In the course of chatting with a friend just now, I remembered that I once planned on going to music school. In elementary school I discovered my grandmother’s chord organ and would play songs using fingering charts in the ancient music books that were sitting around. When I found a toy Casio keyboard in her closet, I spent an evening learning how to play along with the four pre-programmed songs. They played in a specific order, and I couldn’t wait until the first two songs were over and I could play “Swanee River.”
I wanted to play an instrument in school, and since string instruments weren’t an option and the alto saxophone was too expensive for my parents to pay the monthly rental, I picked the comparatively affordable trombone, which had the bonus of looking like an easy instrument due to the single slide instead of a bunch of moving buttons. I liked playing but barely practiced, and I remember crying through a frustrating practice at home, tears streaming down my face in the dimly lit living room as I couldn’t reach the note on the page. At one point my father said we were returning the instrument, and when I returned it to the elementary school music teacher, he called my parents and convinced them to let me keep it, citing that for how little I practiced I was quite good. So the trombone stayed.
Over the years, other instruments appeared. I got a bigger Casio keyboard for Christmas one year and started writing my own simple songs on it. My father had a bass guitar and an electric guitar that he’d played before the trombone arrived, and my brother and I got frustrated on the frequent occasions when he took one of the guitars out, ostensibly to teach us, and it turned into a solo jam session. The solution was a beat-up electric guitar that lived in a thin battered case, nothing like the gorgeous cream-colored Stratocaster or P-Bass that lived in plush comfort when my father wasn’t playing them. I painted an angel on the case to make it pretty. I spent afternoons trying to make something harmonious come out of the guitar, but it took me years and years to be able to stretch and bend my fingers in the right way to make a progression of the four most basic chords sound like music. A couple Christmases later, a lipstick red bass appeared under the tree with my name on the tag.
By the time I got to high school I was in marching band, concert band, concert choir, vocal ensemble (small choir), high school jazz band, and pit orchestra and chorus line for the musicals. We had purchased the Conn student trombone I had started renting in fourth grade, and I used it all through high school. Two kids in marching band had purchased new instruments, but everyone else in marching band and concert band used the student rentals they’d purchased. I was in percussion ensemble, where I’d hoped to play marimba but was moved to bass guitar when they found out I could play. I was recruited to play bass for the middle school jazz band and once at a choir concert. I took music theory through high school and rented a clarinet and then a violin just for fun. I auditioned unsuccessfully for leads in the musicals, solos in concert choir, and state choir, but I did get into county band and county choir, whose participants were decided by each school’s band and choir directors. I was one of the last chairs in band for the two or three years I participated, and it wasn’t difficult to see that the higher chairs were occupied with students from wealthier school districts, with nicer instruments, who played much better than me. They had probably gotten private lessons after school instead of being dismissed from science occasionally to practice with the band director for 30 minutes. I had four or five private lessons in preparation for state band auditions, which required learning a song called “Morceau Symphonique.” It was difficult to track down the sheet music, and it was even more difficult to learn the piece. I don’t think I was ever able to play it in its entirety, and I don’t even recall if I went to the audition.
In my senior year I had started collecting literature on Berklee College of Music, West Chester University where my band director went, Temple University, and Ithaca College in New York. I looked at the books in the guidance counselor’s office at what an average musician would make. As a dedicated music school where Aimee Mann had studied and dropped out and still managed to have a huge career, I didn’t think I had a chance at Berklee even if I could afford it, so we dropped it. I toured Temple and Indiana University of Pennsylvania as a backup, but I really fell in love with Ithaca’s campus and their music program. My parents had separated and divorced in the previous year, and I remember a phone conversation with my father where he said I couldn’t afford Ithaca and wouldn’t get in. My mom was supportive, though, and she didn’t complain as she set up a second road trip to the Finger Lakes in the dead of winter. For my part, I gathered up a few of the vocal and piano compositions I had notated with a free trial version of some notation software. I practiced them on the upright piano that I had finally acquired after years and years of begging. It was a freebie my mom had found online, a big heavy wooden thing painted over in semi-gloss white, and she gave a couple family friends a case of beer as compensation for help with the move.
On the day of the audition in Ithaca, I was surprised to see so many nice instruments. In fact, everyone but me had beautiful instruments, gentle golds and roses instead of the pockmarked yellow of my trombone. They were also dressed as if they were performing for a concert, black velvet dresses and hair half-up. I was wearing my usual: black tee from Old Navy, baggy jeans frayed on the bottom, men’s Vans, and a beaten-up leather duster. It was not a good sign.
I don’t remember the trombone portion of my audition, but I remember sightreading vocal scales and intervals in a basement room, the auditioner singing resting tones to me. I was more interested in my composition audition more than the instrument audition. I was brought into a room with two or three other prospective students interested in composition, and the boy next to me seemed more prepared than me and the other kids to talk about our composition styles and goals. We were asked if we wrote music or lyrics first, which I thought was an odd question. Wouldn’t the music be more important? It certainly was for me in my listening at home. I had no idea what they were saying in most of my favorite songs, since I was attracted to the music instead. When a separate auditioner looked over my written score for a four-part harmony, he sang the notes as if he were a magician conjuring them out of thin air. He asked me about lyrics, too, and why I didn’t have them. I explained that it didn’t necessarily have to be vocal voices. They were asking questions that seemed advanced for a high school student not in a college-level music program.
A month or so later, I got a letter from Ithaca regretting that I was accepted into neither the composition program nor the general music program. I think I knew it from the moment I stepped into the building that day and saw how out of place I looked.
And that’s how my teenage dreams of being an experimental composer, musician, all-around artist died, as well as the near future I’d laid out for myself of going to a small artsy college and doing small arsty college things. Instead, I submitted my transcripts to the local community college and tried to reshape my vision of the future.