Posted by Alex Tomkovich
It’s been a while since I’ve felt the way I did when I played the euphonium in high school. High school band was a more regimented chunk of life – an almost parasitic sort of commitment that both allowed and enforced immense joy. In fact, the notion that I now fondly remember the grossly unpleasant 5:45 A.M. wake-ups and Friday night-crushing football games, in the words of Dumbledore, “doesn’t seem curious at all.” When I had braces slapped on my teeth at the conclusion of senior year, I recall the strange sense of, well, nothing—things just seemed to end. Earlier that day, we had read Schuman’s “When Jesus Wept,” which, almost mockingly, has one of the few euphonium solos worth salivating over in wind ensemble literature (we’re not allowed in orchestras, save for a few, select works [The Planets, Pictures at an Exhibition]). I don’t know what I was expecting, but I played the solo, and I got my braces on about three hours later.
Braces are the bane of brass player’s ability to play; trying to squeak out a semblance of a tone after having them put on is the musical equivalent of playing soccer with skates on. Now, I’m certainly not saying that my melodrama over braces is unique; the large majority of my band friends had already gone through the pain of adjusting to them years before. It seemed, however, to be uniquely timed; while early braces often force players to learn to relax the embouchure (the framework around the lips that allows playing) and usually end up improving, rather than reducing, ability, mine came at the tail end. I played a solo worth salivating over, and then everything just…stopped.
I didn’t consider it much at the time—if anything, I was relieved to be done with the year. Since then, though, I’ve begun to realize how much I miss it all; nostalgia has an exceptional ability to sneak into the innermost pockets of our memories, opening rooms of safe haven where we can return to a feeling as real and intimate as an experience itself. I frequently find myself basking in the settled warmth of my band hall, or feeling the gentle bumps beneath the many buses I took travelling to competitions and games, as I rest at night.
Given my braces and hectic schedule last year, I didn’t start playing again until this semester. Only when you’ve taken a year off from an instrument do you fully realize the unquestionable necessity of practice—the muscles that make up the embouchure are demanding entities, ones as needy as the legs of a runner. It’s unlikely I’ll ever be able to return to the level I was at in high school. Practice demands time, and life (as it often has a tendency to do) rarely affords time.
UTD certainly isn’t known for music; I didn’t even realize there was a wind ensemble on campus before I arrived. None of this, however, really means much—UTD is a growing community, and each new activity on campus feels like a pillar of progression. In fact, our school has recently partnered with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO) to establish a scholars program that allows for a select few aspiring musicians to play in the DSO on a regular basis as part of their experience. I missed playing enough that I’ve begun to practice in a quartet, and plan (read: hope I can salvage my playing from two years off) to put on a solo recital with my McDermott big at the end of the year. I’ve quickly realized that college, and the culture of UT Dallas, doesn’t really allow for a status quo or complacency; the McDermott Program’s resources and network of driven, ambitious people make just about any new development, from a campus newspaper to a Quizbowl team, possible.
My former private lesson teacher always used to bring up a scratchy recording of a clinic in which Richard Matteson, a jazz guitar player, recalls his experiences recording with Louis Armstrong. At one point, he is so mesmerized by Louis’s ability to play that he asks, “How do you do that?” Louis then responds with the following: “Well, I always play for somebody I love.”
I’ve increasingly found, particularly in these last two years, that the world isn’t direct; life has a way of dropping the subtlest of hints, of leading you on paths before it quickly yanks you away toward others. I haven’t always been confident or enthusiastic about what’s been going on; in fact, more often than not, I feel exhausted by all the activity in my life, all the coming opportunities and looming sense of independence. I still don’t know where I’ll be in five years; I’m still not sure where life’s jarring detours will take me. I do know, though, that when I play my instrument, I (mostly) try to play for someone I love; maybe I should play more.