Tattoo by Adal at Majestic Tattoo NYC
I did not play the clarinet in sixth grade, and this was a very big deal.
Two years beforehand, all my classmates and I had a class called Exploratory Music. We learned the fundamentals of playing musical instruments; we practiced with the mouthpieces of clarinets and trumpets and even picked up a violin. The class was taught by a man whose name is not important and who may or may not have had a beard. What he did have was a rather poor attitude toward teaching. I know this because I failed to sound off in turn one too many times, an apparently unforgivable sin. I was commanded to take my assigned trumpet mouthpiece and my chair, head to the boys’ restroom, sit in front of the mirror…
…and practice until I got it right.
I seem to remember sobbing quietly (and not as much practicing in front of the mirror) until he came to collect the trumpet mouthpiece (and, perhaps, me) when the bell rang at the end of class.
When I moved into the fifth grade, our class duly divided into people who joined Band and people who joined Chorus. The clarinet had enticed me during fourth grade, but Band was led by the pitiful soul who couldn’t forgive me for not understanding what it meant to “blow raspberries” through a metal tube. And so Chorus by default it was, which is how I found myself at an after school audition session with the choir teacher. I don’t remember much of what happened, but I do remember that the choral teacher told me I wasn’t cut out to sing.
If I wasn’t in Band and I wasn’t in Chorus, then I was obviously in nothing: an unbearable thought in the mind of a 12-year-old. Which is probably why I ran crying from the room, tearing through the halls.
The teacher relented and let me join, and I made the most of the chance to take part. Throughout every rehearsal she asked me to sing more softly but I didn’t care. I sang proudly during “A Whole New World,” “Fifty Nifty United States,” and other elementary school fare, happy to be part of the group. I doubt it mattered, anyway; aside from the solo performances, I don’t think any of the dutifully smiling parents could hear anything aside from a ringing cacophony of pre-teen voices. (Certainly no one heard me specifically.)
But fifth grade ended, as all grades do.
When I sat down excitedly to play the clarinet in the first day of Band in sixth grade there was an immediate problem. Everyone knew what they were doing. Everyone even already had an instrument. I was shunted to the sixth grade equivalent of Exploratory Music and my musical career—what of it there was—drew to a close.
To this day, I think about being told to “sing more quietly.” I rarely sing in public; if I do, I almost always use a comical falsetto to mask what I still fear is a tone-deaf squawk.
Yet at some point I cared about the passion of doing it. I cared enough that I threw caution to the winds, didn’t care what anyone else thought, and sang my heart out. Though it was not the type of music I had wanted to make, at the moment it was music I could make. And make it I would.
Nearly 25 years later, I would like to recapture that drive.
I would like to abandon my cautious and careful nature: a reflexive crouch I’ve formed against disappointment, heartbreak, and discrimination.
I would like to replace it with the feeling that I—the person who I am—matter. I would like to believe that my talents and personality are valued and that I am more than simply a faceless bank account and work responsibilities in a world consumed by capitalist excess.
I would like to pick up the primary ballot currently sitting on my desk and feel something other than listless resignation that our politics are broken and that I won’t be able to change a thing with my vote. I would like to instead feel like so many of my compatriots apparently do: energized and confident, prepared to make a difference.
I would like to find a constructive use for my rage and helplessness at the national non-conversation about what is critically important in our complicated society of millions of many. I would like to strike back at the disgusting and insipid allure of inaction instead of forming a perfectly insular and self-sustaining solipsism.
I would like to shape, inspire and mold what I can. I would like to be the dividing line between what is and what is not. I would like to know that—even though I will never change the world—in some small way I have changed the world around me.
I would like to create.
I would like to not lose hope.
I would like to sing again, please.
Author’s note: This narrative was written, but not published, several months ago. In the time since writing it, I’ve tried to narrow my focus more to “the world around me.”
I’ve withdrawn from most social media and its enchanting tales of the faraway, the ever-changing, and the ultimately unimportant. I’ll reach out to someone if I want to know how or what they’re up to, and I’d hope they’ll do the same for me.
I’ve tried with mixed success (especially in the past few weeks) to shift away from obsessively reading the slurry of national news, aiming for a balance of being aware of what’s happening in the world with acknowledging what can actually impact my life—and what I can actually impact.
I’ve spent more time focusing on how I spend my time instead of idly wondering about what might have been.
I’ve thrown myself into owning my professional development at work. I am slowly but surely starting to spend more time teaching and mentoring.
I’ve tried to reinvest time, attention, and love into my relationship with my closest friends and family. I’m acknowledging that it’s easier to feel appreciated when I take the time to appreciate those close to me.
And I am feeling better. I may still not be singing… but I may be starting to feel that I’m creating. And I haven’t lost hope yet.
Featured photo tattoo done by Adal at Majestic Tattoo NYC