Monday, December 9, 2013

Private lessons

For nearly five years, I took weekly private euphonium lessons. (A euphonium is like a small tuba, roughly the height of my torso and head from base to bell) It was not uncommon in the affluent suburb I grew up in for kids to take private lessons on their instrument in addition to normal band curriculum in school. Both my older siblings took lessons on their respective instruments in addition to the piano lessons we all had been taking since age 6. This was all very normal to me, such was my secure childhood. Mom gave me checks every month to give my instructors, and I folded them in half without looking at them. How middle class is that? I didn't want to know how much was being forked over for the lessons that I hated but could not conceive of quitting.

There is no "punk" way to carry an enormous euphonium case around, by the way. God forbid someone know I participated in "activities". I kept my instrument locked up in the band locker at school, never venturing outside the far west wing of the building where the band and choir facilities were. I was able to record my tapes for class in the practice rooms there, and it is also where I met my instructor for lessons. I was good enough to get away with never practicing for my lessons, which to me seemed like an okay tradeoff for never having to tell my parents I wanted to quit, such was my secure childhood. I was waiting in terror, and have been waiting my whole life, to be called out for not trying. But everyone else is just covering their own ass. I assume that private lesson teachers in the self-esteem age don't stay in business by reaming out their underachieving teenaged pupils.

My euphonium teacher was a short, polite guy who was like a jazzy accountant. Or like the most relaxed guy in an engineering honors society. In my limited experience, professional orchestral musicians are like these sort of bluesy geeks. They wear black turtlenecks and their hair is probably ten years out of date, bless them. I wish I could tell you his name because it is perfect. It is the only name you can have as a low brass professional. Anyhow, I mean none of these descriptors disparagingly and he would likely agree with them.

He was chatty and seemed to like me, though maybe he was like that with all of his students. He would catch me up about performances and travel and weird dates he had been on, but not in an inappropriate way. So that would take up a solid 7-8 minutes of the 30 minute lesson, bearing in mind I'm consistently 2-4 minutes late to these things. Then with the remaining time, he would lapse into these private embouchure-developing fugue states where he closed his eyes and sort of burbled brightly back and forth between notes. I would just sit there awkwardly clearing my spit valve as though he had taken a phone call during a lunch date, and eventually he would return to Earth all flustered like he'd been woken from a nap. Then I would walk the plank and sightread the piece he had assigned me to practice at the previous lesson.

He was given to dispensing jazzy-accountant wisdom to me. Once he told me, with stoner gravitas, "once you make toast, it can never go back to being bread". Um, ok, guy. Wouldn't you know that I've spent years trying to pick that phrase off of me, like spidersilk that clings to your jeans, then your sleeve, then your fingertips themselves. Shortly after he spoke it, I decided not to date a friend who had expressed interest in me, and to whom I was not attracted. I was entertaining dating him because I was flattered and because he did interesting drugs and had the sort of encyclopedic knowledge of movies and music that I thought might make me better by association. Ultimately, I didn't have feelings for him and likely would have let that arrangement go on indefinitely, faking my way through it for years like the lessons my parents bought me. I'm so glad that I kept that friendship "bread". I think of his words still whenever I'm rushing my life along impatiently. Let it be bread, dude.

Another notable thing he told me was that I needed to allow other people to catch up to me. This both stroked my ego and terrified me, because adults who weren't my parents had been projecting precocious social maturity onto me since I was very young, and because I knew this purported maturity was a house of cards. Lurking beneath my aloof and over-it approach to everything was the fraught unnecessary self-obsession that leads a person to hide their band instrument, date strategically, and avoid honest conversations with their parents. In other words, I was an ordinary teenager behaving in ordinary ways. I just knew to pretend like everything was fine.

I haven't thought about that last bit of received wisdom much lately, and my current aloofness is bottled at the source of not giving a fuck. If anything, my 20s have been about others allowing me to catch up to them and granting forgiveness for my occasional horribleness. When I was in high school, I thought I knew everything. As an adult, I don't think I know anything and am 500% happier for it.


  1. In this, Evie, we are sisters: I sight-read all my flute music, and was the recipient of projected precocity that made me a disaster in my 20s, and finally resolved to peaceful ambivalence. Only, you wrote your experience into this lovely tone piece that actually SAYS something, and I just hint to people that I'm happier not being a smart ass, and wallow in guilt over how much of a dick I was in high school.
    I'm going to be thinking about bread and toast for a while. Thanks.

  2. As a teen, i didn't think i knew everything, as an adult, I still know nothing. all of it sucks. boooooo knowlege!

  3. good wisdom. juicy. i could have used a bread lesson many times in the last ten years.