Timing, in music as well as in life, is everything. Just this morning -- before I read the Sunday Scribbling's prompt for the week -- I was flashing back to my high school days, when I was heavily involved in all aspects of the music and performing arts programs at my school. And when I say "heavily" involved, I'm not joking -- I played the xylophone in the concert band and the marching band (click photo: I'm on my knees in the dirt with the rest of the drum line, just to the right of the drum major, down in front). In marching band, we didn't just play at football games, we were in about 5-6 competitions annually, so in the fall and spring we rehearsed daily after school (and even during the summer) and we had three professional drum and bugle corps guys working with us as our choreographers and trainers. It was serious business, and as physical a workout as most team sports get, only with less person-to-person contact (damn, look at that picture! I had to wear knee braces on both knees after the stress of all that marching wore out my young knee-caps. And I'm convinced my current back problens probably started back then, from lugging around that heavy xylophone which forced my back to arch just to balance the weight of it.)
But it didn't end there. I played the piano in the jazz band. I sang first soprano in the school chorus, and had a speaking/singing roll in the school play, "Bye Bye Birdie", in my senior year. Also in my senior year -- where my musical interests took off in a big way -- three out of my seven classes were about music: Chorus, Music Theory and Band. In addition to all of the above, every year there was All-County Band and Chorus, and I qualified for that, too. Between classes and group rehearsals and practicing off-hours, it was non-stop all year round. My whole world revolved around music -- and the friends I made through music.
I can recall, note for note, stanza for stanza, our entire marching band program from 1978-79, from the first "Da-DAAAAAAHHHHH" of the trumpets to the crescendo of the last "Ba-Da-Ba-Da-BUMP" of the drums in the finale. I have one precious recording of the program on audio cassette tape, taken at the biggest competition of the year in a huge stadium with our parents screaming like maniacs in the background, but I don't need a tape to be able to replay it, verbatim, in my mind. (It was this tape I was thinking about out of the blue early this morning, how I need to get that copied over to a digital format for safe-keeping because the tape is so old now.)
I can close my eyes and remember standing at a certain place on the football field at different points in the music... I can see a judge with his clipboard making faces at me to see if he could get me to smile or otherwise break my concentration (points off for that -- but I was known as "Stoneface" and never had such a lapse). I remember always seeking out eye contact with my friend Rusty, the drum major, to see if he had made "the catch" -- a tricky maneuver where the rifle line would all toss their wooden "guns" up in the air and to the right so that the person to the right of you would have to catch your gun, and Rusty was at the end of the line to catch the last spinning rifle. I never actually saw him do it because I was marching back-field at the time, so when I turned around to catch his eye, if he had a wink for me, I knew he'd done it. And I remember the part in the jazz number (the one from the photo above), "Another Star" by Stevie wonder, where the drum line all got down on our knees -- rain or shine, mud or no mud, pain or no pain, we were in the dirt and then on our backs each and every time like clockwork. And it was magnificent.
When I hear that music again -- whether it's playing in my head or on an actual tape player -- my hands long for a couple of xylophone mallets and the muscles in my arms flex as I play "air xylo". I almost think if I had an actual xylophone in front of me I could probably get at least a few of the notes right, even 27 year later. It's the same with another piece of music from our spring stage concert, which was called "Happy Go Lucky" and was a kind of dorky Bavarian-sounding tune (with a title like that, you can just imagine) -- and it was subtitled "Xylophone Solo WITH BAND". I got to be front and center with a big wooden xylo this time, and I Happily and Luckily played it to perfection. I have no recording of that concert performance, unfortunately... but I did manage to swipe my sheet music because I wanted to "break the mold" and never wanted anyone to play it but me. I still have the music, too.
I could go on for pages and pages with clear memories of the music from those days and the mental connections it holds for me. Like the time we had jazz band practice during 7th period and I decided to go outside to sneak some beers with a non-band friend during 6th period study hall (hey, it was the 70's for crying out loud, so don't get all parent-ish on me!) and then came back 5 minutes late for band rehearsal. My band director, the wonderful and highly perceptive Mr. Seiple, asked me where I'd been and I mumbled something about "nurse's office" and took my seat at the keyboards, averting my eyes so he couldn't see how toasted I really was, and silently praying to God that we would only play songs that day with very little piano action. Mr. Seiple -- who clearly was first in line when they were handing out brains, which made him perfect to be a high school teacher -- looked at me slyly and then announced we were going to play a particular piece of music that started out with a very hard piano solo, a piece I was always BEGGING to play because I loved it so much. And all I could think was, "Aw, shit, the jig is up. I am so busted!" And I prayed again to just get through it so he wouldn't know what I'd been up to. Not only did I not want to get busted, I did not want to get busted by HIM, who I really respected and liked so much. I took a deep breath, concentrating as if my life depended on it (and it did), waited for the cue... and I was off and running with it.
I never played that song better in my life than I did at that moment. And that's not the alcohol talking, I'm dead serious. I even amazed myself. It was a miracle.
Afterward, he turned to me, smiled knowingly as if to say, "OK, you won THIS round but I am so on to you, girlie". What he actually said was: "Very good, Miss Huff" -- and that was high praise indeed coming from him. God, I adored that man. He knew how to manage teenagers without micro-managing us and squashing our creativity. He made us feel like we could do anything but he never put up with our crap, either. And I never went out for a beer during school hours again, that's for sure.
