Even the sweet peppermint and frothy eggnog of winter couldn’t wash away Derek’s bitter fall. It was disappointing the moment it started with a massive snowstorm. Derek despised snow; the way it impeded everyone’s life reminded him of nature’s cold indifference.
Derek took a walk around the block of his apartment building. He was smiling again, slightly, but still. Christmas might not have ditched the fall which was bitter and coarse like Turkish coffee, but the memories associated with it temporarily vanished in the holiday cheer. He walked along a sidewalk that ran parallel to the city park in which he usually relaxed. Today he wanted to walk passed it but stopped abruptly. Derek heard the distant echo from fall embodied by the sound of a trombone. He forced himself to listen, but straining made him taste the grit of coffee. It was then, as he was straining, that he recalled his disappointment.
He wanted to turn back immediately, but his legs carried him through the park where a brass quartet of young black men were playing jazz tunes. The trombone player, who moved the slide deftly, was the oldest of the group; a solid thirty. The trumpeter, the other trombone player, and the tubaist all looked to be in their early to mid-twenties. There was a young saxophonist ,too, no older than 17, his notes floated on top of the carefully nestled brass band. Every note seemed to get cheer out of the audience. Even though frustration was seeping into him, he was simultaneously enjoying himself. Even simple pieces like When the Saints Come Marching In became animated through their performance. Derek knew as long as he kept his eye off the tuba, frustration would remain distant and be only a dull ache. The lack of eye contact lasted about a minute. The tubaist started a solo in the middle of one of their original pieces. It was a syncopated, staccato work of art. Derek rampaged through the amassed crowd and headed home.
The Pacific City Wind Ensemble held three major concerts a year: Christmas — renamed to the Holiday Concert — Spring, and Fall. Last year’s Fall concert had been reviewed as the “best the ensemble had ever performed.” The mayor of Pacific City, with his white hair and shaking hands, gave the band director a certificate of appreciation for his 20 years of work with the ensemble and the masterful performance of his band. A few days later, a paper about it ran in the city newspaper, Palm Weekly. The writer, Joseph Hitch, neglected to mention the ensemble’s overall performance but repeatedly described masterful playing from the trumpet, clarinet and trombone soloists. Derek’s only problem was that he was a tuba player. No newspaper runs an article about that. In fact, the sound of the tuba is only noticed when it’s not there, much like its rock music counterpart.
Derek reflected on ending up with a ridiculous, no-praise instrument when he sat on his bed. Across the way sat the brass instrument, massive on its black metal stand. Derek started when he was 16; he was a saxophonist his freshman year of high school but had grown bored of it. He picked up his first sax at 8 years old and felt like there was no more room for him to grow on the instrument. It was a lie he told himself to cope with being mediocre. His sophomore year, the band needed a tuba player and Derek, desperate for praise, volunteered to play. The gesture was congratulated with applause throughout the band but praise died shortly after. He improved greatly on the instrument only for the seldom acknowledgement. For those first years it occupied every processor of his mind. After class was band practice, and after band practice was individual practice. Even his thoughts fit comfortably in bass clef measures. By the next year Derek was first chair tuba. The director chose pieces out of reach of Derek’s ability, but he rose to the occasion. Each time he conquered the chosen piece; each time he would appear apathetic to praise outwardly but desperately sought it out as he mastered each composition. But he was a tuba player.
The tuba was the backbone of the band, the spinal column of every chord that the band played. The audience expected the bass voice to do its job: to be audible enough to drive the piece but not enough to be noticed. In fact, most audiences wouldn’t even care for the former part. Melody was the primary concern to the general audience; they could understand and feel the beauty of a wondrous trumpet or clarinet line. Harmony was an appetizer to the more discerning ear. The bassline? Hardly a necessity, and anyone could play it.
He looked at his tuba with equal amounts of scorn and appreciation. It had taken him to places he had never seen. Pacific City Wind Ensemble traveled across the United States as well as to Britain and France. Pictures from those tours hung on the walls of his studio apartment. The low brass section — trombones, baritones, and tubas — had a bond inspired by the bass clef that made every tour enjoyable. Derek tried to force a smile, but all he could feel were the bitter grounds. When he saw the reflection of his crooked grin in the tuba, he had a realization: He was only attracted to things with no acclaim. He played tuba, bass and wrote short stories. He was living in accord with his nature but his desire for attention wasn’t being fed in these areas. “What a load of shit,” he said as he threw his shoe across the room. Derek felt an unknown emotion rise within him. He wanted to hit something, scream, and cry simultaneously. Tears streamed down his face against his will. Then he sobbed.
