Today I was reading at a cafe here in Lublin, and all the sudden the background music caught my attention. It was a jazz tune featuring a vibraphone (hereafter called vibe(s)) solo.
I’m a sucker for a good vibe solo.
I set my book down, and was, for a moment, transported by the melody. Taken back to a time when I was fortunate enough to play such an instrument.
This led to a memory–the first pair of mallets I ever owned.
I was fortunate in jr high school to have an amazing music teacher, Ms. Walters. She was this wonderfully short, spunky, Furman graduate, clarinet player that liked to throw white board erasers at people. There was even a time when she was so flummoxed by a percussionist she took his sticks out of his hand and threw them on the football field. All of this was done with love of course.
She was wonderful, encouraging, and firm when necessary. I remember when I was still a relatively new student, I had started, at home, to learn pieces ahead of the class in the book that we were learning from. I was so excited by it all, and one day she caught me practicing after school a piece that we hadn’t learned yet. I apologized thinking I had done something wrong, and she then asked me if I wanted to try to prepare an audition for region band.
During this time, my family was in (as it was for a lot of my childhood) a precarious financial situation, and we couldn’t afford for me to have some of the things the others did. I didn’t have any of the percussion equipment that my peers did such as a snare, bells, sticks, and some basic mallets, but I made up for it by staying, as many days as I could, after school to practice in the band room till my mom came to pick me up. So I would borrow the school mallets every day to practice this region band piece.
I remember telling Ms. Walters how much I really loved this green pair of mallets. They made such a bright and full sound on the xylophone that I was practicing on. I had looked for them at the music store, but I knew that they were a $50 pair of mallets. Totally out of the question.
That year for Christmas, I was gifted, by this wonderful lady, my very own pair of green mallets. Little did I know, they were actually meant, not for the xylophone, but for the vibes.
These mallets were my first real invitation into the percussion world. Previously, I had really wanted to play the flute.
I remember being a new student at a school in Perry, Oklahoma, and wanting to join the band in the sixth grade. I told the lady I wanted to play the flute. She told me this was just not possible because they had started band the year before. She then asked if I had experience with anything else. Luckily for me, my previous music teacher (Mr. Allen) had taught, in his general music class, us the basics of playing percussion instruments. That year I played the bass drum in our town parade (the foreshadowing of this moment was lost on me till writing this entry…. I marched bass drum for two years in my high school marching band).
When I moved to South Carolina in the seventh grade, I remember going up to Ms. Walters, and saying I want to play the flute. She said, well we started band last year, can you play anything else? I said well I knew how to play the drums a little, and I had taken a few piano lessons when I was in the fourth grade. So to the percussion section I went.
I didn’t really feel like I was a ‘percussionist’ until she gave me those mallets. Then it was real.
Flute? What flute?
Fast forward through 4 years of marching band and concert band, plus two years of palmetto youth symphony, to university where I decided I loved marching band so much that I wanted to be a band director.
I chose to go to the best teaching college in my state, that just so happened to have one of the best (in my opinion) percussion departments in the state.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I didn’t finish my degree. My first year I was great. I showed great promise, and was in love with this new atmosphere of people who really cared about making music. I was the only girl in the department, and I felt like I had a lot to prove. To prove that I was good enough, even though I felt exceedingly like they had made a huge mistake.
As the years wore on. I was less excited. I practiced less. I found that going to the music building was taking tiny bits of my soul away. Somethings I loved, big ensembles, theory (oh my goodness how I loved theory, I still sometimes sit down and analyse the hymnal at church….), methods classes, and in these things I continued to do quite well. But the other parts, the parts that I struggled in, like aural skills (created by the devil himself folks), I found myself skipping these classes and when I was there, I was so frustrated. I was also flailing in my private lessons, if I attended.
I gave up.
I admit that I sabotaged myself. I used the excuse of family problems (of which there were many) to allow myself to get sucked out of this once magical place. I remember my lessons instructor admonishing me for allowing my family to ‘take’ this opportunity from me. More than myself, I let down this man, Dr. Williams, so ferociously during this time. I owe this man both a debt of gratitude, and an apology.
This was not something I came upon lightly, of course. I had always been expected to go to college, and to do wonderful things. But the more I found myself at ends with my college life, I found a place in my work place, EdenGardens, an assisted living. I decided that since I wasn’t doing so hot at school, I needed to take a step back and reassess. That maybe some time away would ‘fix’ me.
Little did I know, that was absolutely not the case. I became engrossed with work, and continued to work there for three more years before taking a job with the Winthrop Wesley Foundation, and ultimately ending up as a missionary in Ukraine.
Often times I find myself missing this thing I used to do.
I used to make music.
I didn’t realize as much then, as I do now what a gift that is. I wasn’t exceptionally exceptional at it, though I was good. I don’t mean this as a point of pride, but it has taken me a long time to be able to truly say that I was good at it. I really was. This is only important because I lied to myself for so long, and allowed that mentality to let me push myself further away from the music department. Now, I wasn’t as good as some others in my department, but in some things I really excelled.
I don’t miss being a solo performer. The joy of music for me, was making music with others. The feeling of 45 people on stage all in tune with one another taking themselves and the listener on a journey. Knowing intimately the parts of others almost as well as you knew your own. Bringing all of that together to fill ‘the cave’.
I do also miss my personal time with the instruments. Playing for myself, by myself, overcoming the hurdles of hard passages, was more than any therapy session could offer, and more soothing than any meditation could be.
Though I miss the familiar feel of a marimba under my mallets, the blisters on my fingers from practicing four mallet solos, and the dance that can be playing the timpani, I cannot lament the decision I made to leave college.
I did so with careful thought and planning, and I have found a path that I wouldn’t have otherwise pursued. Now, don’t take this as a blog that promotes dropping out of college. Trust me there are others that I know that did, and haven’t had the good luck that I have. For awhile right after I left college, I did have a really hard time.
But that jazz tune today took me right back. Right back to me and those green mallets. I still have those mallets. They are currently at my sister’s house for safe keeping along with a pair of drum sticks, and my favorite rudimental snare piece (The Downfall of Paris).
I know that things would have been so different if I had stayed. If I had finished despite every fiber of my body telling me to get out of there, and while I’m so thankful for the experience and the lessons I learned there, I am so happy with where I’ve ended up.
At the end of the day, I still have pieces of that life with me. They live in my itunes, and in random vibe solos, not to mention my incessant tapping. They connect me to this world in really fascinating ways, and I’m a better person for it.