Sounds Like Teen Spirit
Every fall, 55,000 talented students from across Texas try out for a coveted spot at All-State, the Super Bowl of high school band geekery. Music means everything to the 1,500 who make the cut. I should know, I made it three times (not to toot my own clarinet).
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FOR THOSE WHO WEAR IT, the label “band geek” is a source of both mockery and pride: Band geeks are nerdy but talented, weird but fun, shy but sometimes cocky. “I do play the tuba, and I still get the girls,” one band geek boasts on a Web site that sells band geek T-shirts. According to a definition on urbandictionary.com that was almost certainly written by one, band geeks are “not to be confused with ‘orch dorks’ or ‘choir queers.’” The common denominator is unmatched adulation for band. Band geeks are the students who are always lurking around the band hall (even after they graduate), who venerate band teachers, who hang out with other band students, who sing their band music when not in rehearsal and finger their parts on imaginary instruments when they recognize a tune.
Texas has a reputation for having some of the best high school band programs in the country—and, as a result, some of its most highly skilled band geeks. Every February they gather in San Antonio, along with thousands of band directors, choir leaders, and music teachers, for the Texas Music Educators Association Clinic/Convention. All-State, as students call it, is the final step of a five-month journey that begins in September, when 55,000 students audition at regional tryouts; the 1,500 of them who descend on the River Walk for the four-day event represent the mere 2 percent “who survived,” as TMEA folks like to say. At the convention, they audition once more, for chairs in the thirteen All-State ensembles, and then plunge into rehearsals for the weekend’s final concerts.
As the students slog through their practices, the more than eight thousand teachers and band directors who come to All-State shuttle around the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center sampling from two hundred workshops on musical pedagogy. This year’s convention featured seductively titled sessions where presenters dispensed technical wisdom about every instrument on the market. There was “Fostering a Fabulous Flute Section,” “The Piccolo Un-Ear-Plugged,” “Bring on the Beautiful Bassoon,” “Fun in Thumb Position Plus Other Cello Techniques,” “The Key to a Rockin’ Horn Section,” “Just the Bass-ics: Pedagogical Insights for Tuba Players,” and my favorite, “The Artistry of Accessory Percussion: Covering the Finer Points of Triangle, Tambourine, Bass Drum and Cymbals.”
At a workshop titled “The ‘Why’ of What We Do,” Tim Lautzenheiser, an adjunct professor from Ball State University, in Indiana, spoke to a crowd of eight hundred about how music sharpens children’s minds. This is an age-old topic of debate. For some time, a chicken-or-egg question has hovered over the fact that music students as a whole consistently outperform their nonmusician classmates in school. The issue is, Do band and orchestra simply attract nerdy kids into their ranks, or do they somehow make kids smarter? According to Lautzenheiser, new research supports the latter. Music making, he told his audience, activates and synchronizes neural firing patterns that connect different sites in the brain, which in turn creates “mind maps” that make the brain more efficient and effective.
“The truth is, every child is born with the propensity to make music!” Lautzenheiser told his listeners, gesticulating wildly with his arms as he paced across a large stage. Yet, much like a child’s ability to learn multiple languages, that propensity begins to recede by a person’s mid-twenties if it remains untapped. The significance of that loss is even greater when one considers that music is made primarily with the creative side of the brain. “That’s the part that came up with penicillin and the polio vaccine!” Lautzenheiser said. “And that’s the part that’s going to cure Alzheimer’s disease and find a cure for AIDS. That’s the part that, someday, cancer—they’ll figure it out. It comes from that part of the mind. If that part of the mind is not stimulated, it begins to deteriorate. And by the time that humans turn twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight, there’s less chance that they will restart that part of the mind.”
The audience was entranced, and so was I. Fifteen years ago, I’d been one of those young musicians rehearsing for the big show. Though I’d made it to All-State three years in a row, as a student I’d never had a chance to sit in on the teacher workshops, and listening to Lautzenheiser was a revelation. Whether or not music had made me smarter, I had returned to San Antonio after all this time because I’d always known that the experience played a crucial part in my personal and artistic formation. I too was a high school band geek.