Between his outbursts Derek repeated to himself, “Men don’t cry.” The mantra was an echo of his father. His father wasn’t an emotionless man, in fact, and was very open with him. But in his childhood Derek would cry wherever the emotion struck him — even in public. This prompted the phrase-turned-mantra, “Men don’t cry in public.” But in time, false memory distorted the words. He forced deep breaths and demanded the return of his rational mind. What he was feeling wasn’t sadness or any emotion similar to it; it was an emotion so dissimilar from his nature that he didn’t know how to cope. It wasn’t jealousy or envy, though it felt similar. He was upset for crying and disappointed that every step of improvement was met with indifference. He remembered his parents would often say, “You guys sounded good.” It was a gentle reminder that all of his effort faded into the background, where only ears attuned to the subtle could take pleasure in it. He felt heat in his heart, and it urged him to do something — anything at all — but he only cried louder. Fed up with feeling the way he did, Derek punched the wall next to his bed. It was followed by a loud bang, then silence.
It took him until mid-afternoon to regain composure. With cloudy eyes, Derek glared at the tuba and scolded it for mocking him, but the cumbersome heap of brass pipes would make no apologies. Like his playing ability, the tuba had gathered a thin, palpable layer of dust that had been piling up since Christmas. “It’s been two months,” he said. “I’ve got to start practicing again.” By this small noncommittal decision, the fire that had been mere ember in Derek’s chest ignited to a flame. Without dusting or polishing the brass, he picked up the instrument and pressed his lips to the frigid, silver mouthpiece. The first notes blared like a horn of war, and they didn’t stop. He channeled the fury in his tempest heart and it was only then that Derek knew he was angry. The abrupt roars from the metal beast calmed and smoothed into a short melody that he repeated. It was from his childhood; a small black-wood music box that played a waltz when wound. The waltz was normally light-hearted, but through the fiery bell of Derek’s tuba, it was angry and heavy.
He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He pictured playing in the symphony in the coming weeks, but the visualizations filled him with despair, frustration and anger. Despite it, he knew in two weeks he would be back sitting on the same black chair at the back of the band. It was a fact so well established that Derek pulled out the compositions the band would play for the Spring concert in May. He saw pieces from composers he recognized and admired like Tchaikovsky, Ticheli and Grainger. He placed the sheets on a metal music stand, started a wooden metronome, and began to play. He started slowly, making sure not to stumble on any phrasing, and then gradually sped the metronome to performance tempo. He spent the next two weeks reacquainting himself with his all-too-familiar practice routine.
March 5th came faster than he anticipated, and on the evening of that day he sat in the same hard plastic chair that he had been for the past few years. Everyone had returned to the stage, including the trombonist Joseph Hitch claimed as “one of the greatest living concert trombonists.” Derek clenched his fists when he saw that Donald — the trombonist — stapled the article from the Fall concert onto the interior of his case. “What a prick,” he thought. He also had thought the first practice of the season would go much faster. Not only was he mistaken, but he had been so devastatingly wrong he wished to have never come at all. The clarinetist whined about some triviality and Donald, with his ballooning ego, played with no regard to balance of volume. The stage lights had been so unbearably hot that Derek was sweating. All while he played the same note for hours on end. He was furious. “I’ve wasted my life learning how to play this damn thing,” he said as he rocked back and forth impatiently on the ridiculous chair. “My whole life of effort for this and without any—” but before Derek finished the thought the director dismissed his band with a feeble flick of his wrist. “Maybe he felt it too,” Derek thought.
He wanted to quit. He had at last become aware of the ensemble’s pretentiousness. The trombonist’s super-superior mentality, the clarinetist who whined that pieces were “too easy,” the flutist who meant well but always had a snide comment about “non-traditional” musicians. When the ensemble went to Chicago for a performance, Veronica — the flute player — verbally degraded a street violinist for being unable to read music then walked away sharing giggles with the clarinetist, the trombonist, and the oboist. This was the group he had been playing music with all along. Derek recalled his time in high school band and noticed the same thing: the egos and the haughtiness. These were present in a great deal of his friends and even within himself. Becoming a professional hadn’t created the egomaniacs, but it deemed it necessary and ostrichsized all others. Derek wondered, though, why his ego didn’t skyrocket after becoming a concert musician. In fact, his ego dropped significantly after joining the group and never made a recovery. Derek attributed the lack of ego to his undying connection to reality that others would often call him a cynic. If someone were to tell him that he played well at a performance, he would say that he did “okay.” He did it not because he was modest, nor was he confessing that everything was shit, but simply because his performance was subpar and riddled with micro-errors. No ego-stroking newspaper could change that.
