So Long, Solo

clarinet2Practice probably started back in the second term of the school year. I was in 9th grade; I was a “senior” of the junior high school. This was a chance for me to shine before I cycled back into little-man-on-campus status as a sophomore at the high school. I had already found out I was in a four-way tie for valedictorian of the class of 1994 with three 9th graders from other junior-highs.

This was my third year of band, playing the clarinet. I was decent, working pretty hard since the 7th grade, learning scales and notes and rhythms for chair placement. Mr. Coleman took extra time after school to tutor me. He taught me more than what we learned in class. I got ahead on ideas about syncopation and alternate fingerings and especially fingerings for the altissimo register. This was where I cultivated my love for the quarter-note triplet. Band was easily my favorite subject.

What I loved most about band was performing music. That seems obvious and unnecessary to say, but when people are just getting started on a musical instrument, it’s hard to consider what they play “music.” Embouchure, strong air flow, a good instrument and a good reed all contribute to a nice tone. Articulation and dynamics, a solid theory background and a sense of musicality make the notes on the page appealing and interesting. They tell a story or express feelings. As a 14-year-old, I was just getting started, but I loved what I could already do.

I was not a flashy performer, nor was I a virtuosa or even a prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. I appreciated the technicality and precision of the dotted-eighth-note-sixteenth-note combination, which was not to be confused with the swingier quarter-note-eighth-note triplet cluster. And yet, when I saw a rubato or subito or dolce at a certain passage, whenever I saw phrases shrink and swell like a billows, I knew and anticipated the expressive aspect of the piece. What was merely mechanical now had the potential for art.

Every year the Florida Bandmasters Association holds a solo and ensemble festival for junior high and high school students. They can register to perform solos and/or ensembles for critique by judges. The ratings range from Superior, which is the top mark, all the way down to Poor, which means you have no business being anywhere near music. Or even the radio.

I performed in a clarinet trio in the eighth grade. I played the third part, while two 9th graders played first and second. It was at the University of Florida. I remember going in a small office with Mike Null and Angie Thomas. We played for our judge, he critiqued us, we replayed certain parts for him according to his suggestions, we shook his hand, and then we waited outside with our classmates for our rating. We earned a Superior. Up until that point, I had no understanding why I was there, but when I saw how nervous other people were, and when I saw how happy they were when we received a Superior, something clicked.

And then I got nervous.

When I stepped into the band room as a 9th grader after the summer, I felt intense pressure about needing to do well in band. I needed to improve. I needed to lead my younger classmates. I knew I wanted to do as well as the Symphonic Band the year before me; I looked up to them so much.  I knew I needed to do a solo for festival that year, but I had no idea where to begin.

The solo and ensemble festival was in February. Sometime in October, Mr. Coleman approached me with sheet music. It was a clarinet solo. He told me as I looked at the blacker-than-black notes on the page that he played it when he was young, and he wanted me to play it that year. It was called Waltz Fantasy. It was by Mozart. The difficulty level was 3.5 (they go up to 7), but it was the hardest thing I had seen in my very limited experience. He mentioned in order to go to State festival, you had to earn a superior on at least a grade 4. Then he said we wanted me to memorize the piece.

That scared the crap out of me.

We got to work. It is a waltz: 3/4 time signature, light, lilting. It’s filled with sixteenth-note runs – scale patterns – ascending and descending; expanding and contracting. A short 2/4 bridge – a 16-bar variation on the theme – is at about two-thirds into the piece. Then, there’s a cadenza. A cadenza is like free verse. It’s technical and expressive and showcases virtuosity. I barely had a grasp of those first two concepts, much, much less the third. There aren’t any bar lines. That freaked me out – how was I supposed to count beats?  I had no idea what I was doing. The cadenza didn’t make any sense for a long time, and then one day, it did. It starts out in low, weighted notes, then jumps onto an ascending scale in 1/64th notation that rips into the sky and bounces gracefully back before relaunching into another scale, up and down before slowing down dramatically to three low, ascending chromatic tones and switching registers to third-space C to taper into nothingness.

Then the waltz picks back up and finishes in a fancy little flourish. It’s a fun piece, and I worked hard for three months to learn it.

I had memorized it, but there was no way I was going to play without music in front of a judge in February. Having memorized the piece put the notes under my control. The pages were merely a guide, and what I had toiled to master was now quite enjoyable to play. True performance could emerge.

clarinet7The nervous adrenaline rush did not disappoint. The piece was technically sound. The dynamics were just as I had rehearsed and nurtured; the accompanist was her usual flawless. I could see the smirk on Mozart’s face – he knew I had nothing to worry about. Mr. Coleman was in the room during the performance and the judge’s critique. Apparently the judge said something negative, perhaps even derogatory, because Mr. Coleman looked upset, but all I knew once I played the last note was that my mind was clear, and I felt I did a good job.