Marching onto a football field, strutting with pride. Rusty and I tightly gripping one another's hand after a jazz band competition while we both waited to hear how our respective solos -- he on sax, me on piano -- had been judged. Goofing around with my friends on a bus as we shuttled back and forth to performances and games, and a trip to Virginia Beach I will NEVER forget. Skipping class to hang out in the band room where we'd have jam sessions (yes, just like the kids in Fame). Doing the jitterbug in a poodle skirt for the school play and having to smoke a cigarette on a stage (causing my grandfather to ask, "Why is she so good at smoking that thing?") Hitting the high notes during "The Hallelujah Chorus" at Christmastime. The memories go on and on and on.
For a few short, precious years in my youth, my life was all about the music. Not just the music on the page that would come out of my mouth and my fingers, but the very ebb and flow, the rhythm of my life was intertwined with those notes and melodies that not only gave me a sense of pride in myself for being able to do something no one thought I would ever do, but also gave me a sense of belonging. Because those kids were my "family" in a way.
Even now, though I rarely see or hear from any of them, there's still a bond there. As was evident about three or four years ago when I got a call that Scott L. had committed suicide by shutting himself in the garage with the car running. I hadn't seen or talked to Scott in maybe 15 years before this happened, but it was very painful all the same because he was such a sweet guy and a nice person to be friends with -- kind of short and goofy. In planning for the funeral, Scott's mother asked if someone could find and invite Mr. Seiple, our band teacher, because he played such an integral part in our lives back then, and apparently in Scott's life in a way I hadn't realized. Mr. Seiple actually left teaching in 1981 after my younger sister's class graduated, because he wanted to go into the ministry (I once joked with him that we bratty teenagers "drove him out of teaching and straight to Jesus" -- he liked that). Maybe having God on his side was what helped him be the kind of teacher he was... and I'm sure it kept him from killing one of us in frustration now and again, because we were pretty tough to take sometimes.
One of my friends knew what church Mr. Seiple worked at, and I made the call. And he DID come to the funeral, too. I happened to walk in just behind him and his wife, so I was the first to see him again. The man looked almost exactly the same, too -- I guess he was younger in 1979 than I used to think he was, what with him being the authority figure and all -- but to my eye he'd barely aged a bit. And then one by one, others of our group appeared. Brett had flown in from California. Hank drove down from Maine. I managed to locate John -- once an old boyfriend of mine and Scott's best friend and neighbor during school, although they had lost touch -- and he was there, too. Chuck (another on-again-off-again boyfriend in high school and college) was there with his wife. Dwight, who is my dentist as well as my friend and therefore one of the few I still see with any regularity -- going in for a teeth cleaning is actually fun because he catches me up on classmate gossip. And Lecia, who had stayed clos with Scott over the years and whose husband Jimmy was in a band with Scott's brother, so she was the first one of us to get the call from Scott's family when it happened. We weren't ALL there -- some of us lived too far away or just couldn't make it there. But enough of us were there to represent the rest... and we had Mr. Seiple.
It was a surreal experience, because on the one hand we were SO happy to see each other again... for some of us it had been 20-25 years since last contact. But we were sick at heart about the reason, because while we were happy about being together, there was poor Scott laid out in a box right in front of us. At the cemetary, after the service we all walked over to another grave -- our other good friend Mark, who died in 1986 after drunkenly crashing his motorcycle into a wall. As we stood quietly in a circle around Mark's grave, one of the guys said it all: "OK, this is the LAST one of these things I EVER want to go to for ANY of you people, EVER AGAIN. Got it?" Yeah, we got it. And I hope we never have to do it again either, at least not until we're over the age of 70. An hour later, we all stood in the parking lot of the restaurant where the luncheon was being served and one of the guys pulls out a cooler of beer. And I laughed out loud and said, "Typical! Some things really never DO change, do they?" There we were -- older, fatter, balder, with wrinkles, in our funeral clothes, some of us with kids the same age we were 25 years earlier -- and it was like that 25 years had melted away and we were hanging out at someone's house again having a barbecue.
The music was our "activity", the thing we all had in common. But it was also the vehicle through which we formed a bond that apparently has lasted for decades of little or no contact, and even the early deaths of friends we cared about.
Most people can hear a certain tune and it will drum up (pun intended) old memories of one type or another. The song you heard when you first had sex in the back seat of a car. The song you heard when your boyfriend or girlfriend dumped you flat and broke your heart. The song that became "your song" with the one that DIDN'T get away. The song that revved you up for a night out with your friends. The songs you like to listen to while you're working. Songs that relax us, songs that energize us, songs that give us peace in our hearts and souls.
The music wasn't about how good I was at it (I was good but not great) and it wasn't about making a a career out of it (I didn't; in fact I only sing in the car and rarely play the piano anymore). I didn't go on to study music in college although I took a few music credits here and there. I knew I'd never get paid to sing or play in public or be famous because of my musical abilities.
For me, the music that reverberates in my memories of those days isn't just about the great concerts I went to, or the time the now-deceased Mark and Scott were playing Jethro Tull on the bandroom stereo system at full blast, rattling the windows, or how Pink Floyd's "The Wall" and Led Zepplin's "Stairway to Heaven" were the end-all and be-all of the times we lived in (I can go to Dwight's dentist office and he'll put Pink Floyd on the sound system for us both to enjoy). It's about the harmony of the relationships I formed and the laughter and tears I've shared with those very special people.
The music -- the rock, the jazz, the classical, and even that dorky "Happy Go Lucky" -- is wrapped around all of it, and all of us, like a patchwork quilt that holds us together, where each patch is an irreplacable note or a memory that I will hold dear and treasure in my heart until the day I die.