Turning my disappointment into a high note

Michael Steifel Alperin, article author, headshotIT FELT AS IF bandits had banned me from lead clarinetist in my high school band ensemble.

I hadn’t expected it, because I thought I had done enough to deserve this honor. Not receiving first chair, or even second chair, was a downer, but it wasn’t all that it seemed.

I had been playing clarinet since the fourth grade, and then switched to bass clarinet for ninth grade. When I finally got into the advanced band, I was third chair behind two seniors, and I felt destined to become first chair after they graduated. I practiced lightly, and when the time came to audition, I felt ready. Even though I stumbled through a few mistakes on sight reading and scales, my hopes were still high.

I felt pretty good the next few days and had no doubt I would see my name at the top of my sections list next to the wooden double doors in the band hallway. The list was the first thing I saw when I got to the room. The suspense was nerve-wracking.

Third chair again. What a downer.

I felt there was some sort of mistake. Maybe there was an error and the list had gotten mixed up. I expected it would be fixed, but after that day I knew it was no mistake.

It felt like a downgrade, and it would take a push of teamwork to lift my spirits back up. This was the year I expected to get first chair, to beat the less experienced and to lead the section. Third chair is not the worst chair in the world, but knowing I could have done better and being irritated about it made it worse.

This feeling didn’t give me a good attitude toward the kid in the imme­diate chair above me. He used my irritation to his advantage.

“Oh, I thought that was my knee.”

This was a daily sarcastic, childish insert of his after placing his hand on my knee. This badgering brought me to a lower place because it felt like a daily reminder of my lower skill level. I could usually shake off weird actions like this and move on. Unfortunately, I allowed this to bother me, encouraging his actions. It piled on slowly and my self-esteem was hurt.

Making things worse, the band was split and the higher chairs played with other high chairs in concert band, while I was downgraded tem­porarily to fourth chair in a city-wide honors band. They were excelling and somewhat advancing, and I was stuck in the same place. At the time I thought the split was proof of their skill level, but slowly but surely, it made me realize the value of team­work and determination.

Acknowledging that I had not practiced and taken lessons like they had, I therefore was not up to their caliber of skill. So, I began taking lessons and gained new playing techniques, improving my skills. I was determined to practice, which resulted in immediate improvement.

I also discovered being a lower chair gave me more freedom to practice new skills in class. I found we could work off each other, and I learned the importance of team­work. I could give support when the sophomores were having trouble in a piece and maybe accel at it in the process.

These realizations made my band experiences more pleasurable. I could play along with all the odd stuff that had evolved from the knee annoyance. I could joke back with the person in the second chair and it didn’t bother me or remind me I was less skilled. “I could be a better team player, as well as a better leader, for the last part of the year, even if I wasn’t first chair.”

I learned about teamwork from my experiences in band. I learned to live with any decision, and use a non-optimal decision as a chance to improve my skills. I also learned to have thick skin when people try to exploit my irritations. Even if the current situation seems bad, there is always room for improvement.

It might not be immediate, but the smallest thing might make the whole experience worthwhile.