At the end of our fourth grade year, my classmates and I were invited to attend an “instrument” evening. The purpose of this gathering was to allow each of us to get a hand’s-on opportunity to try any brass, wood, percussion, or string instrument that caught our eye (with the intention that we would begin playing that instrument in the 5th grade band or orchestra). When I walked into the huge high school music room and saw an abundance of options before me, I felt a little overwhelmed. I had no idea what I might want to play, so I meandered around the room, looking at everything but touching nothing.
As I approached the tallest instrument in the room and gazed up at its scroll, a teacher from the high school across town approached me and said in a stern tone, “You can’t play this one – you’re too small.” I turned my head and looked up at the man, silent. Literally a second later, my mom approached me to check in, and asked, “So, Stef, have you found an instrument you might want to try yet?” Looking first at the man, then at my mom, I nodded my head, pointed to the string bass just to the right of the man, and quietly answered, “Yes. This one.” The man looked furious. My mom, unaware of the comment this teacher had uttered just seconds before, said, “Great! I’ll tell the elementary school orchestra teacher, and we’ll get you signed up.” My mom turned and walked toward the registration table. I followed behind her – but not before I looked back over my shoulder, locked eyes with the man, and smiled sweetly. (Take that, you jerk.) 🙂
Four years later I secured first chair of the high school string bass section. The older boys who sat in the second-through-fifth chairs were irked that a freshman girl could play better than they could – but they also recognized that I did possess more skill than each of them. (And I really did. Music always came easy to me – and though the string bass was larger than I was, I had no issues learning how to extract beautiful sounds from it.) After a few weeks the dust settled, and the guys respected me as their section leader and treated me as one of their own.
A few months later the entire high school orchestra took a field trip to Chicago to attend a concert performed by the city’s Symphony Orchestra. I had been to concerts performed by local community musicians, but this was my first exposure to live music performed by professionals – and I was quite excited. A supposedly really good cellist was scheduled to play a solo during the concert – and somehow, our high school orchestra director had secured four second row seats to the event, which he shared with his wife, the orchestra’s cello section leader, and me. Soon after we found our chairs the stage curtain lifted – and I realized I was literally less than 20 feet away from Yo Yo Ma. Oh. My. God.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t know was that two days before the concert, I had been exposed to the chicken pox virus (compliments of my friend’s two-year-old nephew). While my sister endured her bout with the pox when I was in third grade, I never contracted the virus – so my parents assumed I just must be immune to the malady. Indeed, with each successive breakout in elementary school, I returned home unaffected. I figured my body was just really good at fending off the pox. And apparently it was – for a while.
However. When I turned fourteen, I guess my luck with pox immunity ran out – and less than 10 minutes after Yo Yo Ma began playing his stunningly beautiful music, I fell asleep in my concert chair. The pox had begun their war – and my body surrendered. I was sick; and I missed a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
For the next three years of high school the orchestra made our annual pilgrimage to Symphony Center in Chicago, and each year I got to see and hear amazing musicians. But no experience was quite like my intimate-yet-brief encounter with Yo Yo Ma.
Still, I loved attending these concerts, and was grateful for the opportunity to witness true professionals create stunningly beautiful music. When I finished my senior year of high school, I set my bass in a corner of my parent’s house (as my college dorm room had zero space for such a large instrument). I had every intention of playing it when I came back home for breaks; but without daily exposure to its strings, my interests drifted to other things – and I never picked up the instrument again.
Sad. But true. But sad.
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