I WAS ELEVEN YEARS OLD WHEN I decided to join the band. The junior high school band directors who taught the sectionals at our elementary school had come to campus and set up a display of shiny musical instruments in the cafeteria. At the end of the school day, we brought our parents to watch as we blew into or banged on our favorite instruments. Because my twin sister had already claimed the flute, I went for what I decided was the second-most-feminine instrument—the clarinet. The salt-and-pepper-haired band director listened approvingly as I puffed my cheeks and forced a mouthful of warm, moist air into the horn, which squawked loudly, as most reed instruments do when handled by amateurs. He said something to me about “embouchure” and pulling my chin down, then sent me home for the summer with instructions to eat better so that my fingers would be fat enough to cover the clarinet’s holes by the time sixth grade began.
When my older sister had wanted to join the band five years earlier, my mother told her she couldn’t afford to buy an instrument. But my twin sister and I gave her no choice. She thumbed through the Bargain Book and located a $100 used flute, then tracked down a $125 clarinet from my aunt’s neighbor. It came in a repulsive brown plastic case shaped like an old-fashioned doctor’s kit.
The black wooden Normandy clarinet inside became my life. While other students dropped out of the band as they grew older and cooler, I stuck with music, practicing at home and at school until my tone gradually became more full and more soulful. All of my best friends were in the band, which made my commitment to it and to the long hours of practice much easier. But really, the relationship that I was developing with music had less to do with band than it did with that instrument I cradled in my arms.
Every day when I opened up its case, I caught the telltale whiff of age. I considered the smell evidence of my clarinet’s long history and decided to become the most serious and dedicated musician who’d ever owned it. Carefully, I’d assemble its five parts: lower and upper joints first, followed by the bell, the barrel, and the mouthpiece, always making sure the Normandy logos were perfectly aligned. I’d lay a thin wooden reed on my tongue and suck on it until it was soft enough to vibrate, then place it just so over the mouthpiece, screwing on the metal ligature. I believed in good warm-ups; I’d make long, round sounds until I could tell that the inside of the horn had turned sweaty. Next, I’d run through some scales, including the forty-note chromatic. When my fingers finally felt fast and loose, the fun would begin. I’d work my way through complex, rapid exercises and note passages over and over until I had conquered them. I’d play marching songs, orchestral songs, Broadway show songs. Every reality other than music disappeared. When I was finally done playing—thirty minutes or a couple hours later—I’d begin the ritual of storing my instrument. I’d remove the mouthpiece and run a cleaning swab through the rest of the body. I’d disassemble the parts, shaking out the excess saliva, and return each one to its cranny within the velvet-lined case. Finally, before snapping the case shut, I’d polish each nickel-plated key until no fingerprint remained.
By my sophomore year at Homer Hanna High School, I was one of the top clarinet players in my region. It helped that I was the beneficiary of a long and unusually storied musical tradition. For decades, Brownsville had been known in Texas and beyond as a place where kids from mostly poor and working-class families made wonderful music. James Murphy, the Indiana man who first established the Brownsville High School band program, in 1946, had grown to become one of the two or three most influential band directors in the state. (The school’s name was changed to Homer Hanna High in 1974.) Under Murphy’s successor, Robert Vezzetti, the Brownsville Golden Eagle Band became famous for its virtuosity. Music students at the VanderCook College of Music, in Chicago, which both Murphy and Vezzetti had attended, dreamed of landing a teaching job on the Texas-Mexico border.
My own high school band director, Arcadio Guajardo Jr., a household name in the Texas band community, was a Rio Grande Valley native and the third in the VanderCook pipeline. Luckily for me, he specialized in the clarinet. Many students feared (and took great pleasure in impersonating) Mr. Guajardo’s infamously gruff demeanor, but he and I formed a special bond. He taught me how to master a technically challenging song one note at a time; how to begin and end my auditions by playing a rounded, high-quality note; how to layer my sound with expressiveness by varying my volume, tonguing, and tone according to the mood of a piece. He taught me to fall in love with music.