He continued showing up to practice week after week, but it was different. He was an outsider to the group more than he had ever been before. Derek never joined in on the conversations about great composers and never chimed in on theory discussions about instrumentation. Now, he saw it for the self-indulgence it was. Conversations were like how they practiced: only to hear themselves and not listen to others. Derek was now the foremost expert on the “traditional musician” in their native habitat, but he’d rather see the whole society of theirs collapse.
Practices got better, though. The ensemble started listening and responded to the ebb and flow of the music. This wasn’t out of choice, though; it was purely a necessity to produce good music. The goal of every musician is to interpret and reproduce the composer’s message in the most eloquent and organic way possible, but the goal served different ends. Most were like the trombonist, who wanted the praise. But some did it to connect with something greater than themselves. Putting on a performance was a transformative experience for those who tapped into the beyond. The proud cried and the silent sang, all releasing emotions and expressions they were otherwise unable to. Derek remembered his first performance as he was packing up for the day. He was in elementary school and entirely too nervous to get on stage. His hands wouldn’t keep still and the saxophone rattled as he held it. Then he noticed all the other kids felt the same way, even the ones who had just gotten off from the stage; they also shook and felt nauseous. He took a deep breath like his parents taught him when he felt any negative emotion and marched onto stage. It wasn’t prodigious performance but he had conquered an emotion he never could deal with before. He realized a lot of people who go out on stage must be nervous. He played out memories in his head, like how his principle couldn’t get calm enough to stop stuttering during a speech or how the winner of the spelling bee had a constantly wavering voice.
Even knowing the possible transformative experience that lay ahead, he was still ready to quit. He looked at the flier for the Spring Concert in May and realized that time had breezed by him. He had spent most of it carefully researching the group he played music with and began to take pride in his otherness. With one week until the concert Derek decided it wouldn’t behoove him to quit. Until the concert Derek decided to play as if each time his mouth touched silver was a performance. He would imagine the reverberating sound from his bell reaching hundreds of ears. Hopefully one of them would hear that message. The happiness he would get from these imagined scenarios was constantly cut short by the blare of a trombone or indiscriminate whining. Practice was a balance between the divine and the material hell of pomposity. But he endured.
The day of the concert came fast. The rainfall from April, aside from some sparse floods, was ignored by flowers that still refused to bloom. The hot wind, a reminder of summer’s approach, blew through the leaves of tall oaks. Derek sat outside a glass building, looking toward the sun. The anger hadn’t left him, even after all these months. It was a sleeping predator, passive but ready to attack at the slightest irritation. The last 90 days of music had been stressful enough to cause grey hairs to appear on Derek’s head. The inner voice that had once told him to become a musician was now telling him to leave it behind right there and then. But Derek steadied his shaking hands and breathed like he was taught and re-entered the building.
The practice area was filled with women and men in their finest formal attire: black suits, silk ties, elegant black dresses and elbow-length gloves. Each musician talked with those who played the same instrument as them and never deviated from their circles. This forced Derek to try to mingle — he was the only tuba player — but no one wanted to talk to him. He was the “other,” the outsider in a group he had once cherished. Somehow they knew he was judging them. Maybe it was instinct. They began to perform warm-up exercises individually, creating a chromatic cacophony. Derek closed his eyes to fight the spell of dizziness caused by the dissonance but was immediately aggravated by the appearance of Joseph Hitch. He wore a black tuxedo vest and slacks with a carefully placed crease. His ill-fitting and anachronistic fedora was placed purposefully off center, and he began to introduce himself to the trombonist. He was doing an interview with him. They talked for 10 minutes and likely only asked simple questions, but Derek’s imagination took off with their meeting. To him it was sinister. A near-silent plotting against a man who could never have an ego like they had; a deliberate attempt to pay him and his ability no mind. Hitch made his rounds to a few other musicians then left without ever speaking or making eye contact with the outsider.
