In early January in 2011, I made a decision that was quite extraordinary for me, because it went completely against two of my greatest principles: laziness and avoiding interaction with other people at all costs. I volunteered for something.
It’s been a few months now since I wrote a piece about my first Rev rehearsal and ended it by saying how “I started thinking about if there were any ways I could contribute to the choir more myself”. Now that term one is over and term two is beginning, it’s time to talk a little about what came next, how it took me completely out of my comfort zone and how I absolutely wouldn’t go back and change it.
When I started at university, I had been having piano lessons for twelve years and teaching myself to play saxophone for just over a month. When I saw that Rev had a band that played along with the choir, I thought that could be a good way to become more involved; to try and engage more with the people who had welcomed me so readily and maybe talk to more than three people (all of whom were stood next to me in the soprano section and therefore unavoidable). Of course, I chose the instrument I was most comfortable with…
Actually, no. I chose the saxophone. It’s not actually as illogical as it sounds – along with the guitar, the piano seemed the most common instrument in the band, both in terms of frequency of arrangements and number of people who could play it. On the other hand, there was only one other saxophone player in Rev and I thought it would be easier to cope with only one person knowing the differences between what I was supposed to play and what I actually played than if everyone knew. The saxophone parts would also be less important to the overall piece than the piano parts and could therefore be more easily dropped if I was too terrible, if the other saxophone player didn’t take over instead. Plus “I’ve only just started teaching myself” is a much better excuse for a poor performance than “I’ve been having lessons for twelve years but I’m still not very good.” Yes, I had thought things out carefully.
There was one problem. At the start of my first term at Warwick, I only knew how to play eight notes on the saxophone. It wasn’t quite enough. By December, I knew over twenty notes. Practice had worked, but there was still a difficulty. Unlike the piano, where if you hit the right note on a tuned and working instrument, the right sound will come out; my saxophone sometimes played a right note and sometimes made the strangest noise you have ever heard for no reason whatsoever. It would have to be enough.
The second term rolled round. The signup sheets for those who wanted to join the band appeared. I stared at one for a while before walking out without putting down my name. That happened a few times in a row. It wasn’t until the last possible moment, knowing how guilty I would feel if I didn’t keep my promise to myself to try, that I wrote “Devon Hazel – alto saxophone – still fairly new.”
“So you’ve not been playing the saxophone long?” The Music Co-ordinator asked me at the first band rehearsal of term.
I shook my head.
“What would you say is the easiest saxophone part?” He turned to Rev’s other saxophone player, a million times more experienced than both of us put together.
“Not You Reign,” said someone else with a laugh. He’d arranged You Reign and I’d seen the other saxophonist’s expression of disapproval when she played it.
“No,” she agreed.
“Or Proud Mary.”
The other saxophonist shook her head and considered a bit more, “Probably This Little Light of Mine,” was her final reply, “but I will have to actually…uh…write a part, because I just kind of made it up.”
I stared at her and tried not to curl up into a ball.
The part in question came to me on Valentine’s Day, not actually at a rehearsal. We were having a Rev film night, which was pretty big for me anyway. It was the first social I had attended (due to the whole not wanting to interact with people thing). The Music Co-ordinator handed me one fragile piece of A4 paper and told me we would be practicing the song at tomorrow’s rehearsal, with both choir and band.
“Of course, you don’t have to play tomorrow if you don’t want to.” He hastened to add, “You can wait until you’ve had more time to practice.”
I gave a thin sort of smile and showed the piece to my flute playing next door neighbour who sympathised with me over the trickier looking bits and told me she was looking forward to hearing me play. Last term she’d been the annoying person who talked too much, but this term she told me about flute parts she had got wrong and no one in Rev had cared. I didn’t believe her. She was obviously better than me. She still told me it was worth me trying though and she told me enough times (I told you she talked a lot) that I eventually started believing her. Not just then though.
You may not be surprised to know I didn’t play with the band the very next day. It was a few weeks of desperate practicing before I decided I was ready to take my saxophone to a rehearsal. What I hadn’t realised – and what nobody had thought to tell me – was that the band was going to be going approximately 10000 times faster than I had been practicing. Things didn’t go quite to plan.
