“Go ahead. Pick one.”
It was third grade. I stood there facing a table of mouthpieces from different decapitated wind instruments. The band teacher gestured me to hurry it along cause she still had a whole class of instruments to assign for the recital. I wondered when was the last time they cleaned those things.
Why the hell did I decide to try band anyway?
I finally settled on trying the flute mouthpiece. I must’ve seen someone playing it in a cartoon or TV show because it was the only instrument I recognized.
I picked it up, held it, and waited like a fool for some instruction. The teacher didn’t seem inclined to do so, and just said, “Go ahead.”
So I brought it up and blew out a violent breath of air into the poor mouthpiece. What came out the other end sounded somewhere between a toddler trying to whistle for the first time and a fart.
The only corrective feedback she gave me was, “Put it next to your lips and try again.”
Ohh, my lips. Right. I wonder if she thought to herself that she couldn’t be any clearer.
So I complied. And again, nothing.
She took the flute mouthpiece away, cleaned it off with what I hope was some alcoholic disinfectant. It could’ve been spit for all I know. And that was that. The end of my jazz flute career.
She shoved another mouthpiece into my hand to try. This time when I blew out a breath of air into it, noise came out the other end, but it was still a rather displeasing sound. Either this was determined to be better or the teacher couldn’t be bothered to keep going, because I was thus assigned…the clarinet.
My mom wasn’t happy about my decision to play in the band. It costs money to play an instrument. She didn’t even know what a clarinet was. To be honest, neither did I. But I knew I wanted to learn it. Call it survivor bias.
After a bout of manipulative acrobatics, I convinced my mom to buy me a clarinet, but not before she hedged her investment with a guilt index. “I don’t want to buy this thing if you’re gonna quit,” she snapped. “You have to promise you’re not going to quit. Do you promise?”
“Yes!” I replied ignorant of any life experience that defined what commitment actually meant.
Turns out, I hated the clarinet.
I hated the way it sounded. I hated practicing it. And I hated the fact that it was the only thing my mom had bought me up to this point in my life outside of food and clothes…and most of my clothes were my brother’s.
Why do people make other people promise things in the first place? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie or TV show where someone promised something out loud and kept that promise. In fact, the only reason a promise is spoken out loud in a script is to foreshadow a betrayal of trust between two characters.
Sadly, it was no different with my mom. I hated practicing so much that a loss of trust seemed like a bargain.
I never made it to that recital, but it was probably for the best. The band performed it in an all-school assembly and it was god awful. I mean, just horrendous.
And it was years before my mom ever bought me anything again outside of a modest birthday present. I think she might’ve even stopped buying me clothes for a good while.
I learned three valuable lessons from this experience.
1) Don’t let someone else tell you what you’re suited to doing. If I was allowed to play the flute, maybe I would’ve quit all the same. Maybe not. At least, I would’ve failed at something I was interested in.
2) Think about whether you want to do something in the first place before you commit, because your decisions don’t just affect you. In hindsight, even if I had spent hours practicing the clarinet, the best case scenario would’ve been getting good enough to play in that god-awful band performance. And all joking aside, the whole ordeal must’ve hurt my parents both emotionally and financially. It was no small sacrifice for them to buy me a clarinet. Luckily we sold it good as new and recovered most of the cost, but I ended up causing undue suffering because I didn’t really know what I was getting into before I said I wanted to do it.
3) I wouldn’t have learned anything if I didn’t try. Experiencing the pain of failure, shame, and guilt was indeed unpleasant. And while I regret having to go back on my word, I’m still grateful my parents gave me the room to try. Failure and mistakes are never fun, but they’re usually meaningful.