There were a lot of really talented musicians at my high school. I wasn’t one of them. Ron Dionisio, for instance. Very talented tenor sax player. He was very proficient, played with a lot of confidence, flavor and fun. Jared Cannon was another. He was a jazz drummer. He could really kick it. While I’m pretty sure that both of these guys came to their instruments at around the same time as me, through the North Catholic junior band program, just a year or 2 before high school, and got to be great at their instruments through practice and hard work, I was convinced that there was some other reason why they were good and I still sucked. Like, they had been raised in more “musical families” than mine, or possessed some “natural talent” that made it easy for them, or some other type of horse shit.
One time, I was hanging around the band room and I struck up a conversation with a kid that I had seen around. He had a big Pink Floyd patch on his jacket and I loved Pink Floyd. He was a trombone player, I think, but he was there that day for his bass lesson with Mr. Douglas Mapp. We started talking about Floyd, who were having a bit of a resurgence with their Momentary Lapse Of Reason album and the accompanying live album, The Delicate Sound Of Thunder, both of which sucked. I had just recently read a Roger Waters interview in Rolling Stone. He was very bitter that his former bandmates were strutting around the globe making millions playing his songs and flying his pig for the MTV generation. I told this trombone/bassist my opinions about modern day/inferior, Waters-less Floyd and he laughed in my face. He said, “Guy Pratt is a WAY better bass player than Roger Waters!” I felt a profound emptiness. My feeling was that I couldn’t even continue the conversation. If dude was missing the point this bad, what was there left for me to say?
I had begun to take my saxophone music and try to play it on my guitar. When my grandmother gave me the acoustic, there were some guitar booklets and loose pages of guitar lessons in the case with it. By cross referencing these with my saxophone lesson book, I was able to start to understand where some of the notes were on guitar. In my infrequent sax lessons, (still with Alice!) I had expressed some frustration that the tunes we were working on were so lame. She tried to help me out by getting me some better music. She got me Tequila! and Theme From Hill Street Blues. It helped a little bit. I was excited to play these tunes, but I was still convinced that I’d never be able to site read music. Conversely, I also began to be on the lookout for sheet music I liked. I was hoping I’d be able to find some pop music that was simple enough for me to play, yet cool enough that I wouldn’t mind practicing to learn it and learn it well. I found 2 such books. One was a David Bowie book, full of his hits from Space Oddity all the way to Blue Jean. Which, I didn’t know at the time, would happen to be his last good song. The other was a book of all the hits by The Police. All of this music was a bit more advanced than my skill level, but it gave me something to work toward, and there were portions of it that I was starting to figure out.
At one of my sax lessons, I brought my Police book. At the end, after we had covered all the marching band bullshit, I took out the book and turned to Every Breath You Take. I had only worked out the first few notes of the verse, but I could tell something was wrong. It just sounded so off. So stiff and dumb. Alice said “I think this is written in the wrong key” What the fuck is a key?!, I thought. “What is a key?” I asked. She told me that in western music there are 12 tones that occur before they repeat themselves, but that in a given song, you’d only hear about 8, and that what key a song was in determined which 8 it would be. Actually, I doubt she articulated it that well. That would have required some respect for education and context. That’s probably the information I was able to extract and reconstruct over the next few weeks from whatever bullshit, half-assed answer she did give. Ultimately, what it meant was that I’d have to transpose the written music up from G to A and make it minor. (What the fuck is minor!?!)
Then came the worst part. Alice then said, “But of course your horn is pitched Eb, so even after you transpose it, it still won’t sound like the record.” All the blood ran out of my face and my hands started to shake with rage. “Excuse me?…what do you mean Eb?” I asked, barely able to keep from crying. “Alto saxophone. It’s an Eb horn. When you play a C, the note that sounds is the same as an Eb on piano, and your D is an F and your E is Gb………” I was so fucking angry. Not only did I have to slobber all over a piece of wood and percussively blow into a spit filled horn while pressing different finger combinations and decoding dots to produce 1 loud, stupid note, but when I did, I’d have to then “transpose” it all a step and a half IN MY MIND TO MAKE IT SOUND RIGHT?!?!? WHAT THE FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK?!?!?!?!?!?!?! So basically they had been teaching me music WRONG and not telling me, for a year and a half. They didn’t want me having a musical mind of my own and expressing anything that might come from within. They didn’t even want a kid who could play the latest bullshit pop hits off the radio. They wanted a musical cog that they could place in their machine to serve their will. I bit my lip and quietly packed my horn into it’s case. I put it into a locker and never played it again. I never spoke to Alice again, either.
A few weeks after that, I ran into Mr. Marchione in a stairwell in the main building. “Well Hello!” he boomed, clearly relishing the opportunity to berate me. I hadn’t been to a marching band rehearsal since I got the news about E flat. “You know you’re failing music!” he continued. I felt like he was ramping up the intensity for the benefit of the person he had been walking and talking with, who just stood quietly watching the interaction.”It’s not an activity! It’s a class! You get a grade for it! The grade is based on attendance, effort, and how many concerts, parades, and games you attend! and as of now, You haven’t done anything! You’re failing!! I’m submitting your grade next week!” I stood nervously and nodded. I just wanted him to go away. What the fuck was I gonna do? I got in major trouble at home for low Bs. If I had a fucking F, I was doomed.
Then, I had an idea. What if I just dropped the class? There were kids I knew who had taken 7 classes and for some reason or another had dropped one and were down to the normal class load of 6. I went to the office that handled such things. I told the person there that I had just quit the school band and that Mr. Marchione and Beth had approved it because it was interfering with my academic performance (technically true, but most definitely a lie). They said OK and removed it from my roster. This person told me that I had done so just in time because if grades had gone in, I’d have been stuck with the class for the whole year. I did it. I got away with it. I felt so goddamned good and free that I’ve been a world class quitter ever since.