reflecting back on the alto saxophone

some things that happen in a person’s formative years remain mysteries all a person’s life.

my formative years were here in Scottsdale, Arizona.
the mystery was why my mother felt I should continue musical training with the saxophone.

but she did and she convinced dad to get a rent for me on an old instrument hanging in a musical pawn shop. it had a small crack in its body, two broken keys and an old used reed with so many saliva drip stains down it’s front and sides that I remember wondering if I knew anyone who could actually even salivate that much, much less salivate even more so to play this instrument.

music teachers are a wide variety, but there is this one certain stereotype that is an odd breed. i mean, hundreds of thousands of these certain kinds of unemployed music teachers would stoop to do anything for a few dollars, regardless if music was involved in any way. i suspect they were the same kind of people who came to our door offering to sharpen knives. or who offered to paint the house, fix broken appliances, do any needed house repairs, weed the garden, and the occasional tuned piano.
i don’t know what my first saxophone teacher had done before his now-somewhat-stable-but-elementary teaching job. I like to think he had played first soprano saxophone with the Boston Orchestra and lost his job for blowing too much saliva through his reed and the bitter second chair flautist sitting in front of him complained to the director, which happened to be at a time the management was cutting expenses and therefore found a reason to just fire him and suffer the consequences of a lesser saxophone section, but had had fallen in love with a young foreign woman in god-forsaken Arizona while hitchhiking through America on his way to find a job in Los Angeles, and ended up settling down and just remained in my city.

whatever wrong he had done in his probably not-so-exciting previous life, he looked like he needed a friend, probably something hard to drink, and a new shirt. this was clear to me even as an awkward fourth grader, just stumbling into the band room for the first time in her life. unfortunately, he was also a serious lover of music.

now before i continue, you must understand: i had been playing piano for a couple years, maybe 3 or so, when i took up the saxophone. this means i was just starting to learn my key signatures and remember where middle c is always going to be on the keyboard. i was no prodigy, but i did feel some sense of self-righteousness in being good at piano for my level thus far, and was in no way expecting the alto saxophone to be any more of a challenge then playing a g major scale with my right hand.

pianists only have to hit the correct a key to get the right note.

no one can play the saxophone without signing a pact with the devil.

it defies the laws of physics for a human to press his lips in the correct position on the mouthpiece in exactly the right place two times in a row while holding a hollow brass mangled object, and simultaneously press the correct number of multiples of dime-sized keys. not only that, but if one octave of notes wasn’t enough to conquer – there was at least two commonly used octaves, and if you were “good” (i use quotations to remind you that the definition of good is defined by my innocent fourth grade mind) there were even more octaves to reach, providing you could create the right ligature pressure with your breath and lips. like a fourth grader would have the lung capacity to blow a C3 to high heaven on pitch. if that isn’t difficult enough, consider this: you’ve got a scratchy black neckstrap hanging off of your neck, dragging you and your squeaky metal noisemaker down to hell with you.

there is no such thing as Beginner’s Luck for the newfound saxophone player. it requires the aid of supernatural power, whether from the devil, or from God.

christian private school kids were compelled to ask a lot of God, mostly through the ‘ACTS’ method of prayer and enough prayer requests for each child’s sick goldfish or depressed cockatoo to triple the population density of California. this state of prayer for children wasn’t natural, and we would rather have been yelling “red rover, red rover – send katie on over” at recess instead of on our knees in bible class. however, we were taught of angels who came down from heaven and helped people just like us here on earth with our lives.

I prayed for help a lot. why study or practice when you can get an angel to do it for you? however, i was too scared of authority to pray to God directly to help me find E flat, or to send down one of His angels who could do it for my solo auditions on band day next week. i didn’t really want to upset someone who could send you directly to hell. i prayed as best as a privately-schooled, christian-raised fourth grader knew how. i can remember looking up the top angels mentioned in the Bible, to find the ones that had the reputation of being the top agents, the ones who could bypass all the secretaries and personal assistants and get though to God at his private, unlisted number.

although I am not Catholic — not even St. Jude, the patron of the impossible, could have helped me on my first year on that saxophone. what came out of my instrument sounded like a cat with its tail caught under a rocker.

i don’t think my teacher had many privately taught pupils that he could afford to lose one, and yet after six weeks of lessons, he still wore aged shirts and looked like he was on a two week fast. but i’m pretty positive that starvation was preferable to listening to me make the piercing sounds of a rusty hinge gone bad. a cow rubbing against a barbed wire fence made more musical sense than me attempting to play “Ode to Joy”.

this being said, i practiced and worked on my saxophone. i’m not saying it was easy, because it wasn’t. but it was one of the best few years of my life, actually working on something and seeing results. ten years later, I have passed out of all collegiate theory, sight reading, and ear training. i’ve played piano for 13 years so far, and I’m currently a vocal performance major studying opera, with hopes of going to a master’s program to specialize in opera, and continue to sing opera and make music all the rest of the days of my life.

all this to say one, simple thought I’ve been musing over lately.

Passions, Interests, Talents, and even Love is not supposed to be easily spotted. Life is about time, time is about patience, and without patience — none of these driving forces in our lives would exist. I was a terrible saxophone player, but I learned to love it. And even though I haven’t picked up my sax in years, the knowledge and interest and passion I discovered inside of me while during my saxophone years has translated into a driving force of my entire life. I am in love with music, but what if I heard a few squeaks and flat notes on my sax and decided I obviously am not talented or good at this. what if I had stopped? Where would I be? Would I be following God’s will for my life, or would have music eventually have caught up with me in some way?

What if we all have missed our passions, interests, talents, and loves that were meant to be … but we only heard the intial squeaks, and turned our backs on them? What does this mean for us today, right now … for tomorrow?


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