My left hand played with the hem of my dress clothes as I followed the stream of middle schoolers further backstage. We were all dressed similarly, with the boys wearing tuxedos and ties and the girls wearing fancy dresses. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. People were nervously talking to the people beside them, anticipating the concert that was to come. I looked at my clarinet that had accompanied me so faithfully throughout this journey, took a deep breath, and then walked onto the stage.
I was at the 2023 California All State Music Education Conference, and the past few days had passed in a blur. Despite being in the lower band of two for middle school, I was elated when I had gotten in, and I was even more joyful when I arrived at the site we would be rehearsing in. The sheer number of musicians that I would be rooming with, eating breakfast with, and most importantly, rehearsing hard with over the next few days, was astounding. In our school band, we had only seven clarinetists; in this one, we had thirty two!
Throughout the four days, we had quickly acclimated to the rehearsals and had gotten to know each other better. Our conductor, a white-haired lady who continued to have a burning passion for music to this day, was especially nice when working with us. I hoped to continue enjoying and playing music to that age as well, even if I couldn’t do so professionally. We had practiced together for hours, fine-tuning every aspect of our performance, and this was the moment when we would show the results of our work to everybody.
The Saroyan Theater looked huge from the stage. Seats stretched from the stage until they almost disappeared into the darkness, and if that wasn’t enough, there was a balcony as well. Standing on the brightly lit stage, looking towards the sea of tiger moms clamoring to catch a glimpse of their child, I felt like I was a gladiator in the Roman Empire, cornered and afraid, instead of a musician about to perform a piece. The many concerts that I had watched from the back simply hadn’t given me preparation for what was to come, but I had to dutifully continue forwards, following the person in front of me.
Finding my seat and sitting down, I adjusted the music stand a few times and then put my sleek black folder onto it, taking out the music in concert order. We would start off with “In the Center Ring,” a thrilling rendition of a circus performance, and then continue on to “Kvetchers,” a comedic musical march filled with jokes. After that was “Rippling Watercolors,” a more sentimental and slow piece, and then we would finish off with “Tudor Sketches,” three short movements depicting life in England during the Elizabethan period. I really enjoyed the variety of the pieces and how they made me play outside of my comfort zone. Although we had rehearsed these pieces many times and I had practiced for months beforehand, I couldn’t help but feel nervous at the thought of performing these pieces in front of everyone here. But after our conductor stepped on stage and patted my back before heading to the podium, I started feeling excited for what was to come.
After the applause had subsided, our conductor lifted her hands, and “In the Center Ring” started off quickly with a bang. I felt thrilled as I played my way through the quick runs that I had practiced. When the entire band quieted down and the clarinets could be heard playing a repeating phrase, I was entirely captivated by the music. Then the chaotic section repeated, and we had a solo by a tall, yellow-haired clarinetist and a young flutist. As they seemingly talked to each other with their anxious playing of a tightrope scene, the notes floating in the air and backed by the quiet and serene “safety net” of the accompaniment, I started thinking about what had brought me on this musical journey.
My experience with music had started when I was still quite small, perhaps when I was two or three years old. My mom loved playing the “Baby and Music” tapes and I would spend hours in front of the TV, watching as colors and images danced across the screen. But back then, I seemed more interested in the visual aspect than the music, and treated the sounds more as a background. Later on, when I was five, my mom bought a keyboard and eventually, a piano, and she would take me to lessons every week. It seemed a bit tiring and frustrating that I didn’t choose to do any of this but still had to go through with it. I remember that I would watch the toy basket eagerly throughout the lesson, deciding which one to pick when it was over. Music and piano was like a means to an end, and being impatient, I asked my mom many times in the car rides to and from the lessons why I had to play piano. It just didn’t appeal to me at all. I didn’t understand why pressing some notes on a keyboard in the right sequence was so important. I think that if my friend wasn’t there with me, I might not have continued playing.
But throughout the years, as I grew older and switched between teachers, I realized that sometimes music wasn’t just about playing the right notes at the right times, that maybe there was something more to it. I began to learn the theory behind it, dissecting chords and naming intervals. I took many mock theory tests and played more difficult pieces that involved increased cooperation and coordination among the two hands. I learned about body movement, balance, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics. But most importantly, I learned that music was all about putting your own emotions and feelings into your playing. I learned to think about the composers and their thoughts as they wrote those pieces. And I learned, after struggling with music and piano for years and almost quitting many times, to enjoy the feeling of liberation it gave me when I was playing soulful, tragic pieces by Chopin and Liszt and cheerful, light pieces by Bach and Mozart.
I was brought back to the present by the ending of the solo. It peacefully quieted down, and anticipation could be felt as it turned into silence. Then, with a crash, we were off again! The piece went through several more twists and turns and even featured a police whistle before culminating in a chaotic fanfare.
Next was “Kvetchers.” I positioned my clarinet while sneakily taking out a purple slide whistle that I had bought a few days earlier. As we started playing, I quickly put down my clarinet and picked up my slide whistle. The suspense grew as we got closer and closer to our arranged time, and then a few fellow slide whistlers and I blew hard into our instruments, making a shrill glissando that sounded both comical and piercing. Proud of a job well done, we quickly put down our slide whistles and continued playing.
