Sunday, August 28, 2011

Challenge Accepted

I am trying something new, readers.  I am trying a "writing prompt" from a blogger website.  What is the prompt?  See the title of this entry.


If you knew me in high school, you probably did not find me very exciting.  I was a rule-abiding, school-attending Borey McBorrington, that's for sure.

How do I know for sure?  Take a look at my yearbook sometime.  If you dare.

If you do, you will find that I participated in one of the hallmarks for boring kids who secretly wish to be exciting and cool:  band. 

Don't let those stupid people on Glee fool you.  The real nerds are not in choir.  Nobody throws beverages on kids who can sing like that.  If you want to find some good old-school geekery, go to the band room.  (Of course, anyone at my school could tell you that the really hopeless yokels were actually in orchestra, but that's a different story.)

When I was in middle school, 5th grade to be precise, my band journey began.  It all started with the age-old question, "What instrument is right for me?"

Always a bit of a non-conformist, I was drawn to the eerie and bizarre qualities of the oboe.  I had my sights set clearly on this instrument and no one was convincing me otherwise.

Before I could officially begin my life as an oboist, I had to meet with the band teacher.  His name was Berge.  Pronounced "burr-jeee."  He was an old fart, but that is again besides the point.

Essentially, Berge managed to talk me out of the oboe.  This was accomplished in a sneaky way.  Actually, no.  It was not sneaky.  It came down to the fact that we already owned a clarinet that formerly belonged to my mother.  Clarinets look an awful lot like oboes, and according to Berge, they were easier to learn.  Thus, I became a clarinetist.  Clarinetter?  What is the right word?  Someone Google it, quick!

By some amazing act of God, I remained a clarinetist right up through my high school graduation. 

Lest you think that clarinets are girly, let me notify you that we had THREE male clarinetists in my high school band, all in my grade.

Two of these guys were screw-offs.  My assumption is that they were high most of the time, but they may have just been dumb.  I have no idea why they stayed the course so long when they were buried at the bottom of the pecking order.

What do I mean by "pecking order?"  If you are a fellow band geek, you probably understand the "chair" scheme employed by most directors to reward the best players with the most prominent positions.  In musical arrangements, first chair parts typically are closer to the main melody and are a bit higher in the register scale.  The level of difficulty is often higher for first chairs as well.

As one might expect, there are usually second and third chair parts to be had.  For instruments with larger populations, clarinets included, this leads to subdivisions in the section.  For example, in my band, there were usually three or four people on the first chair part and at least that many on the lower ones. 

Within each instrumental section, there was always one person designated as the titular leader (or tyrannical despot) known officially as the Section Leader.  Not only did this person get the solos for the group automatically assigned to them, but they were in charge of collecting and distributing music.  Sounds like fun, right?

You may recall that I mentioned there were three guys who played clarinet in my band.  Two of them were no-good slackers.  One was my nemesis. 

OK.  Maybe nemesis implies a more sinister tone than really existed.  Let me explain.

Adam (my nemesis) was honestly a very talented guy.  Musically, anyway.  Unfortunately, he had a problem when it came to truancy.  Sorry, is that not a word you know?  Sucks to be you! 

In many situations, Adam was able to skate his way through things simply because he was pretty good at music stuff.  As I was a person with broader interests that did not involve practicing my clarinet (ever), I did not have a problem with the fact that he was named Section Leader of the top band in the school as a 10th grader.  Some of the juniors and seniors may have done, but I had bigger things on my mind.  Like cute seniors.  Ha.

When a new school year started, the band director would set us up in order within our sections.  Usually our placement was determined by prior year performance, but I have no way of knowing this for sure.  So up until senior year, I was more than content to sit wherever I was placed as long as it was next to my friends.

At the beginning of my senior year, my band director decided to radically change the order of things.  How did he accomplish this?  He made me Section Leader. 

Honestly, I was flabbergasted.  Especially as he put Adam, my nemesis, three chairs down the line.  You can imagine that Adam, having held this "prestigious" position for two years running, was not pleased.

Almost immediately, he initiated his plan to regain control. 

In band, this is accomplished through the process of "challenging."  It has to be done slowly and it can take a long time for it to work.  Essentially, you must inform the band director that you wish to "challenge" the person sitting in the seat ahead of you.  The band director then notifies the challengee and assigns the two a song or even just a difficult passage of a certain song.  Both parties get a certain amount of time to practice and then they each perform it for the director who then decides the winner.  If the challenger wins, they move up a seat.  If they lose, they must wait a certain length of time before challenging again.

Oh but wait, there's more.  If the challenger should win, there is always the possibility that the challengee can request a challenge.  This is both time consuming and a pain in the butt.

Luckily, I had a few things working for me.  Number one:  he was three spaces down the line.  To get to me, he had to get through a couple of other people first.  Number two:  his issues with truancy.  Several times in the course of challenging my fellow clarinetists, he failed to show up to class on the day of the challenge.  Many teachers would probably have called this a forfeit, but ours were nice and allowed him to reschedule.

This had the unfortunate effect of keeping the challengees on unsure footing as the date of the actual challenge was constantly in flux. 

Oh, and the third thing working for me?  Everyone else in my section considered Adam their nemesis.  They found him to be arrogant, and I think they were all secretly pleased when he was taken down a few pegs in the pecking order.  Hence, they did their darnedest to keep him embroiled in challenges all year long.

Eventually, he did get far enough in the process to challenge me.  Did I practice for it?  Honestly?  No.  I did not.  I figured if my God-given talents were not enough to keep my seat, I did not deserve it. 

After several failed attempts to have the challenge (again due to Adam's truancy), we finally performed.  And guess what?  We tied! 

This meant that not only could I keep my seat, but he had to wait another two weeks before challenging me again. 

By this time, it was nearly the end of the school year.  Seriously, it was about three weeks from commencement and I had a lot going on in my life.  By this point, I was feeling a bit more punchy about the issue, and I decided that I would absolutely be sitting Section Leader at graduation. 

So I went to the director.  I explained my situation.  It was the end of my senior year and things were pretty busy.  I had held the seat all year long, and I felt I had done a good job.  I had held off Adam's last advance, but I really did not need the stress of another attack.  Could he just tell Adam that the challenge was off?

To my surprise, my director agreed.  It is my secret belief that the director was as annoyed with Adam as the rest of us and was happy to have a reason to shut him out of his crazy dream of winning at the last minute.

Oh, believe me, Adam did not take this well.  But the rest of us rejoiced in our victory for the underdogs.

In conclusion, or rather, as a postlude, I have not played my clarinet since graduation.  Adam, on the other hand, went on to play clarinet in the Marine Corps Band.  Good for him, I say.  But I will always know he never defeated me in a challenge and that gives me no end of satisfaction, no matter how ridiculous or petty it makes me sound.

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