Reflections on a Clarinet

I’ve started practicing my clarinet again.  I have an audition for the Nebraska Wind Symphony later this summer.  Whether they’ll want me or not, who knows, but I thought I would give it a shot.  So, a few days ago, I played for the first time in…yikes…four years!!!  For 9 years, from fifth grade through my freshman year of college, practicing clarinet was the focus of my entire life.  I did not have a perfectly obsessive practicing habit, but the goal was to practice daily, working my way up to at least an hour a day in high school.  In college, as a music major, it would have been good to practice two or three hours a day, if I could commit to that obsession.

To be really good at something like clarinet, it seems that you need to be really obsessive, which is why I used the word “perfectly” with the word “obsessive.”  Raw talent is one thing, but it doesn’t turn into skill without work.  Even though I wasn’t ever obsessed to the same degree as others I knew, it was never a “hobby.”  I certainly had my obsessive periods!  Preparing for an important audition or something.  Getting ready for All-State auditions each year was the hardest, most time-consuming, most self-consuming–and most rewarding–thing that I did in my high school years.  And then as a music major in college, it was just as much work, if not more, just as consuming, and for less grandiose goals.  There was nothing to accomplish besides improving.  (The music I played in marching band and concert band was nothing compared to the music I worked on for my clarinet lessons!)  After I was not a music major, I was still involved in concert and marching band, but I didn’t really practice for them.

So, the last time I practiced, I was the most awesome clarinet player I’ve ever been.  In the last few days, I am definitely not!  The fingers remember what to do, the brain remembers what to do, and the ears remember what to do.  The mouth is a different story!  My mouth muscles feel like they did after an entire day of nothing but rehearsals.  And I only practiced about 30 minutes today!  And unfortunately, the fingers can move fast, the ear can know whether or not I am in tune, but it’s the mouth that makes the clarinet sound good!  A few days ago I sounded like a scratchy fifth-grader.  Today I started to hear a good sound come through again.  But it hurts!

I saw the cast of Hairspray being interviewed on Oprah last year when the movie was coming out.  Elijah Kelly, who plays Seaweed, was telling Oprah how he came to acting as a career.  Elijah had graduated high school, and told his parents that he wanted to move to Los Angeles and pursue acting.  His parents quit their jobs and moved with him.  Elijah said, “A couple weeks later we were on a plane, with nothing but clothes and faith, out to L.A. to pursue my dream.”

Oprah said, “You have good parents.  Those are good parents, who would do that for their child.”  I couldn’t help but think of my own parents when Elijah and Oprah were talking.  When I was a sophomore in high school, my Christmas present was a new, top of the line clarinet.  That’s a lot of money.  Not as much as some other instruments, but still, a lot of money.  And in a family where every dollar spent is calculated…Do you really need new clothes, or can you wear hand-me-downs?  Do you really need a cake mix, or can you bake one from scratch?  To spend so many of those carefully calculated dollars on a daughter’s musical instrument…I have good parents.  And not just that one incident, but every time they brought me to lessons, traveled hundreds of miles to see me play in a concert, paid for my wisdom teeth to come out because they were hurting when I played.  And, every time they did not nag me to practice or push me to be better.  Everything I accomplished was my own, because no one was pressuring me or living vicariously through me, as can happen so often in a parent/child relationship.

I have felt a fair amount of guilt over the past few years because my parents and music teachers invested so much, financially and otherwise, into my clarinet skills, and I just stopped.  At the same time, that’s one of the reasons why I stopped.  I kept going with clarinet mostly because people assumed I would.  I needed to know if it was my calling, if it was right for me.  If I had continued being a clarinet major, if I were a high school band teacher today, I would probably still be having this soul searching.  I would still be wondering if it were my dream, or everyone else’s dream for me.  And that’s from a pressure-free home!  Imagine if my parents had pressured me with my playing!

And what I found out?  Teaching high school band is not my dream.  Clarinet is not my calling.  I was right to walk away from it.  But if I asked my mom about it, I know she would agree that I have nothing to feel bad about.  All those years of playing clarinet taught me how to be disciplined, driven, and obsessive when I need to be.  It taught me that I can, in fact, be really good at something with enough hard work.  Many opportunities that came about because of my clarinet playing have made me who I am, from All-State auditions, to music camp every summer in high school, to one of my favorite things ever, my college marching band.

There is this theory among band people that players’ personalities are determined by their instrument.  It has nothing to do with the instrument, but people who play the same instrument seem to have similar personality traits.  Flute players are girly and delicate, sometimes catty and bitchy, but sweet.  Trumpet players are fun, and break the rules, and are really genuine.  Saxophone players are obnoxious and annoying.  Clarinet players are odd and funky and do our own thing.  That was never me, because as a kid I was so concerned with blending in, being like everyone else, and making sure I never stood out.  But that was just a big giant insecurity disguising who I really am, which is, of course, a clarinet player personality!  🙂  These days, I don’t mind being odd and funky, and I definitely do my own thing!  It’s a process, and it didn’t happen overnight, and I’m still working on it.  But those walls have steadily been coming down.

I’m so happy to be playing my clarinet again.  I will work hard to prepare for this audition.  Because I want to, not because other people assume I will.  As much as I sometimes feel the regret of walking away from music entirely, I’m starting to see that it was the right thing.  I made the best decision I could with the information I had at the time.  Nothing is ever set in stone, and I always have the opportunity to grow, to change paths, to learn more.  Just because I am feeling that pull now doesn’t mean I need to doubt every big decision I’ve ever made.  For the 9 years that I worked so hard at learning to play clarinet, it was really, really right.  It was absolutely the right thing for me.  I quit because it was not right for me anymore.  Not because I wasn’t good enough.  Not because I was some messed up kid who didn’t know the consequences of her choices.  Yes, I could have pursued other options in the field of music.  But I did what I thought was best at the time.  Now, I can change it if I want.  I’m not undoing a mistake, I’m just changing the path a little.  God blesses the broken road, you know?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mom
    Jul 02, 2008 @ 16:30:47

    Hang in there, Dawn! The muscle tone will come again, just like any other muscle that needs toned. I have always been proud for your music talent, but it is not mine. It is yours. You should be more proud of your skill than anyone else.


  2. marionharrington
    Apr 13, 2009 @ 10:16:29

    I identify with every word! You may come back to playing later – I did! All the very best to you, Dawn


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