Pax with my alto sax

Growing up, music was always an important part of our household. My father was an avid music fan - opera, classical, jazz, rock. My mother had played the alto sax in high school, and it still occupied space in the hall closet. It was my parents' dream that their children would learn to play musical instruments.

When I was in fourth grade, an announcement was sent home saying that students who were interested could play in the school band, provided they had their own instruments. Well, there was that alto sax in the closet.

So at the age of 9, I was sent off to my first music lesson, saxophone case in hand. Now don't get me wrong - I love the alto saxophone. Listening to Paul Horn or Charlie Parker - well, it doesn't get much better than that. But I wasn't Paul Horn. I wasn't playing cool jazz. I was happy to play a reasonable facsimile of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star."

And I didn't want to play the alto sax.

I was a skinny fourth-grader lugging a heavy case to school twice a week. Besides, the saxophone was a boy instrument. (Back then there were certain instruments that girls played and certain instruments that boys played. And, at age 9, having to sit with boys - well, let's just say it wasn't my preference.)

I looked with envy at my girlfriends who hopped on the bus, a small clarinet or flute case perched on top of their books. Meanwhile, I would have to stop at least twice on the way to the bus stop to give my arms a rest.

Once I'd staggered onto the bus, it was no picnic there either. Holding books in the crook of one arm, I would position the sax case in front of me and hold it out like a battering ram as I slowly walked down the aisle. Once I was seated, I had to slide the infernal instrument under the seat in front of me, where I had to keep one foot on it at all times to prevent it from sliding around when the bus swerved.

When it was time for music lessons, we children would dutifully report to the gym and set up our instruments.

In addition to my instrument, my sax case held a supply of extra reeds, a strap to help me hold the instrument correctly, and a swab to clean it out after playing. I prayed I wouldn't need to replace a reed during practices (let alone performances).

I hated new reeds because they were stiff and made it hard to blow anything approximating music. If I could make any noise at all, it came out as a harsh, goose-honking bleat. If I absolutely had to replace a reed, I soaked it overnight in a glass of water to soften it. Even after a good soak, it could take several days before the reed was pliable enough for me to coax anything sounding remotely like music from my sax.

Sitting with boys had its own special "charm." Quite simply, they were disgusting. Looking back now as the mother of a son, I understand they were actually pretty normal 9-year-old boys. Lots of jokes about bodily functions. Lots of cracks about the music teacher, the trumpet players, each other ... me.

Mostly I looked down on my male contemporaries. They were silly - too dumb to pay attention to. How I longed to join the flute players, who spent most of their time flipping their hair and discussing the relative merits of Avon Pretty Peach bath supplies. Boys didn't flip their hair or talk about the latest episode of "The Brady Bunch." They even made fun of (perish the thought) the Monkees!

I came to realize that playing the saxophone was a problem of almost insurmountable proportions.

But after several weeks, a wary truce developed between the boys and me. I showed them the fingerings for different notes (I was a better player since I paid attention to the teacher). They started enlisting my help in plotting various pranks. One time, we hid the teacher's baton. (We used my case since I was a "good girl" and would never be suspected.)

About the time I reached sixth grade, I noticed that the flute-playing girls were looking at me with longing. Yes, some of the cutest boys also happened to play alto sax ... and we sat right next to each other for at least a few hours every week. We would whisper to one another and laugh.

I began to relish my position: I was being treated as an equal by the boys. I was, indeed, an insider.

My saxophone and I achieved a sort of peace too. As I grew bigger and stronger, the instrument didn't feel quite so heavy. It was something that set me apart from the other girls and allowed me access to the "boys' club." I didn't grow up with any brothers, so entering this world of "maleness" was interesting - and loud.

As the years went by, the sax became a little cooler. In an era before women wanted definition in their arms, I had it - from lugging that case around.

My saxophone-playing days are now long behind me, but there's still something comforting and familiar about hearing someone play the alto sax. Maybe it's the nostalgic rush I feel for the instrument that was first my enemy and then became my friend. Maybe it's simply remembering how my fingers felt dancing up the keys as I worked through a particularly difficult passage.

Or perhaps it's the memory of sitting and laughing with the most popular boys in school.

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