Friday, June 21, 2013

Theory 6: If you want the ultimate college experience, join the band.

If you want the ultimate college experience, you must begin with scales.  In fourth grade.  Scales tests toughen you up.  What could be worse than straddling a clarinet and forcing air through the long plastic tube (because your parents can’t afford a wooden one) and squawking a version of “Do-Re-Mi” in front of your peers?  My guess is that, on a given day, band directors take more Tylenol than all the other teachers combined, and that is saying a lot.  There were highlights in those awkward middle school years. 

A trumpet player hated band so much he sat in the back row and chewed up an entire Trapper Keeper notebook in protest. 

During a Veteran’s Day concert outside under the flag pole, a golden Labrador retriever laid down slap between my band director and the first row of woodwinds.  He just lay there, licking things, our entire concert.  In awe of his bravado, I messed up my staccato!  I never hear “The Stars and Stripes Forever” without thinking of that stray. 

Basketball is important in all of East Tennessee, thanks to the Lady Vols, so my school held pep rallies for our Tiger and Lady Tiger basketball teams.  The band played.  Imagine a stack of slouching, gooberish pre-teens sporting perms and Coca-Cola shirts, metal-mouths clenching assorted rented instruments.  Imagine the sounds we produced.  Our slim and predictable playlist was the following:

“The Star Spangled Banner”
 “Cheer Cheer” (Notre Dame)
 “Eye of the Tiger”
“Rocky Top”
And our closer: “Tequila”

Delicious showed up ready to rock at our first rally, but left deflated; she said each song sounded like a funeral dirge.  Young musicians are like English speakers in foreign countries: when we’re unsure, we get loud and slow.  My Aunt Big Booty J taught at PFES then.  No joke: We closed every rally with “Tequila” and half-way through the song BBJ strode to the center of the gym floor and commenced the Pee-wee Herman dance.  Within minutes, the stands emptied and the entire student body broke it down to fire up the Tigers and Lady Tigers.  In 1987 and 1988 (7th and 8th grade) the Lady Tigers were 34 and 0.  Just sayin’.

I learned the basics: don’t play your instrument on the way to and from the band room, clean your spit valve, and wax your corks.  Speaking of wax, after the custodians polished our asbestos tile floors, some band boys liked to ruin the janitors’ work. They set their hard instrument cases down on the shiny surface, paced several steps backward, and sprinted to dive onto the cases.  Dippity-do’d rat tails zipped by as boys rode their black boxes lightening speed down the length of those buffed floors to execute Big Wheel spin outs within inches of a concrete block wall.  Friends, if you try this at home and you don’t play brass, borrow a buddy’s instrument box.  The ride is just not the same on a flute case. 


One of my musical students in her favorite t-shirt.


Like any college musician, I had to pay my dues, but the experience improved in high school.  I had my first big crush at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School band camp.  Get your minds out of the gutter, American Pie fans.  Please, I am a teacher’s daughter!  I was nervous about high school in general and about marching and playing at the same time.  True.  But, as I met up with other band members in the G-P parking lot to board the yellow school bus to band camp at East Tennessee State University, I spotted a key-ute sophomore.  The heat waves floating from the August asphalt were nothing compared to the waves of anxiety that riddled my aggressively developing body.  We flirted our way through band camp and even played pool together in the ETSU student center.  Was that a date?  All I remember is sucking at pool (of course) and hearing “Sweet Child o’ Mine” on the radio.  Also that week, I tripped.  Often.  Finally, I looked down at my feet to see a Tretorn on the left and a Reebok on the right.  On the way home, the sexy saxophonist and I sat together on the bus!  We held hands!  Yay!  I guess the magic wore off between Johnson City and Gatlinburg because our romance never matured beyond band camp.  Maybe he saw my shoes.  Band crushes are the best because he is trapped with you—on a bus, in a band room, in a parade waiting line, or at a game for hours.   