Our experimentation with this piece had started the day we went to a showcase event and had come back to the rehearsal hall with slide whistles. The shrill sounds could be heard everywhere across the room as we played laughably bad renditions of songs, including an attempt at the Chinese National Anthem and the Titanic theme. Upon hearing this, our conductor told us about an idea she had: we could employ them in “Kvetchers” at a particular section. After multiple failed attempts, we almost scratched the idea, but it finally prevailed, and we ended up doing it on stage. This taught me a lot about thinking of music as an active act of experimentation; that improvements and improvisations could be added to the pieces that I previously thought were only supposed to be played by strictly adhering to the sheet music. I had thought that the composers’ will was final, but it turned out that playing music, even with a concert band instead of a jazz band, was more fluid and creative than I thought.
We finished up the piece and took out our music for the next piece, “Rippling Watercolors,” a more reflective and emotional piece. But before that, our conductor told all of us who learned how to play our instruments during the pandemic to stand.
The pandemic was a hard time for us all, and for people learning instruments during the time, it was extremely troublesome. From learning fingerings online to learning embouchures for wind instruments (a French word for the shape a mouth is supposed to make when blowing through an instrument), it might have even seemed impossible to start learning. But through these times, we persevered, and finally made it to where we are today. As I learned through a mix of in-person and online, I couldn’t even fathom how hard it was to learn completely through a screen, essentially self-learning with a video guide. Through this, I felt even more admiration for some of my fellow musicians currently standing. They were deprived of good conditions in which to learn music, and yet their love for it made them continue. This really showed me how music can bring out the best in people and motivate them to try their hardest.
And then we started playing. The piece started out slowly with the clarinet section. We breathed in slowly and played as one, and the woody timbre of the notes, when combined, made almost a shimmering, watery sound. The low notes resonated through the concert hall as everybody watched in silence. Then, it picked up, with more and more instruments joining in, making the sound louder but not any less delicate. Finally, it built up into a grand, sweeping melody by the brass, expressing the composer’s love and hope for his children. Then, it sank down, ending with the wistful, held out notes of the clarinets again.
This beautiful piece featuring the clarinet made me think some more about why and how I chose to play this instrument. The clarinet is a very versatile instrument, being able to play almost four octaves and featured in both jazz and classical music. That and its great timbre appealed to me when I was looking through videos of instruments in the sixth grade when my brother was going to start learning the cello. Unlike those earlier days of attempting to learn how to play the piano, this time, I was really happy to be learning a new instrument. I think this really represents my growth as a musician; the fact that I chose the clarinet myself really shows that I started loving music for what it was. And although this time I still struggled with learning how to play, I chose to keep going and never thought of stopping. In fifth grade, I didn’t fill in band class on my elective form for middle school despite my parents trying their best to convince me, but in seventh grade, I decided to try out for the advanced band of our school, and made it in through the help of my teacher. And although I was last chair in our school band in the beginning of the year, through practicing our school pieces and the pieces my teacher assigned me, and through much mentoring and hard work, I ascended the ranks to eventually become section leader. Through this experience, I learned that practice and hard work paid off greatly, not only in music but in life as well.
Finally, it was time for our last piece, “Tudor Sketches.” This was our longest and most complicated piece, sporting three parts, each about a different scene in Elizabethan life, from Hampton Court to meeting the Queen to hunting. It featured many of the older instruments such as double reeds, and, oddly, the saxophone as well. “Hampton Court” was regal yet exciting, “Old Queen Bess” was more stately and slow, and “Hunting at Chobham” was lively and full of excitement. Playing these three movements was a lot like being an actor. One moment it would be majestic and the next moment it would be playful. The song picked up its pace as we got through “Hampton Court,” but it slowed down once again to the solemn, awe-filled notes of “Old Queen Bess.” And finally, we were down to the final stretch in the joyful “Hunting at Chobham.” Everybody could feel the joy at having everything they had done until this day pay off. I played, feeling the unity in playing as a group, hearing every instrument at once and also how the seemingly disjoint parts interwove and connected with each other to form the melody that was presented to the audience. Playing in a group was simply unlike anything else. Everything was connected in a way that was awe-inspiring. And playing clarinet allowed me to be a part of the group, working together towards a common goal. In one way, playing in a band was a lot like playing soccer; we passed the ball to each other and worked together to create a stunning finish. And then, we finally ended the piece in a grand, sweeping finale. The audience was silent for a moment, and then we stood up together and bowed to their loud applause.
After the concert, as I slowly stepped out of the hall and into the bright daylight awaiting me, I could see that my musical journey, which had begun more than ten years ago in front of the TV, was still far from over. From ignoring music, to feeling indifferent about it, to despising it and then finally learning to love it, I had come a long way from these earliest days. I have played pieces more complex than my two-year-old self could have imagined and have learned the joys of the camaraderie felt in playing with a group. Playing music has made me a more motivated and committed person in the things I do. And yet, I know that I still have a long way to go, and much more to learn about the seemingly simple, yet complex art of making noises into melodies known as music.