The spring of 1994 was a rough semester for me. It was my sophomore year in college, and in the fall semester, due to the convergence of a roommate who studied late into the night with the light on (causing me to sleep with my arms over my eyes, which made my neck & shoulder seize up) and clueless, focused practicing for a competition (which I won), I developed tendinitis and carpal tunnel. The spring semester was proving ground for figuring out how—and more fundamentally, if—I was going to be able to continue playing flute.
I spent most of that semester on piccolo, which I loathed, but got pretty good at, and truthfully it was less muscle stress so it was probably just as well. That semester also turned out to be the peak of my musical experiences in college & grad school, at least as far as repertoire. That was the semester we played both Scheherazade and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. (I got to play principal flute on that one. Wow, what a privilege.)
That was also the semester that David Maslanka came to campus. I played picc on his Third Symphony. (You can listen here, although that’s not us playing.)
This memory seems very close today, as Maslanka was in town again this week. I went to the university bands concert last night. Sitting again in that theater where I played opened up floodgates of memory. Looking down from the balcony and watching the drama that I used to be in the midst of, I got all emotional over ordinary things I haven’t forgotten, exactly, but that I almost never think about anymore. Things like tuning pitches (I’d forgotten it isn’t the oboe who gives that in the band). And the way the horn players turn their instruments over and over to clear out the spit when they have a long rest. I also saw things I never got to see before, because I was sitting in front. Maslanka’s music uses a staggering array of percussion, and watching the percussion players scurry from vibes to xylophone to glockenspiel in the space of six beats made me realize just how fabulous the percussion section in that wind ensemble must have been.
I remembered retreating to practice rooms to work pitch with another player on a section scored for two piccolos in perfect 5ths in the upper register. We wore earplugs. And on concert night, we nailed it. That part, anyway. I remembered the inspiration of having Maslanka there during rehearsals and wanting the concert to be absolutely amazing, and thinking it hadn’t been. I went up to him afterward and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think that went very well.” He put a hand on my shoulder and regarded me with an amazed look as he said, “What concert were you just at?”
I started remembering things that went farther back, too. What it was like to to be dropped into this world, new and inexperienced. There are a lot of things they don’t tell you in advance, like when you’re in a band and the conductor comes on stage you stomp your feet as your welcome of applause, but in the orchestra you shuffle them instead. Why is that? I never knew, it was just something I learned on the fly. Other memories were painful, like the cringe of embarrassment I still feel when I remember how the conducting assistant asked us to check our name spelling on the personnel list on the wall, and since I was playing first I didn’t bother to look down the list, I only saw it wasn’t at the top, so I wrote it in, only to be told later that, duh, it’s in alphabetical order.
But most of all, I remembered what it is like to be in an ensemble like that, playing music of that caliber and emotional power. The way you are wholly in the moment and wholly aware of things happening in other parts of the stage, the way something magical can happen that lifts the entire experience to a transcendental level. I remembered another concert, when I wasn’t enjoying the music, so I told my parents not to bother coming. But that night something happened on the stage, something I hadn’t experienced in rehearsal. And as the last lingering note faded into silence, time seemed suspended. And into that silent eternity, my classmate, a bassoonist, whispered, “Wow.”
My life is crazy busy and I don’t often get a chance to dip back into the world I used to inhabit. This morning on the way to teach flute, I put on the cassette tape of that 1994 concert in the van, and Michael said, “Is that the band you used to live in?” Yes, sweetheart, I did live in that band.
Maslanka’s music reminds me that music can and should be a holy experience. Last night, the young man who plays trumpet in our church choir was on that stage, as well as a young lady with whom I played the hardest of my duets last spring. I was so grateful for the experience I knew they must have had this week, and I envied them the glorious beauty of what they were doing on that stage.
I started crying.
It was being moved by power of the music, but it was also the pang, the longing for what is gone. And oh, how I miss it. Oh, how I miss it.
I remember similar things about choir in college and seminary.