A rare portrait of the author in a preposterous band uniform, ca. 1977
At 53, I am ridiculously—to be honest, pathetically—devoted to learning the clarinet. While most people my age are discovering the joys of gardening, genealogy, or golf, I spend too much time and money on a hobby that makes no sense. I haven’t always been this enthusiastic about music, either. Years ago, like many other high school students, I played in my school band–I even have a nice white sweater with a gold “S” (for Spring Woods High School) affixed to the pocket to prove it, a sweater which I’ve saved throughout the years, despite many cross-country moves. Please note, however, that I make no claim to have actually played in the Marching Band. I was a miserable failure at marching, and, consequently, I sat in the stands every Friday night during football season throughout my senior year, an alternate marcher, to be used only in case of dire emergency. Thankfully, it was never necessary for me to go on the field, and so I was allowed to sit there, alone, munching on cookies I had stowed in my tall busby helmet, watching the show. Although I was a horrible marcher, I was an average clarinet player (despite my inability to count), which was why I was allowed to stay in the band and why, ultimately, I scored that lonely varsity letter.
Years passed, and in my mid-forties, I took up the clarinet again. Since then, I’ve been on a quest to be able to play without making people around me cringe. I am improving, but every now and then I stop and ask myself why I’m doing all this–spending an hour or so a day about five days a week (on good weeks) practicing scales, pushing my poor, age-befuddled brain to learn about intervals and minor chords, perfect fourths and blue notes, and playing in a variety of community bands. The $64 question is, why do all this when the return on my investment will be, in practical terms, so small?
I have faced the following facts: I will never be a great, or even a pretty good, clarinet player. I will never zip up and down scales, double-tonguing effortlessly and gliding with ease through cadenzas, pulling emotions out of world-weary listeners. I will never be able to improvise freely with other musicians, transposing on the spot so I can play my clarinet with guitarists and piano players. I know that at this stage in my life, I will never attain more than “decent” amateur status–and I am not being falsely modest when I say that. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the last few years, it’s what good music actually sounds like, which in turn means that I know what my own limits are.
Yet I continue to push against these limits, worrying at them like a dog chewing on a nylabone.
I’ve been pondering this question the last few months. The closest answer I can come to is this: Music adds beauty to my life. Even if I can’t be the musician I would like to be, the study of music is, for me, a celebration of art, and that is in many ways a celebration of life. It’s a way to stop the busy swirl of work and social obligations, to bask in the glory of one single note at a time, and to concentrate not only on the here and now (the moment of playing), but also on the there and then (the moment of composing). Playing the clarinet allows me to interpret music—limited though my understanding of it may be—and to put my thoughts, emotions, and what skill I have into my playing. It’s also a way for me to devote myself to a discipline I have neglected throughout most of my adult life. Think of it this way: most of us give up music right after high school, selling our dented and scuffed horns and concentrating on our college majors and professions. This means that at the very time when we understand what it means to be disciplined, when we have finally learned how to devote long hours of effort to attain a degree of mastery, we have already given up on an art form that might just afford us exquisite pleasure. In a way, that’s a real shame.
So that’s why I keep at it. I no longer expect to be that good, and I try not to compare myself to the people who have studied music professionally. I work hard not to wince when I hit wrong notes or get lost in difficult (or even not-so-difficult) phrasings. And I realize that while there are many people who play much better than I do, that is no reason to give up on the clarinet. I love the sound it makes, even when I play it myself, and I love the fact that slowly and surely, I am improving. If practicing scales and occasionally playing obligato with YouTube recordings of Coleman Hawkins are my way of paying homage to the art that is music, and if doing so makes me feel alive and appreciative of those who play better—and of those who play worse—than I do, then what other excuse do I need? Music is for everyone, even for those of us who play imperfectly, who squeak when we mean to dance our way through the highest notes, who get lost amid sixteenth note runs, who are tripped up by our own desire to make beautiful sounds.
And this is why I continue to play. It makes me feel alive; it gives me something to work towards; and, once in a rare while, I hit that one beautiful note, which, whether it is an accident or not, is so fitting, so right, that it brings tears to my own eyes. With that kind of allure, even my own nagging fear of failure isn’t enough to make me give it up.