a couple of concerts featuring all four bands. For the benediction, 3 of the bands would play in various parts of the concert hall. One of the bands on the stage and the others filling the aisles on the main levels and across the multiple balconies. I was on the second balcony close to the edge. As the benediction came to its climax, the sound was unlike anything I had experienced. The sound of the combined groups engulfed my senses. It felt like I was floating high above the audience in attendance. As the piece drew to a close, eyes closed, I held onto the feeling as long as I possibly could.
You still with me? *checks watch*. Let’s get on with things.
In the few hours leading up to practice I barely spoke. The entire evening was unfolding in my head. Was I pre-determing what would go wrong? I couldn’t let my frustration get the best of me.
I arrived. It dawned on me. This was DANA’s first practice. All the other experiences belonged to the former tenant. No longer.
We figured out our seats, “I’ll take last chair”, I said as we shuffled the chairs into position. Back in the day I would have always wanted first chair. After awhile you got accustomed to it. This time wasn’t the time. I felt a piece of the former person’s anxiety fall away, leaving a resounding ‘clank’ in the back of my mind.
I sat down. I was here. The first step on this journey was checked off my list.
The director gave her greetings and lead the group in a warm up. She divided every group into the standard four parts. Of course, I was in the lower group and was the first group to start playing.
At one part during the warm up, I closed my eyes and let the sound flood my senses. There is was, that all consuming feeling. The sound was everywhere and it was overwhelming. I broke down and cried.
For most of the night, I struggled to produce a halfway decent sound. Not only had it been a long time since I last played, which is the equivalent of being a runner, sitting on your sofa for twenty five years only to suddenly want to get up and immediately start running. I also was worried how hard it was to play after undergoing FFS (facial feminization surgery) six months prior.
Earlier in the day I reached out to my surgeon. His response both delighted and concerned me.
Great but tough question. Several patients of mine who were brass instrument players talked about having a different sense of vibratory feedback after lip lift. Makes a bit of sense given that scar probably doesn’t vibrate as well or in a similar frequency compared to the surrounding tissue. I don’t see any issues with attempting to play. Perhaps chronic playing may make your scar a bit wider given the tension on your lip while you play but its also not like your playing for 8 hours per day.
Go ahead and play. Enjoy!”
He wasn’t wrong. Playing was quite the endeavor. Frustration did its best to take ahold of the situation in addition to a small nagging issue with my instrument. All these things can be taken care of over time. The one thing I never took into account and found out rather quickly when trying to get into a comfortable position was my boobs. They were in the way. LOL. It was the first time playing since my breast augmentation. This is going to be the struggle within the struggle. The funny and the frustrating. There was room for both to exist in this space. It’s okay to be frustrated. It’s okay to find the positive things. There will be another time…and another.. and another. Karen Carpenter once sang, “We’ve only just begun.”
So let’s get on with it.