Looking back, I’m not sure what my high school narrative would have been had I not played the clarinet. I spent countless mornings, lunch hours, and afternoons inside Mr. Guajar-do’s blocky, damp band hall, rehearsing with the rest of the Golden Eagles, or in a carpeted practice room by myself. In those rooms my problems melted away—a disappointing test score, a contentious family matter. My sophomore year, I made it past regionals and all the way to area tryouts. I felt it was time to put the Normandy to rest and play what the professionals played, so I pleaded with my mother to buy me a French-made Buffet clarinet. I knew she couldn’t afford the $1,300 instrument on her school cook’s salary, but I also knew the humiliation of showing up at the increasingly competitive auditions with my brown plastic case. I promised her that if she figured out a way to buy me the Buffet, I would make the All-State band. She did, and I did.
The trips to San Antonio in 1992, 1993, and 1994 were the highlights of my high school years. For me, as for most of the other Brownsville students who attended the All-State convention, it was the only chance to see what the world held beyond the physical and psychological borders of the Rio Grande Valley. We got to fly in an airplane and sleep in fancy hotels. The band boosters raised money for us, and at the start of the convention, our band director gave us $100 for meals and incidentals, more cash than any of us had ever possessed. Still, we’d have to eat fast food all weekend to have enough left over for our All-State patches and maybe a cleaning swab and a new box of reeds. In the exhibit hall we’d gawk at the pricey instruments. We’d roam the mall and the River Walk unsupervised, jumping inside of moving glass elevators or launching stink bombs in hotel lobbies where our bandmates were on break. On Friday evening, our directors would treat us to a rib dinner at Tony Roma’s, where we picked at salads and learned to place cloth napkins on our laps.
I never got first chair at state, nor did I aspire to it. The experience of attending the convention was enough for me. But I guess I did buy into the idea that being there made me one of the nation’s best young musicians. And so, when I got to college and lost an audition for an open chair in the school’s orchestra, I disassembled my instrument one last time, put each part where it belonged inside of the precious leather Buffet case, and stowed it away.
I have not touched my clarinet since.
EVERYONE ARRIVES IN SAN ANTONIO an All-Stater, but placement within the convention’s thirteen musical groups is determined only after one final audition, a contest as tense as a Friday night football game. After a torturous wait, the students learn their rank in a hierarchy with inherent artistic as well as social distinctions: Symphonic band is better than concert band; symphony orchestra is better than philharmonic orchestra; mixed choir is better than either the men’s or women’s choir. The top-ranking non—string musicians are allowed to pick either the symphonic band or the symphony orchestra. (Most choose the latter.)
I arrived at the 2007 TMEA convention on its first day—Valentine’s Day—just after the auditions had begun. Although the tryouts are closed to the public, I had received permission from the TMEA to watch. Naturally, it was the clarinets I was itching to hear. I made my way to the second floor of the vast convention center and found 64 teenagers scattered throughout a wide hallway, blowing vigorously into their instruments, waiting to be called into the second of three rounds. Some sat cross-legged on the floor; others paced nervously as they played, their fingers flying over their horns like strings of firecrackers. A handful were playing it cool and sat yogi-like against the walls, eyes shut.
A slope-shouldered man with glasses surveyed the mass of bodies. Time had grayed his hair, but I recognized his squinty eyes and warm face. He was Roel Elizondo, a clarinet instructor at Rio Grande City High School. When I was at Hanna High, Rio Grande City was known as a clarinet powerhouse, and Mr. Elizondo’s students made me tremble at tryouts. Over the past 29 years, he has sent 23 clarinet players to All-State. Since my own teacher, Mr. Guajardo, was also a clarinet specialist, he and Mr. Elizondo were often asked to judge the clarinet auditions together. They would give us their backs as we played to preserve our anonymity, but both my director and Mr. Elizondo learned to pick out my sound from the dozens of students who played the same material. This was not so much an indication of my musical greatness as of their extraordinary ears.
