The Sax Man Testifies

I mentioned last week that I’ve been working in both of my artistic capacities, as writer and actor, throughout the month of August. This isn’t an entirely accurate statement; I actually have three artistic identities. As you can see in some of the photos here on this website, I’m also a musician; I play clarinet and saxophone. In Village, My Home, which opened yesterday as part of Theater for the New City’s Dream Up Festival, I play a quick chorus of Auld Lang Syne on the alto saxophone at the very end of the show.

I started playing clarinet in third grade, and played continually through middle school, then sporadically for many years after that. And for all that time, I only played clarinet. It wasn’t until ten years ago that I picked up the saxophone, as part of a production of Happy End I was in at Theater Ten Ten. We were using the then-still-novel convention of having the cast play their own instruments in the show, and as we tracked out who was going to play what, it became clear that we’d only be able to cover the alto saxophone track if I did it myself. So I taught myself the instrument – if you play clarinet, the fingerings are similar enough between that and saxophone to adapt quickly. In fact, the fingerings are easier on the saxophone than the clarinet, since there’s no difference in those fingerings from the lower octave to the higher – there’s a middle register on the clarinet that requires some mental gymnastics on that instrument that you don’t need on the sax.

What wasn’t easy was learning the thorny music of Kurt Weill over the course of a four-week showcase production rehearsal period. If you’ve never had to learn it, Weill has some deceptively simple moments – and others where he’s inventing clefs hitherto unknown to music. Plus some of the music had to be played during my character’s own onstage action – I was playing Captain Hannibal Jackson of the Salvation Army, so a musical instrument wasn’t entirely out of place, even if it was cumbersome and difficult as anything. But I did it. After four weeks, I played Kurt Weill, on stage, from memory. (This is me bragging, in case you’re wondering.)

Prior to the show I’m in now, I also played saxophone in the same folks’ production of A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Bonus Army. Unfortunately, because I’m always doing so many things at once, I’m not able to play continually, and every time I get a gig such as Village, My Home I have to get myself back to that performance level. I can do it (don’t you fret, casting directors), but it takes effort, and it’s frustrating. And this isn’t a new state of affairs – it’s been the case ever since I stopped playing clarinet regularly, back when I was in high school.

And the irony of it is that I stopped playing in high school because of the saxophone. I may have been inspired to study woodwind instruments by the example of Zoot on the Muppet Show (for, let’s face it, what musician of the past forty years wasn’t inspired to choose their instrument by the example of some member of the Electric Mayhem?) but I fell in love with the clarinet. And I was pretty damn good at it, and worked diligently at the instrument. But my high school had a policy that its musical program – full of performance opportunities, quite advanced – was only open to students who participated in marching band. Which they wanted me to do, and on saxophone rather than clarinet. Which outraged me – here I was, a would-be serious musician, and my right to pursue this craft was to be contingent on my support for our sports teams?! And when I said I’d prefer not to, they unceremoniously demoted me in orchestra, withdrew my private clarinet lessons, and so on. (High school’s a tough place, you know.) So I walked away. I’ve since met a number of Long Islanders around my age who have shared similar experiences with me.

Writing it from a distance of so many years, I can see how it might seem kind of petty – walking away from something I loved simply because of the cliques I’d have to be associated with. But this is the eighties we’re talking about – a decade made of petty, and a decade of such pure roid-raging fury that walking away from situations like the one I describe above was a matter of genuine safety. I won’t go into the details here, but there were actions taken by members of those long ago sports teams, which I was being asked to march behind in support, which were utterly horrific. And I pursue the arts precisely to speak out against those kinds of actions, not facilitate them, even in the smallest of ways.

I’m sure they’re much different people nowadays. I hope I am. And it would be great if I didn’t have to painstakingly put my embouchure back together again after every gig in my adult life. But it was the right choice back then, and since I was never going to have the time to pursue the instrument at a conservatory level anyway, I’m perfectly happy to deal with the repercussions of that choice in the here and now.

It is, after all, a lesson for the here and now. You have to be so very, very careful who you march with.

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