Away games made me anxious.  First, I was terrified I’d leave a piece of my instrument or uniform in Gatlinburg.  Second, I had to ride with Otto the bus driver.  I can’t nickname him here.  “Otto” is just too perfect.  At South Doyle High School, lead-footed, far-sighted Otto steered the band bus to scrape the entire side of our team’s football bus.  The busses smooched!  Did you know that busses can get up on two wheels?  Once, the bus was climbing the Smokies toward Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, to cross into Cherokee, North Carolina for a parade. The bus leaned hard to the right. I looked out the window to find my face parallel to ground, only the ground was hundreds of feet below, at the bottom of a ravine, or as we say in the mountains, a gulley.  Maybe all those geometrical stunts happened because Otto drove with his eyes in the rear view mirror.  All the way.  For a reason.  There are always rumors about make-out sessions in the back of the bus.  Innocent and terrified after being so cruelly dumped/ignored/forgotten by the sexy sax player and avoiding the gulley, I sat up front.  I kept my eyes on the horizon, and on Otto. 

Bus drivers are one thing, but band directors are a different breed.  They live on the edge—of temper tantrums, the slightest bit of perversion, and borderline inappropriate commentary.  Actually, I think I missed my calling.  On a band trip to Panama City Beach, my band director’s wife, who is now a dear friend of mine, took my best friends TRO, Mare, G.T., and me to Spinnaker Beach Resort.  She ordered a Hurricane (trust me, she needed and deserved it).  She planted a seed.  Years later, in college, we harvested that seed when Mare clogged at nearby Club La Vela on MTV’s Fame or Shame Spring Break show.  To “Rocky Top,” naturally!  Instead of hitting a post-graduation chalet party on Ski Mountain Drive in G-burg, my band buddies and I hit the director’s house!  I need to thank my band director, Mr.  H, and his wife, L, right now for my absolute best high school memories and for being such colorful characters in the story of my youth.  I love ya’ll!   

My junior and senior years, I was the drum major (probably just because I could be trusted with the key to the band room.) Regardless, that meant I could pick out a spicy uniform and shake it front of the crowd.  No more duck walking to fast tempo Broadway theme songs for me!  The first year, I chose a tuxedo jacket rimmed in gold with the shortest shorts I could wear.  I did have to tolerate three pairs of support hose to stay warm and keep everything in the polyester.  The second year, I wore a flouncy mini-skirt and gold sequined jacket.  Awesome.  I am thankful that Mr. H let me order the eye-catching costumes, especially since I’d wear 20 lbs of wool for the next four years.  Both years, I sported white leather band boots with tassels.  There’s just something about those boots.  Tall Child, the jock, cracked up the first time he saw my boots. He just doesn’t get how cool most band people are.


Band Bug circa 1992


Speaking of cool, years of scales, terrifying bus rides, and freezing my tail off in Gatlinburg prepared me well.  I played Clarinet for The University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Marching Band.  I left behind the stadium where Delicous took up tickets and the soccer team worked the concession stand.  I entered Neyland Stadium, with 107,000 seats and Petros.  Subtract ten parent chaperones and add two state troopers.  Swap one cheese wagon for seven chartered busses, baby!  Our away games traded up, too—from Oneida and Oliver Springs, Tennessee to The University of Georgia , The University of Florida, and the Presidential Inaugural Parade in D.C.  The bus rides could be tough, especially if I’d downed a little too much Southern Comfort the night before.  FYI – long night? Don’t sit over the wheel! Using the bus bathroom was a delicate task.  Literally.  College co-eds can sleep anywhere.  I usually sat up front to be first off at restaurants, so when I had to go to the bathroom, I crossed the narrow thirty-foot plus corridor by stepping on armrests and holding on to luggage racks, else I’d land my size 9 in a snoozer’s abdomen.   Often I’d pass another restroom visitor on her return trip, which meant we had to swap feet on armrests so as not to hurt fellow Pride members. Band folks must be agile and considerate.

I was a better musician than athlete, but still just mediocre.  I got so sick of my section leader, whom I adored, trying to tutor me, that I told her I was tone deaf.  From then on, the clarinets treated me gingerly and I could focus on my real goal: having a good time.  I was a supreme away game partier.  Cute boys at bars in Athens, Memphis, and Gainesville would inevitably ask, “Are ya’ll here for the game?” I’d answer, “Yes, we are with the band.” The boys would ask, “What do you play?” I’d answer, “Oh, I’m a majorette.”  Guys buy more drinks for twirlers than honkers.  Plus, thanks to the sky-high stadium seats, I could get away with it.  As far as they knew, I could be that hot feature twirler with fire batons!  I met my first real college boyfriend—a trombone player— at band camp.  The magic of band love is unique.  In full uniform, I used to tease him, “I am naked beneath my clothes.” He called me his “Orange Blossom Special.” Speaking of nudity, band folks must be immodest. No locker rooms for band. Use your band bus imagination!

