Blowing ther Horn for a High School Band

I always thought I'd be musical if given half a chance. Just about everyone in our family was. I might cringe when Mother sang out in Sunday services, but her voice was strong and true and added a certain authority to the hymn-singing in our small congregation.

My eldest sister, Laura, had a light, lovely soprano, and Dorothy, the second eldest, loved music in general and the piano in particular. My brother, Bob, sang well too, and since my parents had been told that Sylvia, the sister next to me, had a special musical talent, she even had violin lessons.

I don't know who had convinced my parents of Sylvia's untapped musical potential, but despite her undoubted interest in music, Syl was no Jascha Heifetz. For years, we listened to the sound of bow scraped against protesting strings, although she did gain a real love of violin music.

Perhaps disillusioned by their experience with Syl, my parents didn't suggest that I take music lessons. So I entered high school unable to play anything other than a comb with tissue paper wrapped around it.

When I came home from my first week of high school, however, and told my parents I could join the school's band and be provided with an instrument that I could learn for free, they were pleased.

I was ecstatic, but apprehensive too, the first day I filed into a band room filled with glamorous upperclassmen already sitting in a broad semicircle, their instruments casually held in their laps or resting against a knee.

The teacher, Mr. O'Hara, welcomed us freshmen with a mixture of hope and resignation and didn't seem surprised when all the girls said they wanted to learn to play the flute and the boys wanted to be trumpeters. He simply told us to sit up straight and then proceeded to go from student to student, examining hand size and the condition of our teeth as if we were a group of horses.

Then he scribbled in his little note pad and, looking over his glasses, told us that as he refused to have 15 flutes and 10 trumpets in the band, we'd have to accept his verdict about what instruments we would be given.

When I was handed an E-flat horn I didn't protest. I was entranced by this poor relation of the graceful, golden French horn. I cradled its silver bell and vowed that now I was going to learn to make music. And I did.

There wasn't any fuss about individual teaching. Mr. O'Hara briefly explained about fingering and showed the new members of the horn section how to purse their lips and blow. Then he handed out some sheet music and we set about playing, following the more experienced members as best we could.

In spite of this rather rudimentary instruction, within a surprisingly short time we were playing music. In a couple of weeks we could play Maurice Ravel's ''Pavane to a Dead Princess'' and Duke Ellington's ''Mood Indigo'' well enough that the listener could guess what it was we were playing.

I even enjoyed taking that dented silver E-flat horn home to practice on. And the next year, Mr. O'Hara confirmed the rumors that had been floating about for months. We were going to be given uniforms and become a marching band!

Fitters came to take measurements, but month after month went by and no uniforms arrived. We agonized over whether the powers that be had had a change of heart. Maybe the school district couldn't come up with the money.

Then one spring day we arrived for band practice, and there they were: heavy maroon suits with brass buttons, gold stripes around the sleeves, gold epaulets, and a couple of great gold loops of braid slung about the left shoulder.

And the caps! The caps looked like regular Army officer's caps -- if the military were inclined to wear maroon hats with white bills and maroon peaks decorated with some mysterious insignia. When we tried on the uniforms we looked great. And we knew we'd sound as good as we looked. All we needed was a chance to strut our stuff before the public.

To our chagrin, we were told we weren't scheduled to play until the next autumn when the first football game was played. The seniors were disconsolate, and so was I. For while the rest of the sophomores congratulated themselves on having two more years to be part of the school's first marching band, I was going to be sent to a church school in Pennsylvania. I was going to be far from my family, far from everything familiar, but worst of all, far from Mr. O'Hara's marching band.

I didn't want to go. I wanted to keep that new uniform made especially to my measurements and be part of the marching band!

My disappointment was short-lived, however, for when I arrived at my new school I was invited to join a real, honest-to-goodness community orchestra. At first I didn't think I'd be able to accept the invitation, as everyone in this orchestra had his own instrument and my E-flat horn was back in Chicago, the property of the Chicago Public School System. But then a member of the horn section mentioned he had an extra French horn that he'd be happy to loan to me, and offered to teach me the fingering, which wasn't all that different from the E-flat horn.

If I had some pangs that fall, when I sat playing Handel's ''Water Music'' on my beautiful French horn instead of marching across a football field in a maroon-and-gold uniform, they didn't last. I found I loved being part of an orchestra. Knowing I'd never experience the particular joy of being part of a marching band, I found it faded to unimportance. What mattered was that I was able to create music.

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