I may have hit some notes, somewhere. They certainly weren’t in tune, because I hadn’t gotten as far as learning to tune my saxophone, but some of them may have been vaguely right. Or they would have been if they weren’t a couple of beats behind everyone else. Back to the practice room it was.
I think it was the second or third time I played with the band, when I finally made it to the correct sort of tempo by sacrificing occasional chunks of the melody, that the other saxophone player came up to me after I finished.
“You were brilliant, by the way.” She told me as though it was an unimportant and obvious thing.
There are many ways to respond to a compliment. The best is to say “thank you.” I was far too shocked to manage that, so my answer was a little more abrupt:
“No I wasn’t.”
I knew I wasn’t. She was lying to make me feel better, which was more than I expected (she was the Proud Mary arranger – I was surprised she gave compliments at all, let alone undeserved ones to people she didn’t know) but it didn’t make it true.
“Yeah, you were,” she continued, “You lost it a bit in the beginning, but you got back into it.”
Now that was true and the fact she had noticed that, that she had spotted the mistake in the tune that she had written and still thought it was worth complimenting, that was something else. I probably didn’t actually levitate off the ground in delight (I’m sure someone would have noticed), but it felt like I did.
There was still a concert to perform in though (in Leamington – another first for me) and concerts are jittery things by nature. Months of practice and only one chance to pull it off? A bunch of often highly strung musicians loitering around back stage or struggling with uncooperative tech equipment? A rapidly growing audience of people you don’t know? I’d have been nervous anyway, but I was doing a good job of working up towards terror, even with support from an ever smiling Environment Co-ordinator friend and encouragement from my flutist friend.
The one thing I wanted most was to be able to play my saxophone in tune. There was no hope of me playing all the right notes, but hopefully the notes I did play could sound reasonable. Unfortunately, I wasn’t sure how to go about it.
Well, I did know how to go about it, but that would involve talking to the other saxophone player and I was even more terrified of her than I was of playing in public. When I’m scared, my brain has a tendency to shut down until my social skills go from “poor” to “non-existent” and I lose all ability to speak in coherent sentences. Or speak at all. The best way I’ve found to deal with it is to sit quietly and avoid trying to interact with people until my brain starts co-operating again. Therefore, once the final dress rehearsal was over, I stayed in a corner so I could avoid anyone who might be able to help me whilst I thought about all the ways I needed someone else’s help.
My Environment Co-ordinator friend told me I sounded good in practice, my flute-playing friend told me she’d never noticed me making any mistakes and even the other saxophone player came up to me and talked a bit about one of the songs that she didn’t know very well (I definitely didn’t believe that and was far too dense to realise until much later that it was probably an attempt to make me feel better by pointing out that even she wasn’t perfect). I didn’t appreciate that until after the concert, when my brain was back to normal.
Eventually, I made it to the stage. I was a bit baffled when I first put the saxophone in my mouth. Something felt wrong. I had already made some kind of mistake. Then I realised I had left the mouthpiece cover on. When I took that off, it was a bit easier.
I didn’t play in tune and when I watched back the video that someone recorded, it sounded kind of terrible, but I played. I even had lots of people saying “well done” at the end. It wasn’t well done. But it was a start. I only had one more term before I went to America for a year and had no saxophone (it wouldn’t fit in my hand luggage) and no Rev. I needed to make the most of it and that meant I was going to get better. To find out what happened in term three (did I finally get my saxophone tuned?), come back in April for my next article.
A little extra note:
Now it’s early January again, four years later. I’m a member of Rev’s National Volunteer Team and again I’m thinking about whether to play the saxophone with Rev, this time at WiM. I’ve written about how special WiM is before and this year it’s going to be particularly big for me. It’s going to be in my hometown, which means that my main excuse for having never taken my saxophone to WiM – that I didn’t want to lug it on a train when I was already carrying a big holdall to last a week – is no longer valid. As always in Rev, it’s time to try something new. I’m quite looking forward to it! (Well, I’m also slightly terrified – I won’t have several months to practice my part this time.) It should be interesting.
If you’d like to hear me play the saxophone (probably badly and quite possibly out of tune), if you’d like to hear someone more talented playing (hopefully after they tune my saxophone for me), or if you’d like the chance to play something yourself, whether you know how to or not, make sure you come and visit us at WiM. It’s going to be awesome: https://www.facebook.com/events/759292594120726/?ref_dashboard_filter=upcoming