Speaking of romance, I used to pen-pal with my elderly Uncle Glenn, who lived in a retirement home in Oregon.  My sophomore year, he sent me a note with a newspaper clipping.  The note read, “Jody, I read this article about a really nice boy at your school.  I figured, since he is on the football team and you are in the band, you may get to know each other.  He would be a good husband to catch!” I hated to tell Uncle Glenn that, though he did scamper by me in the checker-board end zone once as I waited to perform the half-time show, Peyton Manning never looked my way.  Dang it.  Maybe ampersands, wool flood britches, corded vests, and spats aren’t his thing.  Speaking of uniforms, they are HOT.  I used to pack Ziploc bags with ice and put them in my hat. My piccolo friend and I took turns chewing Double-Mint gum and blowing our minty fresh breath on the back of each other’s necks to cool off.  Try it.  It works!  Only an Appalachian Trail through hiker can relate to hours of sweating in sweltering SEC heat then sucking down an ice cold Coca-Cola like marching band members after a half-time performance.   You can dance in hot wool.  Might as well.  Plus, the spats and plume just add to the dance flava.   If you want to scare the H out of a fellow band member, walk up to him/her right before step-off, fake a panicky look, and ask, “Where’s your plume?”

Men of band are tough and aggressive, which is not what most people think. I loved/feared my band director, Dr. J. He was bold and honest. Once, at practice, he yelled through his microphone from his perch in a cherry-picker to a chunky woodwind, “Girl, move back! You are in front of the line. Well, hell, you’re behind it, too!” After a miserably wet defeat in Gainesville, we were on the band bus changing out of our stinky wool uniforms, when a wasted male Gator fan, shouting profanities, tried to board the bus. Good thing Spits (a tuba player from Salina) was up front.  The Gator made it up two steps before Spits punched him in the face so hard that he did the Nestea Plunge out the door onto the sidewalk. Hard.

I’m taking a risk here, but I have to tell a little story about a dog named Smokey. My buddies and I were getting ready for a night out somewhere in Florida and heard this awful caterwauling.  I dropped my hot rollers and picked up my Solo cup to investigate down the hall.  A blue black figure bounded by me with an orange and white figure right behind him.  Smokey was on the prowl!  On the fourth floor of our hotel!  (The cheerleaders and Smokey trainers travel with the band.)  We walked to Smokey’s trainers’ room and saw his main caretaker “asleep” face down on the bed.   Good thing animal mascots can’t talk.  Oh, the stories that that hound and UGA could share.

Back to the state troopers.  On another trip, the band stayed at a huge, one-story motor court.  In every room, sliding glass doors framed a view of a grass lawn that contained a wide pond.  We were out of the main town and not within walking distance of any place fun, so we created our own party.  We room-hopped to socialize.  A friend and I were hanging out in some brass players’ room.  One of the state troopers, an older, rounder man, wobbled by the sliding glass door, on watch, making sure we were behaving I guess, when  a trumpet player stated, “Look at that fat redneck strutting around like he’s got control.   He has no idea he just escorted marijuana across three state lines!” I did not partake of the substance, but I did enjoy the humor in that situation.

In case my students read this, please know: drugs are evil.  I don’t do them.  You shouldn’t either.  My point here is that the band is wild and not what most people think!  If you have self-control, personality, some talent, and can stand extreme heat and cold, join the band for the ultimate college experience of entertaining and being entertained!  There’s nothing like executing a flip-turn then passing your cousin on the ten-yard line.  I loved shutting down the stadium with the melancholy, meaningful slow Tennessee Waltz, then scavenging concession racks for leftover hot dogs on my way out of the stadium. Band romance is the best romance.

To this day, I get excited when I stand in charter bus exhaust fumes.  My olfactory senses take me back to a carefree time when I had a per diem on road trips, few worries, and could convince others I was a majorette.  Every now and then, I put on my band boots and march for Tall Child. Good times. Goooooood times.

So, if you want a great education, go to a great university.  If you want the ultimate college experience at that university, join the band.  But first, you should learn how to work with all types of people, and you should learn the facts of life, which brings me to Theory 7: Everyone should work in a restaurant.

See you next post. Until then, think outside the barn!


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Just thinking outside the barn...

Just thinking outside the barn...