I asked for a sign up sheet and brought it home. I showed it to my parents. It had a brief description at the top of the assembly we had, talked a little about junior band, and laid out the costs for the lessons. I think they were really, really cheap, like maybe $10-15 per lesson. That’s in 1986 dollars, but still, I think that’s very reasonable. The form had a list at the bottom of all the different instruments you could learn. I already had saxophone checked off. There was also a paper attached that had some info about the rental department of a music store called Zaph’s that was not too far away. What a great concept! We could rent the horn! That way, if I lost interest in a few weeks/months, they haven’t spent $400(?) on a saxophone.
I think all of this surprised my folks a bit. Only 1 time before this had I come home from anywhere claiming to want to “do” anything. It was a brief stint in an intramural basketball league and it was an embarrassment to everyone involved. So for me to come to them with a form already filled out was out of the ordinary. However I had always been into music. When I was about 3, I was in the car with my mom and Dream Weaver, by Gary Wright was on. I turned to my mother and told her, “this is my favorite song”. Pretty much from then on, I always had a favorite song and it was usually from the top 40 of the moment. My mom had lots of records, and loved to dance and was always playing her albums or the radio. My Dad didn’t have any records, but he was way into music and pop culture. We had a subscription to Roling Stone magazine. They both thought the sax was cool, so everybody was on board.
I’m not sure at what point this came up, but somewhere early in the process, it was said, by whom I don’t remember, that maybe I should start with the clarinet. The fingering was allegedly the same, and the horn was cheaper to rent. I think that the junior band was probably in need of clarinets or something. I said “no way!” I fuckin hated the clarinet. all woody and nerd addled like some pussy flute. Their logic was “why don’t you start with the clarinet so that it’s less money in case you lose interest?” I was like, “If you try to make me play the clarinet, I will DEFINITELY loose interest…like now.” I said that it was sax or nothing at all. They went for it.
In fact, within 2 or 3 days, my dad came home from work with an alto saxophone that he picked up for me at Zaph’s. It came in a black hard shell case that said Selmer/Bundy on it. Also, in a white and blue plastic Zaph’s bag was an introduction to playing the alto saxophone book, volume 1. I put the case on the kitchen table and opened the lid. He showed me how to assemble it. I guess they showed him at the music store. It had 3 parts, the body, the neck part and the mouthpiece. It also had a neck strap, some cork wax(!) for helping the mouthpiece onto the neck, and a little plastic case for my fuckin reeds!
I blew into it, but no sound came, other than wind blowin through the holes. I pushed different buttons, and could feel the change in airflow, but nothing came of it. No biggie! my lessons would start the following saturday, and soon I’d be crooning smoothly in the night with my new brass jambone. For the time being, I would be content to stand in front of the mirror in my bedroom and pose with the thing, practicing my moves.
That saturday, at 8:30 in the morning, I was driven to the intersection of Erie and Torresdale avenues, to the local high school, North Catholic, which I would attend just a year later. The music area was just inside a large wrought iron gate. I walked through the doors and descended a long, wide slate stairway leading to a hallway filled with lockers. It was deserted and dark. There were a few lights on in a few small rooms off to the sides, but it was deserted and creepy. I found my way into the main room, which was also mostly dark. It was pretty cool, though. There were lots of chairs and music stands. In the back, there were giant tympani drums. The place smelled like music.
In the distance, I began to hear voices, back closer to the locker area. One of the rooms I had walked past now had it’s door open and a pleasant looking lady was saying goodbye to an Asian kid with a black hardshell case in his hand. He walked up the stairs and was gone. She turned to me and said, “Hello, I’m Alice. Are you Shawn?” I told her I was, and followed her into the soundproof room to begin my first lesson.
The practice room was really cool. It was small and when you were inside with the door closed, it had a profound deadness of sound, no reverberance. It was my first time in such a place and I was digging it. It was otherworldly. I took out my horn and began to assemble it like my dad showed me. It went together nicely. Alice sat across from me with her own saxophone, watching me. When I had the horn assembled, she told me to take off the mouthpiece and hand it to her. She wanted to set my reed, she said. She took the mouthpiece and adjusted 2 little finger screws which held the wood reed to the plastic mouthpiece. she handed it back to me and told me to lick it. I said, “what?” She said “Lick it. get it nice and wet.” She took hers off, licked it all sloppy and in a very exaggerated way, put her bottom lip over her lower teeth. then she put the mouthpiece in her mouth, bit down on it, and made the craziest, loudest sort of duck call. She told me to do the same. It took me a few tries, but eventually I got it. a horrible squawking sound. She told me good job then said to put the mouthpiece back on the horn and do it again without holding any of the horn’s keys, no hands. I did and got a nasty squeak, super shrill. She said to loosen my bite a little and try again
And there it was. A rich, robust single note issued from the horn. Not from the bell end, but from the whole horn! It seemed to flow from my face which was now extended by about a foot and a half and made partially of brass. A truly breathtaking feeling. I didn’t know what zen was at that time, but if I had, I would have called it zen.