Black & Blue

Because I’m an overachiever who likes making too much work for herself, I volunteered when the instructor of my creative non-fiction writers’ workshop asked for three people to provide material for a feedback session this week. We were asked to chronicle our most embarrassing moment (I assumed in graphic, gut-wrenching detail). Here’s my rough draft. Let me know what you think! 🙂 

Also, I can always use more writing ideas. Would you care to share your most embarrassing moment below in the comments section? I’d love to hear them!

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Black and Blue

I’m crippled by stage fright, but not in the traditional sense. My phobia has nothing to do with bright lights, a sea of unfamiliar faces, or the heart-thumping panic caused by forgotten lines. No, I’m perfectly at home on a stage. The stairs I have to use to ascend to and alight from it are what make my stomach hula hoop around my spine. And like other fears, this one was gained by a moment of phenomenal public humiliation so severe it deserves a Ken Burns documentary.

In 1996, I auditioned for Tri-State Band, a once-a-year instrumental extravaganza held in Tallahassee for teenage ninja music nerds from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Each of the three hundred students who attended had been nominated by directors and had had their permanent records (those sinister files written in the blood of truculent ne’er-do-wells) scoured by the committee to check our academic fitness. Once we passed that “smell test,” the last hurdle to leap over was the audition for chair placement.

I had tried out at Florida State University the summer before for their institute, and I had pulled the musical equivalent of a hat trick—earning principal French horn for gold ensemble, first chair for brass choir, and primary horn for the brass quintet selection process. Seriously, if I’d done any better, Tonya Harding might have gotten jealous and had someone bash me in the face with a crowbar. Riding high on the fumes of my previous success, I made a critical miscalculation and assumed I could repeat that trifecta, sans practice.

My previous audition had been with a handsome young teaching assistant who had flirted shamelessly with me, but when I saw a horn player run out of the audition room in tears I knew he was nowhere near the place.

Another player nearby who bore a striking resemblance to Steve Buschemi whispered, “What’s with her?”

“She must have been kapped,” another replied.

It was at this moment that the large bubble of self-assurance I’d been riding suddenly popped.

Kapps…as in Dr. William Kapps, FSU’s Professor of Horn, Fullbright Scholarship winner, and member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, would be judging my audition. I knew the man only by reputation and had heard him described as a buzz saw with a moustache who handed out tongue lashings so severe they made the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition shake their heads in astonishment. No twenty-something libertine with a ponytail and a thumb ring awaited me today because a man I had long imagined as Hermann Gӧring would be sitting there instead.

Auditions, for those of you who have never endured one, are like gaining an audience with the great and terrible Oz. You stand outside the door in your new ruby shoes, your eyes dyed to match your gown and your sweaty palms nervously gripping your instrument as you wait for the bulbous, flaming emerald head to address you. However, more often than not, your adjudicator is like the man behind the curtain, a kind soul, or totally silent.

I’m sorry to say that this was the exception to the rule.

Most of the five minutes we spent together is a blank—a PTSD-induced hole in my memory I’m not keen on piecing back together. Notes danced on the page, elusive and impossible to read, and I forgot every scale I’d ever manage to poke in my gray matter. Needless to say, the Titanic went down with greater grace than I. When the rankings were posted later that afternoon, I wasn’t surprised to see I was on fourth part—at the bottom of the section. But I was a bit taken aback when I saw one poor schmuck had actually endured a worse audition. I’d been spared the indignity of sitting last chair at least. In that moment, I experienced something akin to the relief of a red-shirted ensign sent down to the planet’s surface with Captain Kirk, the one who wasn’t blown to pieces by a Klingon or feasted on by a Gorm.

I sulked silently throughout the three days of rehearsals, plotting ways to give the ten horn players who separated me from first chair the Black Death…or at least a severe case of food poisoning that’d leave their bowels loose and so terrified of high notes they’d beg me to take the part. But alas and alack, they remained as impervious to disease as a platoon of sparkly, cold-chested vampires.

So I decided that if I couldn’t steal the stage with my instrument, I’d rock it with a dynamic fashion statement. This is more difficult than it sounds for a musician because, well, we can wear any color we want—as long as it’s black. Thankfully, I’d packed an entire suitcase of ebony attire that would’ve made Morticia Addams jealous and filled the extra pockets with the best costume jewelry Claire’s had to offer as well as an ample selection of hair gewgaws.

After a whirlwind try-on-a-thon in the dorm room I was sharing with two other participants, I ended up selecting an ensemble as flashy as it was ill-advised—a pair of three-inch heels (something I’d never worn before because I already stood 5’11” flat footed), a clingy side slit skirt, and a long sleeved kimono top. A hair-do held in check with chopsticks and enough spray to erode a large portion of the ozone layer above Florida along with a dramatic dash of make-up completed the look.