Amazingly, when I walked up to him, Mr. Elizondo remembered my name and the number of years I had made it to state. “This young woman was an All-Stater three times,” he told the two clarinet players he had brought this year. The girls turned to me and eyed me with reverence. It is an unspoken commandment to honor one’s All-State ancestors.
One of the girls, Jennifer Castañeda, a pretty, ponytailed senior, was a third-year All-Stater herself. Come May, she would graduate from high school and enroll in the music education program at Texas A&M—Kingsville, where Mr. Elizondo had studied 33 years before. Jennifer was the third person in her family to join band. She played first chair and had placed at the top of her area auditions this year, outranking students from 188 other schools. In the past weeks, she’d done nothing but practice her All-State audition material—she quietly hoped to nab one of the top chairs.
Mr. Elizondo stood over her like a father. He was trying to be optimistic, but he understood that the final All-State ranking system reproduced certain inequalities. Because of the great number of auditions that take place at the convention, students are judged on six short segments of music—a total of about six minutes of playing. And since the music comes from the final concert programs for each All-State group, at least half of the audition pieces are orchestra pieces. But there are no orchestras on the border. Though Mr. Elizondo’s students tend to be technical wizards—“We teach notes and rhythms,” he explained to me—the only experience they bring to San Antonio is in band. In larger urban and suburban school districts, the better musicians often have played in both a band and an orchestra. Plus, students from wealthier areas routinely hire private instructors. Jennifer had never even owned her own instrument.
The clarinet players form the largest group at All-State, so they’re always the last to finish their auditions. It was ten-thirty in the evening by the time one of the convention organizers emerged from behind closed doors and asked the musicians to gather in one large group. The tension in the room was palpable. The students took seats at the back, and as their names were called, they came forward and sat in ranking order. When I had attended the convention, the results were printed out and taped to the glass window of the organizers’ office. The new process, if more precise, seemed cruel to me.
They started with last place. The first three students whose names were called hurried to the front and slumped in their chairs, as band directors and other students crowded the open doors and craned their necks to see. The mood grew increasingly anxious with every announcement. Hearts raced and hands trembled. Let it be someone else next. Oh, please, let it be someone else!
“Jennifer Castañeda,” the announcer said.
Her name came much too early. The Rio Grande City star had ranked thirty-eighth—probably not even good enough to get her into symphonic band, where she had played the year before. She’d have to settle for concert band, but if Jennifer felt disappointed, she didn’t show it. She gave the usher a polite smile and took her chair.
Eventually, only one student remained standing at the back of the room—a slender-framed, dark-haired boy in a brown leather jacket. He was a junior from Duncanville, a suburb of Dallas.
There were cheers, whistles, hollers. Elias’s private instructor, a young man named Jeff Garcia, let out a euphoric “Bravo!” The smiling teen strode toward the front of the room and took the one chair that remained—the chair that, at least in dreams, had at one point belonged to every other musician in the room.
PRACTICE SESSIONS FOR THE ALL-STATE concerts began immediately the next morning. Students headed off in droves toward their assigned rooms, the results of the previous night’s auditions still sinking in. Jennifer was headed to concert band, and Elias had picked the symphony orchestra, but I decided to sit in on the rehearsals of the symphonic band. I’d heard that the guest conductor, Larry Livingston, a University of Southern California music professor and a sought-after motivational speaker, gave a particularly rousing show.
Livingston had directed Texas All-State orchestras five times, but this was his first year at the helm of the band. In slim black jeans, a black mock turtleneck, and a black jacket that contrasted with his powder-white hair, he looked more like an avant-garde artist than a band director. He took the conductor’s stand and described the diverse repertoire he’d selected for Saturday’s concert—a collection, he said, designed to provide the students with an experience that would be “powerful, helpful, enlightening, transformative, provocative, memorable, interesting, and musically valid.” The compositions ranged from a newly released band fanfare called “Nitro” to an Aztec- and Catholic-inspired, three-movement piece called La Fiesta Mexicana. One of the pieces was by Livingston’s own daughter, Kasia, who’d also written the recent Pussycat Dolls radio hit “Stickwitu”—a fact that gained him major credibility.
