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!


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.

A Horn By Any Other Name…

For those of you who aren’t musicians or who don’t put a great amount of time in “behind the mouthpiece” as we say, you might not realize just how intimate the relationship between a musician and her instrument truly is. Much like one does with a spouse, a musician soon realizes her instrument’s likes and dislikes as well as its tendencies. For example, a certain kind of valve oil may be the only one that keeps everything in working order, or a musician learns to compensate for a certain sticky key for so long that she eventually avoids fixing it. Yes, there is a special bond formed between a musician and the instrument that serves to express the outpourings of her to the world.

Just as many people name their cars, so, too, do many musicians name their instruments. (My yellow Xterra is named “Bumblebee” after my all-time favorite Transformer in case you’re curious.) Some of the names are boring, others bizarre. Many were earned and come with a story to justify the choice. And there are some that simply are so non-sequitur that they cannot be explained. For example, my husband’s first trombone, “Rosie,” earned the moniker because her bell had a rosy colored sheen when polished. Another friend had a tuba he named “Bubba” after the character in Forest Gump because that’s what he said his lips felt like after a long rehearsal. (Don’t blame me if you think that’s racist. I’m just passing the story along!) 🙂 A student I met at Oberlin who played the trumpet named his retinue of them after characters from Lord of the Rings, but I only remember that he dubbed the piccolo trumpet “Frodo” and the Flugelhorn “Gimli.”

Connor. Betsy Ross. Killer. Natty Bumppo. Polly. Starbuck. Subzero. Herbert. Snort. The Grinch. Mahalia. The Dark Lady. Yoko Ono. Salsa Verde. The list could go on and on, and each one would be as unique as the person and the machine she wields.

Because musicians are like crazy cat ladies and one is usually never enough, most players I know have at least two instruments in their homes. While some are obvious pairings such as a flute and a piccolo or an English horn and an oboe, most simply have horns for different purposes. Yes, like Bruce Wayne and Batman and the disparate personalities they represent, some musicians can channel symphonic music only through one and must play jazz in another. Ask them why, and they’ll tell you about the range of each, the sound each produces, the tone each lends to a particular tune. They’ll tell you one “understands” a little better than the other or that one “wants it more.” Don’t panic when they tell you this; they’re not crazy. They’re just musicians…and that means they probably haven’t eaten a good meal in awhile.

So, you’re probably thinking, what’s your instrument look like, and what’s its name? Well, ladies and gents, without further ado, I give you my French horn…

Ain’t he a looker?

This is the only French horn I own, and he has been a part of my life since my sophomore year in college. The first reason is because, well, there are twenty-two feet of twisted tubing in the average horn, and they’re pretty difficult to make. That means they’re expensive. A good one will cost you anywhere from $2,500 to “I don’t even want to know.” (I’ve seen one listed at $8,000!) My horn professor in college brokered a deal for me with one of the horn players in the Atlanta symphony back in 1998, and I shelled out a whopping $3,500 for him. (Yes, it is a him. I’m getting to why in a minute.)

Also, in case you are unaware, the French horn is universally considered to be the most difficult instrument to play (be it woodwind or brass), and the oboe comes in a close second. Most schools have one sitting in a storage closet waiting for a player, and many teachers convert a trumpet or flute player when they need a warm body to attempt it. Every time I showed up at a new school, there was a great, often minimally used, instrument for me to play.

I remember the day the gigantic box containing my very own horn arrived at our house. I pulled it out frantically, sending a shower of packing peanuts across the kitchen floor, and laid the case out. Let it be ugly, I thought. I know this seems odd, but I’ve always found that instruments that other people deem unattractive often produce the best sound. Typically, they’re older. They’ve been places. They’ve seen how the world works. And like a well-seasoned cast iron skillet, they know how to make good stuff.

Naturally, I was thrilled when I got him. Just look!

A girl and her horn

If you’re interested in some of the details, I can tell you that this French horn was manufactured by a German company called Hans Hoyer. I have yet to discern what model it is because I cannot find a serial number anywhere on it. The company’s logo is even obscured because the musician who bought it had the bell converted to detach. Yep, the bell comes off, which makes transport a cinch. However, it’s impossible to get the back third slide out when the bell is on. Hence, the same musician also had a spit valve put on. (If you’re a French horn player, you have no idea how valuable that thing is when you’re in a hurry! I can’t live without it now.) The top weld never holds correctly, so I’ve secured it with a little tape. Classy, huh? The thumb trigger is unlike any I have ever seen before, and, as you can plainly see, the horn is not lacquered. It has no shiny covering that usually attracts people to an instrument.

It’s a student horn, but seriously? Hot pink?

Yes, by comparison, my horn is a little…if you’ll forgive the pun…lackluster. And I have to admit that when my husband and I were planning on a photography shoot involving both our instruments, he was not my first choice. I borrowed a friend’s horn that would photograph better. (Hangs head in shame.)

My French horn, despite my great love for it, did not have a name until recently. However, after some deliberation, I decided to give him a moniker befitting his character….Rochester.

Yes, I named my instrument after a character in my favorite book of all time, Jane Eyre. For those of you who have never read the book (shame on you), Mr. Rochester is the broody, Byronic hero and love interest of little, plain Jane. He is not attractive in the traditional sense, but he is mesmerizing all the same. Here, I’ll let Charlotte Bronte do the talking. Here’s how Jane describes her beau in a few words…

Most true is it that ‘beauty is in the eye of the gazer.’ My master’s colorless, olive face, square, massive brow, broad and jetty eyebrows, deep eyes, strong features, firm, grim mouth,–all energy, decision, will,–were not beautiful, according to rule; but they were more than beautiful to me: they were full of an interest, an influence that quite mastered me,–that took my feelings from my own power and fettered them in his. I had not intended to love him: the reader knows I had wrought hard to extirpate from my soul the germs of love there detected; and now, at the first renewed view of him, they spontaneously revived, green and strong! He made me love him without looking at me.

This is how Rochester describes himself in one of his weaker moments…

Nature meant me to be, on the whole, a good man, Miss Eyre; one of the better kind, and you see I am not so. You would say you don’t see it; at least I flatter myself I read as much in your eye (beware, by-the-bye, what you express with that organ; I am quick at interpreting its language). Then take my word for it, — I am not a villain: you are not to suppose that — not to attribute to me any such bad eminence; but, owing, I verily believe, rather to circumstances than to my natural bent, I am a trite commonplace sinner, hackneyed in all the poor petty dissipations with which the rich and worthless try to put on life.

Rochester, on the whole, is one of the most hard-to-love and impossible-to-resist characters in literature. He’s dark, he has a past as well as a temper, and, above all else, he’s passionate. There’s a richness and a a depth to him that many heroes in other novels lack. He’s scuffed up and worn around the edges because life hasn’t been kind. However, the depths of his heart are seemingly endless, and there’s something about him that is wounded and vulnerable as well.

Me and the hubby playing a duet last Christmas

My French horn has the same look and, more importantly, the dark sound that comes out when I play (which makes me sound a lot more talented than I really am by the way) makes me think of the character after whom it’s named. Sonorous, pensive, and rich–it is all that and more. I’ll never be able to play it as well as I’d like or as well as it deserves. Perhaps my horn by any other name would sound as sweet, but I doubt it.

How about you? Is there a special object–an instrument, car, or something else–that you love and have given a special name? I’d love to hear about it in the comments. Pictures are great, too!!

For those of you who have never heard a French horn, I give you my favorite horn solo of all time–the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (Andante Cantabile).