March Confessions

Phipps Conservatory, Pittsburgh. March 2014. We didn’t have a piano in our high school marching band. However, I was looking for a photo that was tangentially related both to music and also the word “March.” This seemed to fit the bill. (Photo: Jenny Gaffron Woytek)

I marched with my high school’s marching band for four years.

However, I learned about the existence of football game halftime shows on the first day of band camp in my very first season of marching band, in the ninth grade.

See, I never cared about the actual sport of football. Up until the ninth grade, I never actually watched an entire football game. Not a single pro game, college game, or high school game. None.

Then, I started to play the clarinet in the fourth grade. My parents and I planned that I would study the clarinet in school until I qualified for the elementary concert band. Then, I would play for the junior high concert band. Then, I would participate in the high school marching and concert bands. This way, I would have an extracurricular to pad my applications for college scholarship money.

By junior high school, I wanted to quit the clarinet. My parents and my music teachers always had to get on my butt to practice. I did all of my required weekly practice in one bulk, pain-filled session, the night before each weekly lesson.

(I’ve since learned that playing the clarinet is A LOT like writing.)

My parents by that point had invested so much money and time in my music (see my post about terrible, painful Christmas concerts ) that they needed me to just power through with the band thing. They reminded me that the only way that I would be able to visit Disney World is if I visited it with the high school marching band. See, my parents had no money or interest for a family trip to Disney World. However, the school marching band traditionally visited Disney World once every four years.

So, I stayed with the clarinet. (Note that on the year that it was “my turn” to visit Disney, the decision makers determined that such a trip would be too expensive and require too much fundraising. Our marching band travelled to Hershey Park instead. We marched in a parade in Harrisburg and ate at a dinner theater.)

Our school district’s elementary and junior high school bands joined the high school band by performing at the opening ceremonies of one home football game each fall. We “helped” the high school band play “The Star Spangled Banner.” Afterward, we elementary and junior high musicians received free admission to that night’s football game. However, each year that I performed such in elementary and junior high, I headed to the concession stand as soon as my musical duties ended. As soon as I finished my hot chocolate and nachos, I went home.

So, even when I “performed” at football games during elementary and junior high school, I never saw a single football game halftime show. I didn’t know that the high school band even had to put on a show at halftime.

On my first day of band camp in ninth grade, we started learning the choreography for that year’s halftime show. I said to another musician halfway through that morning, “Do we have to practice stuff like this often?”

My band classmate said to me, “This is our halftime show!”

I said, “What’s a halftime show?”

I learned that week at band camp what a halftime show looked like. So, the very first marching band halftime show that I ever saw was one in which I personally performed.

I have another marching band confession. A few weeks ago, my husband Jonathan and I had a short discussion about school music programming and the purchase of sheet music for such programming.

I told my husband, “Mr. B. (my high school band director) had a very close friend who also taught music in schools. This friend got busted by the FBI for photocopying sheet music. He had to go to prison for it. In fact, he had to teach Monday through Friday, and then every Friday night, he had to report to prison until Monday morning.”

My husband gave me that look that he gives me when when I repeat a made-up story as if it were true.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s an urban legend, isn’t it?”

My husband confirmed that this was indeed an urban legend.

I complained above that I “stuck with” playing the clarinet for years so that I could go to Disney, and instead I went to Hershey Park. However, I’m grateful that my parents pressured me to stick with the clarinet. During the last two or three years of high school, I listed my band participation on applications for non-band-related opportunities. I “won” some of these opportunities. I have no idea if my time in the band made me a strong applicant for these. I bet that it didn’t hurt me. (See here about the award that I “helped” our band to win.)

I was a mediocre musician. The girls from my elementary school who started to play the clarinet at the same time that I did were all better at it than I was. (They practiced more than I did!) We had to compete each year for “rows” and “chairs” in concert band, just like a real orchestra. I was last row – last chair. The other girls from my grade quit the clarinet at the end of junior high so that they could be cheerleaders and majorettes. I stayed. I learned about the existence of halftime shows.

So, I have another confession. For the past month or so, when my husband leaves the house, I sometimes put together my old clarinet and I play it. I don’t actually play songs, unless you count “When the Saints Go Marching In.” (That’s one of the first songs in one of the first lessons in the instruction book that I had in the fourth grade.) No. I pretty much just warm up, and then try to hit a bunch of high notes that I struggled to play in high school. I stop when I get tired or when my husband gets home. (I don’t want to torture Jonathan.)

On that Saturday back in January when I first picked up the clarinet, I had to take a two hour nap after trying to hit high notes. I had forgotten how to breath!

It’s actually pretty freeing to play a musical instrument for which I never excelled. I can sound like crap and not let anybody down. Present Jenny doesn’t disappoint Past Jenny.

Back in the pre-Covid days, I worked in downtown Pittsburgh. (I guess that I still do. The City still taxes me for Emergency Services as if I still do.) I worked directly across the river from PNC Park. On the days of Pirates home games, this one busker always stood on the Roberto Clemente bridge and played the theme song from “The Flintstones” on his saxophone, over and over. I listened and missed my clarinet.

Now, I miss the saxophone guy.

I could busk when this Covid mess is all over. I carried my clarinet to school for a decade, and I marched with it for four years. I can take it downtown on a PAT bus. I know how to play “The Flinstones.” I know how to play “When the Saints Go Marching In.” I am learning how to hit the high notes in “Sweet Child O’ Mine” that I couldn’t hit very well in high school. I would give any money that landed in my case to the saxophone guy. I just think that it would be funny if I went from playing “last row – last chair” in a school band to busking downtown.

I wonder how many ex-marching band kids miss it the way that I do now?

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