“What am I doing here?” Livingston said, as he paced before the ensemble. “Number one. I’ve heard everybody talk about the concert. I’m interested in the concert but way more interested in the rehearsals. Because I want you to take away not only how to play your instrument and how to play in a band but, hopefully, something on a humanistic and spiritual level. That is the real goal for being here.”
Livingston’s spiritual journey began with a tuning ritual. He turned to his left and asked the first-chair clarinet player—a bashful-looking, curly-haired musician named Eric Williams—to stand up. Eric’s red T-shirt read “I’m the Evil Twin.”
“Eric the Red,” Livingston quipped, eliciting a few snickers. Eric played a C, or a concert B-flat, in musical terms. The conductor signaled him to stop after only two seconds.
“First thing is, I’m a concept teacher,” Livingston said. “This is concept number one-point-one: The first sound made by any group is a symbol of its artistic level and aspirations.” He turned to Eric, whose face was flushed. “So, can you make something that starts beautifully and blooms? And, believe it or not, can you make a phrase on the tuning note?”
Eric glanced toward the floor and took in a lungful of air. He played his note. After a few seconds, Livingston motioned to the brass players, who joined unevenly. The director motioned for them to stop. He pointed toward Eric, who played once more. Again, Eric was ordered to stop.
“Okay, look!” Livingston said. “You are involved not with machines for the sake of machines. You’re involved with machines to explain your soul to the universe. That’s what art is.” He paused. “So art begins when you get up in the morning. It begins when your imagination awakens from the miasma of sleep.”
Livingston has a grand vision of the value of music and of its historical evolution. Once his tuning ritual was complete, he launched into a short lecture about the composition that would close Saturday’s concert, the finale from Symphony no. 5 in D Minor, by the celebrated Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Taking his students back to communist Russia in the thirties, he described a dark period known as the Great Terror, when Joseph Stalin sent millions to their deaths in Siberian labor camps. In 1936 the Russian despot had banned Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District for creating what he saw as an offensive image of the Russian people.
“Stalin had the newspaper write, ‘Shostakovich writes muddle, not music,’ ” Livingston told his students, whose interest in his monologue was beginning to grow. He explained to them how the composer, knowing he couldn’t respond overtly, had decided to try to fool the authorities. The following year he penned his now-acclaimed Symphony no. 5. The four-movement musical masterpiece begins with a despairing opening, proceeds to a somber goose-stepping march, then transitions into another melancholy procession. The final movement—what the All-State symphonic band would play in two days—is a shrill, intense selection that Shostakovich likely intended as a parody of the Russian people’s reaction to Stalin’s repressive regime. Yet the music was so transcendental that when the symphony was first performed by the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, on November 21, 1937, it is said to have elicited a half-hour standing ovation.
“We’re now going to play the last movement of this fantastic symphony, which I think, arguably, is the greatest symphony of the twentieth century,” Livingston said. “Okay. From the beginning.”
His hands rose, and the flute and clarinet players entered with a high, trilling sound. The timpani thundered with notes like terror-induced heartbeats. The low-brass instruments joined with a driving, accentuated refrain—followed again by the flutes and clarinets, who punctuated the introduction with four succinct rips: prrim, prrram, prrram, prrram!
The band took off after that, playing a fast melody that alternated between fierce and exciting, delicate and swift. Livingston’s conducting was a spectacle in itself. He traced large circles in the air with his hands, raising them high above his head and then dropping them dramatically. His face mirrored the composition’s changing moods: He tucked his chin in and let his head bobble. His lips assumed the shape of an O. His eyes stayed closed most of the time, as he conducted without his score. After the band had played for five minutes, he signaled for them to stop.
