At age nine my fourth grade music teacher told me I needed to start playing an instrument. Whether I liked it or not, whether I did it well or not, it was required that I try as part of my proper music education. I’d been taking piano lessons for two years at that point, but that wasn’t an option in the Longfellow Elementary fourth grade band. My parents pulled out my sister’s old clarinet—picked up and quickly dropped once she completed her required musical instrument segment, even though she was pretty good—and suggested I give it a try.
I looked at the scraped up keys, beaten up cork and the thin pieces of wood I was supposed to soak in my mouth and then blow across to make something resembling music. When my sister played it, the higher notes made me wince but the sprawling vibrations of the lower tones rattled through my body like a big truck barreling past the house. Truth be told, it kind of frightened me. But the keys were shiny and complicated, and I did love finding out what buttons do.
Ten years, two performing arts schools, thousands of hours of rehearsing and practicing, dozens of shows with bands and orchestras and ensembles, hundreds of reeds, days of sore lips and one very old and expensive wooden clarinet later, I was still playing that crazy contraption. I was working my way up the ranks of the Ohio University orchestra woodwind section, still taking weekly lessons and master classes, still enjoying it even though it was not my major nor my career focus. It helped there was no more pressure to perform or compete.
After a bit of working together, my faculty clarinet teacher proposed I try out for a coveted student woodwind quintet position. He told me it would require more rehearsal time as they prepared for multiple performances around the state.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not even a music major.”
“Well, then I guess you have a choice to make,” he said.
I’d chosen OU primarily for its prestigious journalism school. Words, I’d decided, were my expression of choice. They were much more specific and impactful, I believed, and I just didn’t love the clarinet enough to do what it takes to make a living playing it. As I looked at colleges and contemplated majors, I justified writing was still an art; it just made more sense to me. And luckily research revealed there were lots of ways to continue to play in college even if it wasn’t my major.
But now in my sophomore year, the more demanding journalism courses were starting to kick in and my adviser began asking what I was doing in my precious non-class time to build my resume and get some practical experience. The school newspaper is one of the best in the country and the yearbook always is looking for staff, he mentioned several times. At that week’s clarinet lesson, my teacher asked yet again if I was going to audition for the quintet, and maybe we should increase our lessons to twice a week if I really wanted to make a go of it.
The next academic quarter I put my treasured clarinet in the closet. Ten years later, I sold it to a music store in suburban Los Angeles owned by a man who could restore its loose keys and nourish the old wood back to its original splendor. He was sure a promising young clarinetist in the community would buy it and use it well.
I hadn’t played the instrument in years, but when I said goodbye I felt a clear sense of loss. Neither choosing writing over music nor selling my clarinet were difficult at the time. My talent, my contribution, is as a writer. But not until it was gone did I recognize a bit of what it offered: comfort in knowing I could pick it up whenever I liked and express myself in this familiar way.
Playing was so clear, so simple. It always seemed like a miracle to me that it worked at all, let alone made music. If I blew air at the right speed across a thin piece of wood strapped to another piece of hard rubber and pressed some buttons to determine where the air goes, I can make a pleasing and unique sound. Playing with these frequencies and incorporating my own voice into the music wasn’t something I understood or knew how to do consciously when I was younger, but I must have gotten it on some level.
Two days ago, I opened up a box and pulled out a brand new (plastic) clarinet, a high-end mouthpiece and ligature, a full set of Vandoren reeds and two new books of sheet music. It was a birthday gift to myself, something my higher self brought to my consciousness only a week or so before. Well, in the universe’s crafty way she’d been bringing it up periodically over the past year in casual conversations, in articles about local adult orchestras, etc. More recently she’d told me I needed to return to this familiar expression, but this time it would be different.
My son watched closely as I slowly put the shiny contraption together. I tossed a reed into my mouth to ready it for squeakless sound and then lovingly placed it on my new mouthpiece and tightened the ligature. It was all so familiar, but completely strange under the watchful eye of my son seeing it for the first time. I walked outside on to the deck for the first blow, unsure if it would be a pleasing noise after so many years. A loud, confident note sang down the narrow passage along the upper level of our home and rang out over the trees. A bird rustled in a nearby bush and flew away. My fingers moved hesitantly, but they knew where to go for the most part.
My mouth found the right shape as it remembered a proper embouchure is formed when you smile.
I walked back inside where my family was waiting patiently for me to share this old but new ability with them. They’d heard the music I’d sung to the forest, and now Henry jumped up and down with excitement yelling, “More! More!”
When the high-ceilinged room filled with sound and echoes, Henry’s eyes went wide. He ran over to me and sat directly beneath the bell of the clarinet, peering up into it trying to figure out where it all came from. When I started a chromatic scale down to a low E, he giggled and involuntarily wiggle-danced, the sprawling vibrations shaking through every cell of his body and mine. He and my husband began to clap and cheer.
The smile of my embouchure remained even after my mouth left the reed. I’d almost forgotten how that note, stretching the length of the instrument, requiring breath from the depths of your soul, could make you feel. It’s a vibration, a frequency that can’t be described by words. It’s an energy that communicates at a different level.
I guess I was finally ready for it.