I earned a Superior, and Mr. Coleman let me keep the judge’s sheet. I should have framed it.

It was February. I wasn’t eligible to go to state with my Superior rating because my piece wasn’t difficult enough. What next? What now? I memorized the piece for the experience, I suppose. My solo was over. I set Waltz Fantasy aside and focused on other band music.

A couple of months passed. It was the beginning of May, and our band class was preparing for the end-of-the-year concert. Already my heart ached at the thought of leaving junior high and moving on to high school. I grew to love the friends I’d made and the teachers who supported and guided me. I knew I’d have to say goodbye to a lot of people; it would be hard, and I would cry.

We broke out the music we played as a band for festival a couple of months earlier. We played three pieces at the time: a march, an overture, and another substantial piece. It was a matter of review; we were already familiar with the music, and all we had to do was get the music feeling good under our fingers again. I was looking forward to performing for friends and family, but it would be our last concert on that stage. I wasn’t sure if I could handle all the emotions involved.

At the end of class one day, Mr. Coleman approached me again with a stack of papers. I flipped through it and figured out it was parts to a band arrangement to accompany Waltz Fantasy. In concerto form. Mr. Coleman arranged it himself. The entire band wouldn’t play; just a few instruments from a few sections, and the pianist would play at a keyboard set to “harpsichord.” A chamber group, maybe like in Mozart’s day. Mr. Coleman explained I would stand at the front and center of the stage, and the band would play their minimalistic parts which would feature the solo part. My part. Memorized. Without the music in front of me. My heart and stomach fluttered.

During that last month of school, the band learned how to accompany a soloist, and I learned how to project my sound. A few days before the concert, after school, Mr. Coleman and I went to the empty cafetorium where he stood at the back of the room and listened while I played through the piece. He told me how to adjust my volume, he also told me to play even louder the day of the concert, because the audience would dampen the sound. I felt myself getting sick.

The butterflies didn’t go away. The night of the concert I did my best to focus. Beginning Band played first, then Concert Band, which was the intermediate band. Then the Symphonic Band performed. We sat in layered semicircles on stage. When it came time for Waltz Fantasy, I stood up from my chair and walked to the center of the stage. I looked out at the audience and receded from the front a few steps. My hands sweated, my mind was jumbled.

The piece began immediately. The band and I started at the same time. The first 16 bars went just fine; it was the introduction to the theme, merry, flowing, full of dynamics. The piece is only 3-4 minutes long, so I knew I had to make as much music as I could in such little time. Throughout the introduction, I was able to hear how I sounded with the band in a large room with high ceilings and cinder block walls. I made the necessary adjustments.

After the first 16 bars come the sixteenth note runs, for another 16 bars. The fingers fly up and down the clarinet, and I learned where to sneak in breaths to sustain the notes. However, whenever I played the passage that fateful night in 1992, I made it through the first four bars before completely blanking out. I looked at the audience who was looking back at me. I had lost my place, and I didn’t know where to come in. I looked back at Mr. Coleman conducting the band, and I heard him humming my part. I then recognized the accompaniment and matched that to Mr. Coleman’s humming, and just like that, I caught on to the last 4 bars before the 2/4 bridge. I refocused the adrenaline. I had returned.

The bridge was fun. Strong accents, springy transitions, syncopation, octave intervals and fun rhythms dancing around high C, all before settling in to the cadenza.

clarinet4I rushed a little bit at the beginning of the cadenza, but the gliss-like runs sounded like magic, and I took my time approaching that long note, coming from the octave below. I held the last note, sustained it while letting it get softer, ever softer. That note faded to silence, yet it lingered, which was what I was going for, and I fought smiling so as not to affect my tone.

The last 16 bars were probably the happiest I’ve ever played. In those moments I knew the audience enjoyed what they heard, and I certainly liked what I performed. When I played the last two notes, “bum-BUM!” at fortissimo, I held the clarinet in my mouth and looked down at the stage, just for a second, the slightest of pauses before deafening applause erupted from the audience.

I raised my head. People clapped; they stood up and clapped some more. Everyone was standing. Countless emotions surged through me and the adrenaline continued to pump. I cried and cried and cried. I bowed, and I cried. I heard whistling and “Bravos!” and I couldn’t stop crying. It was healthy weeping, having dedicated hours and months to getting the notes right and balancing the musicality and memorizing everything; having people who heard it find pleasure and joy, buoy my performance with hope and anticipation.

The applause subsided, and I walked back to my seat. One more song left – I couldn’t play it. I just sat and cried until the concert was over, while my heart said goodbye. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, that last concert. Even as I write this poignant tears well up, from my mind’s retrospective eye to the present sight, and they overflow, and they still shine.