Derek’s anger broadcast itself to the world. It was so fierce it scared the first flowers of spring to bloom and the rest of the world felt in themselves a profound rage for a single moment before it passed. But Derek still trembled and shook. He fought back tears and wanted nothing more than to run away from the pretentious people who made a wonderful feeling so poisonous. He especially wanted escape the parts of himself that still wanted to be like his company. More than anything, he wanted to punch the trombonist in the face to make sure he didn’t play tonight. He entertained the idea for a moment and started for the lanky man who had just finished his warmup. Derek walked slowly, clenching his fists in a way he had never felt before or since. He wasn’t trying to stave off an emotion. He was trying to vent it onto the person who deserved it more than anyone else. He hated that man’s face. Donald, with his constant smile and egotistical gait, never showed weakness or vulnerability. He was just 10 feet away. He wanted to run and tackle him but maintained his brisk walk. He was face-to-face with Donald now and they stared at each other. Before he threw his punch, Derek noticed a change in the man. Actually, none of his features transformed, but something about him certainly changed. Then the director called the band to their seats.
“There’s no sense playing now,” Derek thought. “I’m distracted, I’m pissed. I couldn’t play well out there.” But he played the group warmup and waited for his fate anyway. He knew he had to play this concert. It wasn’t in a trivial manner that he knew, either. He didn’t feel obligated to stay simply because he was the only tuba player in the ensemble. It was the vague calling of destiny that promised something to him, but that something was never clear. Five minutes before showtime Derek started to shake again. He was still nervous after all these years, but he wasn’t the only one. People playing every instrument battled their nerves — some visible, some not. They walked calmly onto the stage, fooling the entire audience into believing they were confident. The director said a few words Derek couldn’t make out and then turned to the band.
The music began gently, an utter contra-testament to Derek’s rage. It floated to the ears of the audience and softly nabbed their attention. Derek used all of his will to play in a way that was faithful to the composer, even if it hurt to lie to the audience. The melody and harmony danced in Derek’s head and offered him to dance. Stubborn, Derek refused to mingle with the muse that called him but kept playing. His notes had no meaning and were just sustained nothingness that all the meaning was carried on. That was his expected role. The hardly audible and hardly acknowledged support of meaning, like the comma and period in punctuation. As Derek played he became more disheartened at his realized meaninglessness. The notes seemed to fall right in front of him, not reaching a single ear. Derek cried as he played. Anger and sadness became one and melded with absurdity. His tears opened his heart another time to the beckoning muse.
Melody and harmony twirled together like ballroom dancers and asked that he join them. He accepted the offer and danced. It was on the wings of that inspiration that he might reach the audience or even that one unsuspecting person who was receptive to his anger. The dancers moved with the audience’s hearts, and he learned of all the lives they lived. The disasters, heartache, triumph and glee that each member of the audience experienced and endured, and he was identical to them. He wasn’t an outsider but another piece of the human empathetic puzzle that connected him with everyone else. It was the human condition of being fragile but not daring to show it. He talked with their hearts about his sadness and anger and loneliness and didn’t leave out detail. Then they fluttered among the musicians for reasons Derek couldn’t understand. He then became one with the sublime and at once realized his mistakes. His heart danced with Donald’s, who wasn’t after public acclaim but a different acceptance altogether. His parents never wanted him to be a musician and told him so multiple times, even after becoming a professional, that he should pursue a “real career”; he played for their acknowledgement alone. The article he kept in his case was the first time they had said anything positive about it. They read it in the newspaper and called their child and simply said, “Good job.” But it was enough; it was all the approval he ever needed.
He danced with the high-status flutist. She was conditioned to hate those who were different by her parents. She was a product of two concert clarinetists who despised any form of music outside the realm of classical. Derek felt his sense of self fade away, and he became the wind that carried the music. He was free to float where he pleased but he always found a way to a listening ear. That’s the way it worked, though, Derek realized. Whenever music pours from the soul there will be an ear, no matter how insignificant, to listen to it. He was the conductor, the trumpeter, the euphonium player and each percussionist. Each with their own story and path to music that was as vibrant. People of various backgrounds and various classes played music from composers of different centuries and decades, and all of that variance was sure to create a wholly unique experience for the listener. It was then that Derek realized what he had noticed in the trombonist. For a moment, he realized that that man had a myriad of experiences and reasons for doing what he did. Nothing that he had done had been malicious, and he was completely innocent in any emotion that he drew out of Derek. He was no longer shackled to those emotions; Derek felt free.
The concert finished and was followed by the customary applause. They took a bow and left the stage. The band went back to the waiting room and started chatting with each other and were visibly more happy than before. Mr. Hitch, whose fedora somehow still managed to stay teetering on the side of his head, entered the room and interviewed the same people, asked questions similar to those he had asked in the fall and left. Derek walked to the conductor, shook his hand and smiled.“I quit.” The old man demanded an answer and perhaps the Derek from last fall would have given him one, but he was a free man.