“Concept number one!” he shouted. “I’m a concept junkie—concept number one! Many of you are getting your Ph.D. in staring at music. You have really mastered the art of having an almost neurotic, romantic attachment to what’s on the page.”
A few students tittered.
“There’s nothing there! There’s only my eyes, my ear, my heart. Your eyes, your ear, your heart. So, rule number one is I want you to watch. I would rather have you watch me and get in trouble than look at the music all the time and play perfectly, because I can’t use that. I cannot have a connection!
“Number two,” he continued. “Life or death, you must listen like there’s no tomorrow. You look in the mirror because you’re interested in how you look. Can I ask you, with concept number two, to listen in the mirror? Listen to yourself. Listen to how you fit.”
The students were beginning to see that Livingston had a point. They sat up a little straighter, and some of them picked up their pencils.
“It’s not about the clarinet part,” he told them, as they scribbled notes on their sheet music. “It’s about the piece. It’s not about the piece, it’s about Shostakovich. It’s not about Shostakovich, it’s about his life. It’s not about his life, it’s about everybody’s life!”
ONE OF THE MOST ADMIRABLE features of All-State is that it draws all kinds of students. Every race, culture, and region is represented. The 2007 class could be dissected in numerous ways: rich kids and poor kids, large-school kids and small-school kids, urban and suburban and rural kids. Each musician had earned his place at the convention, yet each had followed a different road there. Jennifer Castañeda and Elias Rodriguez, the two clarinet players, were a case in point. Both had practiced their audition music ceaselessly, had made All-State before their time, and were betting on a future in music education. But their experiences during their few moments of free time in San Antonio hinted at how dissimilar their trajectories had been.
Elias spent one afternoon having lunch at Tony Roma’s with Betty Macías, the state’s top flutist, and three other highly ranked students. During summer band camp at Texas Tech and Baylor universities, he’d nurtured a crush on Betty, a doe-eyed beauty from Baytown’s Lee High School who played a $22,000 platinum flute. But their relationship was strictly platonic. She was one year his senior and more polished than Elias, who was charming in a simple, boyish way.
The first matter the group took up as they waited for their meal was who did and who didn’t like Pop-Tarts. Then they tried to decide when a person officially grows old. Once they’d agreed that, at eighteen, Betty didn’t yet have to worry about wrinkles, they settled the question of whether puffy All-State patches were better than flat ones. The answer was a resounding no, which prompted them to discuss how they were going to fit all their patches onto the backs of their letterman jackets and how much all those patches might cost. They then compared what each paid for his or her weekly private lessons, which were required by the band directors at their suburban schools (Elias paid $100 a month; Betty, $200).
After the students had finished their lunches and dispersed to practice or rest, Elias confessed to me that getting first chair as a junior was going to create a lot of pressure for him the following year. He told me how the girl who sat next to him in the orchestra, a senior from Sugar Land, had ranked first her sophomore year. Then, when she was a junior, her parents had forbidden her to try out, because they wanted her to focus on her studies. This year, her last shot, she’d ranked second, after Elias.
The girl playing fourth chair also had an interesting story. Elias told me that the day before she had bought new A and B-flat clarinets at the exhibit hall. “They were both Buffets,” he said. “I think she spent, like, seven thousand dollars. She’s, like, ‘I know this is kind of sad. My parents asked me what I wanted for my graduation. They said they’d get me either a car or two clarinets.’ And she went for the two clarinets! I told her, ‘ You band nerd !’”
The following night, I met up with Jennifer and her friends from Rio Grande City. Although a couple of them had been to band camp at Texas A&M—Kingsville on an All-State scholarship, they knew few students who were not from their school or from the Rio Grande Valley. This year, their band had sent six members to the All-State convention, a high number for any 5A school, regardless of geography. All of them planned to study music in college. One of them, a junior named David Moreno, told me he might even go for a doctorate.