It would have been perfect had I not had to walk. Or sit. Or play my horn—all normal tasks rendered impossible because I’d dressed myself like a monochrome, precariously balanced piece of sugar art. I slogged through the evening, grateful for the less challenging part and a seat in the very center of the orchestra because I spent a majority of the concert blowing stray pieces of my coiffure away from my eyes and playing a spirited game of tug-of-war with my skirt.

But that’s not the embarrassing part. Oh, that it was.

After the mass ensemble played, the stage had to be reset for the smaller groups and soloists who had been tapped to perform. That meant we had to gather our horns, sheet music, and anything else we could carry and head for, you guessed it, the stairs. Carrying only my nickel-plated horn, Brigitte (named after the French sex kitten, of course), I wobbled my way to the stumpy staircase located stage left.

Six steps. That’s all it boasted, a half dozen zigzagging plateaus of garnet carpet made shabby in the center by countless feet. It was no gauntlet by any stretch of the imagination, yet, for some reason known only to God, the moment my left foot touched down on the first one, it found the single millimeter of slick space to be had. Gravity handled the rest.

You’ll remember that, at this moment, I’m carrying a French horn, one of the most unwieldy instruments in the civilized world. Seriously, putting two dogs in a burlap sack is less onerous. Carry it by the top and let in hang by your side, and you’re begging for a dent in the bell. Clutch it to your chest, and you have only one arm to negotiate tight spaces and open doors. This is why most horn players choose to carry it under one arm with the bell facing backwards; it keeps it close and frees up the second hand when necessary. This is where Brigitte was nestled when I felt myself begin to fall.

Allow me a brief pause in the action to explain something about musicians and how protective we are of our instruments. I once knew a trombone player who said you could tell how old a trombonist was if someone tried to, as he put it, “kick ‘em in the coin purse.” The rookie protects the nards at all costs while the aged player sacrifices his twig and berries instead of the horn because, once a slide is bent, a person stands a better chance of proving String theory than he does getting it straight again.

Simply put, bones heal. Metal doesn’t.

This is why, rather than try to catch myself and sling my horn around like a kettle bell, I let the fall happen and spent the time between take off and landing shifting the horn to my chest. I was clutching it squarely when I landed on my ample rear in front of a thousand people and, like some macabre Slinky, plopped down the stairs with my teeth knocking together in my head.

Other than a few poorly raised children whose parents apparently never told them it was rude to point…or to laugh uncontrollably at another’s pain, no one reacted to my failed dismount. (In retrospect, I can’t blame them. It’s pretty damned hilarious to watch people fall; millions of YouTube videos attest to this.) It goes without saying I was mortified, but not as much as I would have been if I had sacrificed my instrument to save myself a few bruises or what remained of my dignity. However, when I looked up at the sea of black clad figures around me, all I saw were smiles of approval. Unlike those in the audience, my fellow performers hadn’t noticed me taking a tumble. They only saw a musician executing choreography worthy of Bob Fosse to protect her axe. And I like to think that if they hadn’t been cradling their own, they would’ve applauded my virtuoso performance.

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8 thoughts on “Black & Blue

  1. I love it. 🙂 I could picture the whole sequence. I too have fallen while carrying my horn but try as I might, I didn’t completely protect him. My bell lost it’s bell shape and became more of a disfigured L… I had it straightened as best I could, but needless to say I was extra careful from then on. “Other people” don’t comprehend how hard it is to climb stairs in a long skirt when you don’t have hands free to hold the hem up off the ground. I have to wear a long skirt because my playing position couldn’t accurately be called “ladylike”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve almost caused a domino-like collapse when I’ve had to suddenly stop on stairs because I’m standing on my own skirt. Thanks for the giggles. What fond memories I have.

    1. Tell me about it! I’ve started wearing nothing but pants to concert for that same reason. Horn players can’t simply sit in a skirt, not with what’s required for proper posture. 🙂 That skirt was so ill-advised. I’m shocked no one stopped me on the way out the door to ask if I was sure! *deep sigh* The folly of youth, I suppose.

      BTW, if you’ve not read it yet, I highly recommend Jasper Rees’ book “A Devil to Play.” It’s about his year with the French horn and is HILARIOUS!!!

  2. Most embarrassing moment for me had to be when I was playing hockey and had a clear breakaway to the goal…and proceeded to not only fall flat on my face but slide all the way into the cage. Needless to say the puck didn’t go with me. My mom still has the whole thing on tape.

    1. Oooh, that one’s bad! I have a traumatic soccer memory much like that one. I was not athletic, but for some reason, they told me to play goalie. Fourteen goals later, they pulled me from the team. I never went back. 🙂 Nice to know there’s mutual suffering on the sports field.

  3. Oh, man…that brought back memories! Not the falling part…the trying out for district/region/state bands. I also remember the all day long rehearsals, and concerts that night, after which my chops felt like hamburger. Funny thing is, I really miss those days.

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