We played musical chairs in the high school band, every few weeks had the opportunity to challenge the seat in front for a better position in the concert band hierarchy. The director limited the frequency of a challenge so it wasn’t an incessant churn. It was a matter of pride, a source of anxiety. On the designated day we’d draw slips of paper to tell us who would perform first. The challenged and the challenger would retreat to the hallway behind the band room for the sake of fairness, ensuring anonymity, playing the chosen piece, notes echoing across the linoleum floor.
I played the clarinet because my older brother played the clarinet and I suspect my parents didn’t want to buy another instrument. So I was convinced that the clarinet was the only instrument I wanted to play. A practical choice, a safe choice, a non-choice. Easy to lug home as a fifth grader, enough compatriots to sink into a sea of black woodwinds. Disappearing was the thing you wanted as a preteen anyway. Some brave souls chose the French horn or the tuba, the cello or the oboe. The coolest kids played the drums or saxophone.
I did practice, was decent enough. No real musical talent but I could play with feeling. It got me far enough to be one of the first few chairs. I was challenged or challenging all the time. Sweaty palms, I’d retreat behind the heavy classroom door with my opponent, often a friend. Fingers slipping off the silver rings, compressing and popping in cadence. I liked to go first because I got it over with. I liked to go second because I could tailor my performance to the weaknesses of my opposition. I liked to win first chair; felt full of myself, a boost to my fragile teen self esteem. I liked to be second chair so I didn’t suffer the angst of playing solos in the heavily attended concerts.
Now, decades later, I have nightmares that I’m supposed to play in a band concert and haven’t practiced at all, can’t read the music, don’t remember how to play a single note. I’m embarrassed, mortified I arrived so unprepared. I try to disappear into the sea of instruments, remain undetected. Instead I realize that not contributing to the wave of melody is just as problematic as inserting an errant note.