For these teens, it was a challenge to make the convention money last. “We’ve been eating McDonald’s and Dairy Queen all weekend!” Jennifer told me. Out of necessity, they had found all the bargain activities on the River Walk. That night, they’d explored the opulent Menger Hotel, which was supposed to be haunted, then had made their way out onto Alamo Plaza, where the trees were laced in dangling threads of white lights, giving the scene a festive feel. A line of white horse-drawn carriages decked in artificial flowers and loops of garland awaited customers, but the group had already investigated that option and found it to be cost prohibitive. There was, however, always the Ultimate Mirror Maze Challenge. The day before, a staffer had offered them a good deal: If they each bought one $9 ticket, he’d give them unlimited weekend access to the 2,100-square-foot glass jungle.
They ran up to it now, and though they’d left their tickets in their hotel, the man at the door remembered their faces and stood aside as they charged ahead and vanished behind a set of drapes.
Each had developed his or her own style for getting through the maze. One girl ran blindly, repeatedly bumping her head into walls. Another turned corners at a usually moderate but occasionally hazardous speed. One of the boys hid expertly in the corners, jumping out to terrify them just as they stumbled past.
Jennifer’s method was the most determined, reminding me of her approach to making music. “I’m real stubborn,” she had told me the night before, as we’d talked late into the night in the lobby of a La Quinta Inn, where her group was staying. “If I don’t get it, I’ll go back and I’ll work at it until I get it. I can be real funny about some stuff. But when it comes to music, I can be real serious and into it.”
With this same measure of intensity, she now confronted the mirrored puzzle: one section of glass at a time, her arms outstretched to find what stood ahead, her hands working their way out of the complicated passages.
“GOOD MORNING!” LARRY LIVINGSTON said to the sleepy-eyed symphonic band at the beginning of their nine o’clock Saturday rehearsal.
By this point it was evident that the relationship between the West Coast conductor and his Texan apprentices had changed. He had memorized many of their names, and he spoke to them as though they were longtime friends. Some of them had stayed for almost an hour after the previous night’s rehearsal. “I just want to say, it’s been a great pleasure,” a baseball-capped boy had told him reverently.
Still, the eight-hour rehearsal days were taking a toll. Several players were missing when the Saturday rehearsal began, and the ones who were there on time looked dazed. The flutes sounded flat, the clarinets seemed airy, the tubas were not together, and the trumpets kept running off ahead of everyone.
The rehearsal started with the fourth movement of the Shostakovich symphony. Observing band directors clapped after nice passages, but there was clearly more work to be done. “Discombobulated” is how Livingston described the sound. One section in particular seemed insurmountable. The top two clarinetists and flutists were supposed to be playing background to a splendid French horn melody, but they were terribly out of tune. Two women spectators wrinkled their noses in disgust. “The pitch!” one of them whispered to the other. The other one whispered back, “They must’ve partied last night.”
“Band,” Livingston said, studying his score. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve . . . twelve measures after I. The clarinet and flute people, who have this really hard stuff . . .” He motioned for those students to play. The sound they produced was irritating. He motioned for them to stop, then tried starting them up again.
“And, now,” he said, waving his baton, but the intonation was still off.
“We need to find the same version of this,” he said, growing concerned. He spoke to the first chairs in each section. “Could you just play, Eric and Kim?” Kim Barr was a blond flutist. She and Eric sounded distorted at first but gradually managed to mesh their notes.
“Let me hear Jared and Candlestick Maker,” Livingston said, referring to Jared Hawkins, the second-chair clarinet player, and a flutist named Catherine Baker. Jared and Candlestick Maker played the note and nailed it.
The interest in how all of this would work out had been piqued among the peanut gallery. “Okay,” Livingston said, “now the top people play. All four.” He motioned with his hand. The playing sounded worse than fingernails on a chalkboard.
The observing music teachers cringed. Livingston made the students stop.
“Two things about this passage,” he said to them, grasping for a concept that might save the day. “One is the intonation. But another is timbre. If you have a bright timbre, you’re going to sound sharp. So try to integrate your timbre, or color, and your pitch, and let’s do it right. You’re doing great. And, now . . .”
