Thursday, July 17, 2014

Not Being a Star: Kellogg Junior and High School Band and the President's Own United States Marine Band

I don't know if I can write very well about this.

I mean, it goes without saying, the President's Own U. S. Marine Band is 492,939 times better than the Kellogg High School (and Kellogg Junior High) bands I played in from the 7th to the 12th grade, 1966-1972.

It also goes without saying that my son-in-law Hiram is 492,939 times better at playing the euphonium than I was at playing the baritone horn.  

All the same, last night, sitting on the Capitol Steps, on a mild and flawless Washington, D.C. evening, listening to the President's Own play the national anthem and a Souza march and variety of other music arranged for this band composed of woodwinds, brass instruments, and percussion, I felt old stirrings, stirrings that orchestras, dominated by stringed instruments, do not give me. 

I flashed back to the basement band room at Kellogg Junior High School.  It was September.  Mr. Benson had decided to switch me from trumpet to baritone horn (a close cousin of the euphonium).  Up until the 7th grade, all the ensemble music I had played had been in unison with the other instruments.  I had never played a part before.

As a result, when Mr. Benson handed out our first piece (it might have been an arrangement of "Downtown"), I immediately got lost.  The music in front of me didn't seem to associate at all with the Petula Clark tune I'd loved since it came out; in fact, it was the first 45 rpm single I ever purchased. 

My fellow baritone player was Wayne Denlinger.  He expertly played the baritone part to "Downtown" and I sat there, perplexed.

But, before long, I started to get it.  The baritone horn parts were sometimes rhythmic parts.  Other times we played counter-melodies.  Other times were contributing to harmony between instruments.  There were times we doubled the trombone's part.  Once in a while, yes, once in a while, an arrangement's melody came our way. 

That was fun.

Actually, it was all fun.  Sometimes I would walk the many blocks from the junior high uptown to our house on Sunnyside or walk the trail from the high school back home and I would sing my baritone horn parts or listen to them playing in my head.

After my band days were over, I would think back on those baritone horn parts and I started to think that we added substance and beauty to arrangements, added elements that some listeners maybe couldn't pick out, but that was filling out a song like "Downtown", making it more pleasing and moving than if all we did was all play the melody.

Sometimes, playing these parts moved me and I learned a lot about the beauty of not being a star, of being in a position of support, of making contributions to something good that often went unnoticed, but were deepening the beauty of the music. 

Playing that baritone horn created a love in me for not being a star. It informed my love for small supporting roles when I got cast in plays, for teaching composition for years, in support of many other academic subjects, and for team teaching, where much of my work was underneath students' attention and in support of those I team taught with.

So, last night, while listening to the President's own, I often locked in on the swelling beauty of the underneath parts, of the instruments creating beauty in support of, say, the trumpets or the woodwinds, and sometimes, like in the National Anthem, I could hear the part I used to play, and the smile that broke across my face as I gazed at the American flag near the Capitol dome wasn't patriotic, it was a smile for the music, for the trombones, euphonium, and tubas. 

But, then things got a little complicated, in a good way.  Hiram had several solos.  The euphonium is, after all, a very melodic instrument and doesn't always have to be in the background, and it was glorious to hear Hiram play, among other things, the tune of Greensleeves within a composition that included English folk songs and be reminded what airy and delicate music is possible when playing a euphonium.

Sitting on the Capitol steps last nights, listening to the President's Own, I was locked into the beauty of the present.  I was also traveling back in time.  I was seated beneath the Capitol dome, but I was also seated in the back of two band rooms, back where the baritones played, enjoying all those pop songs, marches, Christmas songs, overtures, and other arrangements we played in band, making great friends, having a ton of fun, and learning the deep satisfaction of not to being a star. 

1 comment:

Kenton Bird said...

Thanks for making this connection between the USMC Band's concert at the Capitol and our band days in Kellogg. The French horns (now just horns) had a similar supporting role, mostly off-beats, and like the baritones, only occasional solos. Do any recordings of those KHS spring concerts survive?