Although I (Jimmy) messed around with my mom’s cheap nylon string guitar now and then, I started getting a semi-proper music education in the fourth grade. I thought saxophone might be the thing for me, probably because it was all shiny and gold and had lots of moving parts. But like many things shiny and gold, it was quite expensive, and my family, being necessarily frugal at the time, decided we’d all be better off if I played the clarinet, which was kind of like a saxophone, only a lot more nerdy and pedestrian.
The word on the street is that the clarinet was invented so that there could be a woodwind instrument that would mimic the sound of a violin. The drug of choice on said street, unsurprisingly, is crack. But at the time it was conceived, I’m sure the clarinet seemed like a huge technological advance. And speaking of crack, what else is new technology to nerds but a big ol’ rock of bicarbonate-processed cocaine? So you can see how it started.
Playing the clarinet was o.k. for a while, even kind of fun, learning which notes required pressing which keys or covering which holes, etc., and sometimes our little band of misfit 4th-graders made something resembling music, when we weren’t making those awful squeaks that clarinets tend to make between every couple of notes. (Of course when professional players make squeaks, those are on purpose.)
Later came middle school, with our scared rabbit of a band teacher, fresh out of college, exhorting us to repeat after her as she snapped her fingers: “huckleberry milkshake, milkshake, gum!”–the huckleberries being 16th notes, and the milkshakes 8th’s, and so on. Not only did this prompt eye-rolling and drumstick-throwing and impromptu fart noises (syncopated, of course), it also made us hungry, even though we Atlanta kids had no idea what a huckleberry was.
Then came high school, and the legalized torture of marching band. I loved music, and sometimes I actually liked playing symphonic music on the clarinet, but god, I hated marching band. Not only was it not something I was interested in at all, but it required giving up one’s precious last two weeks of summer freedom to march on an asphalt parking lot in the heat of a Georgia August, playing the lamest possible versions of current pop songs (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” with tubas and piccolos, anyone?). But if one was to be in the symphonic band, one had to pay the dues of suffering through football season in marching band.
Now, playing clarinet is in itself a geeky enough proposition, but it is nothing compared to marching around on a field with one while wearing a furry dark blue foot-high buffalo-lodge-style hat (complete with chin strap), a polyester uniform, and white spats. My only consolation was that during the football games, as we sat on the bleachers, the flute players, who were generally female, sat in front of the clarinets, and, as it was often chilly, would pull our legs against their shoulders in order to stay warm. So there were a few moments of nerd bliss.
Our band leader was a former military man, and marching band was obviously his passion. That poor man loved himself some John Phillip Sousa (and possibly one of the English teachers, if one was to believe undocumented rumors). Those wretched, albeit patriotic, sixteenth notes that made him breathe deep and point his nose in the air and wave his baton with extra fervor merely reminded me of cartoon ducks, and I loathed those songs in equal measure to his ardor.
So, that was my introduction to playing music, or part of it, in all its nerd glory. And with apologies to all my clarinet playing friends, I have to say that to this day, I would rather scrape my own fingernails on a chalkboard in a crack house all day than hear the sound of a clarinet.