The four students played a solid first note, but when they reached a set of sixteenth notes, their sound fell apart.
“ Think, think, ” Livingston said to the flute players. “You have to believe in yourself. Remember when you were auditioning about six months ago? And you were worried—‘Am I going to make the Colloquial Interstate Nineteenth Band Junior High last chair?’ You got here, and you earned it. And, now . . .”
The sound was absolutely perfect.
The conductor turned toward the band instructors in the audience, who were astounded by the tuning miracle they had just witnessed. “Did they get better?” he asked them. “No. They were already better. I just asked them to use the better they had.”
ON MY LAST NIGHT IN SAN ANTONIO, as the 154 members of the 2007 Texas All-State 5A Symphonic Band gathered for their final concert, a sense of loss began to settle in the pit of my stomach. I’d always known, back when I was an All-Stater, that I was not going to end up as a professional musician or a music instructor. There were too many other things I was curious about. But watching the teenage musicians stroll into the warm-up room in their gowns and tuxedos, looking a little taller than they had three days before, I felt as if some grander sense of myself had been left behind when I put away my clarinet.
The old band directors who’d known me back then saw things differently. I had thought that it would be embarrassing when I ran into them and confessed that I had stopped playing, but no one I talked to was disappointed. These teachers had committed hours and days of their lives to my musical education, yet what they were most interested in was what I’d done after I quit playing. They were proud of my accomplishments and proud that I had come back to visit. It reminded me of something that Tim Lautzenheiser had told the other instructors at his clinic: “We don’t do it so that we can be their favorite teachers. We do it so that they can connect with their own potential. Then we get out of their way.”
This sentiment was surely shared by Larry Livingston. Before he could begin his final rehearsal, his students asked if they could take the conductor’s stand for a moment. Between them, they had collected $500 ($120 alone from the French horn section) and bought him some gifts: a windbreaker in the design of the Texas flag, an eighty-gig iPod, and a sheriff’s badge engraved with his name. They had also filled a card with heartfelt dedications such as “You are such a kick butt band director!”
“All right,” Livingston said, after thanking the group. “Could we, my friends, just play through ‘Nitro’?”
Following his cue, the group dove into the three-minute fanfare. When that was finished, the conductor ran them through a few bars from the second piece in the program, a Johann Sebastian Bach composition called Fantasia in G Major. As the students began to play, Living-ston closed his eyes and momentarily lost himself in his conducting, fingers twirling in the air, hands as graceful as swans. The students responded with a lovely passage.
Soon, band and conductor would file out into the auditorium next door, where a TMEA official would explain to the crowd of two thousand what an arduous series of auditions had led to this night and announce, to the audience’s great delight, that this year, All-State band members’ SAT scores were 378 points higher than the Texas average (and 344 higher than the national average). A guest conductor would lead a zesty rendition of the National Anthem. Finally, Livingston himself would be introduced. The band would drive through “Nitro” and Shostakovich, and at the close of the program, as the students left the stage, parents, siblings, teachers, and proud girlfriends and boyfriends would crowd around, flashing their cameras and showering their loved ones with praise and congratulatory bouquets.
But in the warm-up room, as the band worked through Bach’s rich harmonic progressions, all that seemed to belong to another reality. Everyone comes to music for a different reason, and everyone walks away from it with a different gift. For some, it’s a higher GPA or admission to a prestigious college. For others, it’s the first shot in a family at a professional career. In my case, music gave me a little key to the rest of the world. When I left Texas and began to travel, I’d sometimes hear a classical song playing on the radio in a taxi or over the PA system in a department store. I would recognize it instantly—The Flying Dutchman or Carmina Burana or Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, which I played my sophomore year at All-State—and I’d smile to myself as I fingered the notes. It was as if music had provided me with a secret code to the rest of the human experience and to our shared artistic history, as well as an assurance that I, a high school clarinet player from Brownsville, was somehow part of it all.