Our big debut hits one sour note

As the last marching bands stepped proudly off the football fields last season, I couldn't help thinking about the adventure of my own high school band. When I first decided I wanted to join the band, Mother thought it was wonderful. Dad felt that if you couldn't hoe corn with an instrument, it was a waste of money. Mother was a fine musician and, after three days of persuasion, Dad finally agreed that I could get a clarinet.

The first day I tried it in the living room, he said, "Go somewhere else." I tried it in my bedroom. There was a knock on my door, and Dad said, "Go farther." I ended up in our log granary. It was airtight to protect the grain. I found a sack of wheat to sit on, and this became my recital hall. Dad was happy; my playing kept the mice away.

Each day except Sunday, I rode into town on my horse for band lessons from an advanced student. In two years, I moved up to first clarinet. But there was another aspect to band that nearly defeated many of us.

The new band teacher, Mr. Hoffman, was retired from an Army band, and he couldn't figure out why we didn't immediately march like well- trained soldiers. Walking around with an instrument in your mouth was tough enough. Figuring out which was your left foot at the same time was just asking too much. He let us know regularly how incompetent we were.

We even had trouble looking like a band. These were Depression years, and our uniforms consisted of any kind of pants, T-shirts dyed red, and two shoes, whether they matched or not. In parades, we were put behind the horses.

But we stuck to it, and by my senior year, people began thinking we might be a real band. We sold candy bars and made a few cents. We worked on farms and found odd jobs. And the school board decided that it would help us get real uniforms. They were wonderful: red coats with gleaming gold buttons, white pants, matching white shoes, and fantastic hats.

When the Utah State Band Competition arrived, we felt we could hold our own. We were assigned to the third floor of an elementary school to wait for our turn to go on the field. We would be competing with all the other bands in Utah before a group of judges. Several hundred people had come to watch, and we were ready to make our reputation.

Mr. Hoffman had instructed our drum major, Tink Mayson, to get us down on the field at 1:30. When it was time to go, Tink had an inspiration. "Let's try going down the fire escape," he said. "It's better than going down all those stairs." It took three of us to get the fire-escape door open. It hadn't been used for a long time. The metal stairs spiraled down like a kids' ride at a playground. Tink's eyes lit up, and he hollered, "Let's go!" He sat on the rail and away he went. Most of the band hopped on and went down behind him.

About halfway down, though, dripping water had splashed on the metal so that it was corroded the rest of the way down. When the first few kids hit the floor and saw the reddish-brown stripes on the pants of the others, cries of horror echoed up through the stairwell. Tink tried to stop the rest of the band from sliding down, but with the yelling and laughing, they couldn't hear him until they, too, had come through.

We brushed desperately at our own and each other's pants, but our efforts just spread the rust around further. Now it was time to go out on the field. Some suggested we just go straight to the bus. Tink said we had no choice but to fall into position and wait for Hoffman. Many kids tried to line up very close to the person behind them as we formed our rows.

Mr. Hoffman came out and stood in front of the band, saying he had never seen a group work and practice so hard. He walked down the side of the band, telling us he expected great things from us. When he reached the end, he turned around and got a view of 60 rusty bottoms.

We sweated in the silence. He walked slowly up to the front of the band and said, "Tink, what happened?" Tink opened his mouth to explain, but Hoffman said, "I don't want to hear about it." Tink said we would go to the bus.

Hoffman yelled, "Go to the bus? You came to perform, and no matter how you look, you will perform! You will line up so that I could fire a rifle down each row and see belt buckles fly off each uniform. When you start to play, I expect the first note to be so loud and clear that glass will fly off every window on the building across the street. You have your signal. Move out!"

The drums crashed, and we stepped out as though we were roped together. As we approached the stands, many jumped to their feet and began to applaud. As we did our first about-face, even the pounding drummers could tell that the crowd had suddenly grown silent.

We performed as we had never performed before. When that first note rang out, I expected to see glass fly from the building across the street. We put our troubles behind us and played our hearts out.

When we finished, we left the field and waited for Hoffman to appear and tear us to pieces. He stood in front of the band and paused a minute. And I saw something I had never seen before. A quick smile darted across his face, then disappeared.

In a calm voice, he said, "The judges graded you in marching, highly superior; in music, highly superior; in personal appearance, poor. You were the best band on the field, and I'm very proud of you. Band dismissed!"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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