My magical, musical journey: Part 4 – my return to organized music

By Ande Jacobson

As I mentioned at the end of Part 3, something was sorely missing during the dark years when I wasn’t involved in any organized ensembles. I still played my instruments at home and whenever I would drop by my mother’s house to visit. At some point during every visit, I would play a little ragtime or Chopin on her piano. She really didn’t want me to get my own piano because she was afraid that I would visit less often if I could play comfortably at home. Also, she really enjoyed it when I would bring my clarinet with me and play along with her for a bit. Still, between my own personal practice, the occasional simple duet with mom, and attending professional productions from time to time, I still had a pretty big hole in my life. Work was going well, and I eventually married a very dear friend. The marriage didn’t last, but it would turn out to be a very pivotal point in my life, especially musically.

When I got married, my mother gave us a very generous gift which we put toward a couple of important things. We used about half of her gift toward replacing our windows with double-panes, but first, and most importantly, we bought a very nice electric piano.

I then had something at home beyond that short, Casio keyboard, and I could finally play ragtime without falling off the edge of the music. The other nice thing about using an electric piano was that I could play with headphones if my husband wasn’t in the mood to listen to me practice, or if it happened to be too early in the morning or too late at night to risk disturbing our neighbors. Our piano had the feel of a grand, so when I would go back and play my mother’s piano after getting used to mine, hers felt a little mushy. It also made me realize that piano keyboards had different depths, something I had never previously considered. Mom’s was a spinet, and the keys weren’t particularly deep. After I got used to mine, which was both stiffer and deeper, I found that I tended to hit the backboard when I played Mom’s piano.

A few years after we got our piano, a colleague from work mentioned that he played piano but that he had just sold his. He was itching to play again, so he and I started getting together a couple of times a week to play some clarinet and piano music in my living room. After doing this for a few months, another musical opportunity presented itself. My husband was building a computer for some friends of his who happened to play for the SF Symphony and mentioned to them that I played clarinet. They asked him if I might be interested in playing some trios – they played cello and piano, and there is some lovely piano trio literature written for piano, clarinet, and cello. This was exciting, and I jumped at the opportunity. We got together a few times to play for a few hours and then grabbed some dinner. On one of those occasions, they mentioned that it was important to get involved in community music for me to continue to grow as a musician. At this point, it had been about 17 years since I had been involved in any ensembles beyond a casual living room session just for fun.

I had been out of ensemble music as a performer for so long, I didn’t know what community music even existed, and I started looking for a place to play. The last band I had experienced was a single rehearsal when I sat in on a local concert band during graduate school. That was a night school class that I opted not to enroll in at the time, and I hadn’t pursued anything like that since. I didn’t go back to that group, but I found another community band that rehearsed near our house one night a week and decided to check them out. I brought my clarinet and my alto sax with me to a rehearsal the next week and asked if I could play. This particular band was a take-all-comers type community band, and they welcomed me with open arms. They wanted me to play clarinet, so I sat in and joined the group.

After playing with my new band for a few weeks, I decided I needed a new clarinet, so I went on the great clarinet hunt. After trying a couple dozen horns in various stores around the area, I settled on a nice, new Buffet R13 clarinet. I had also bought an A clarinet the previous year to use for chamber music once I started playing those trios with my husband’s friends. Boy I wished I had that A clarinet when I was in college. It might have allowed me to join the university symphony back then and perhaps would have inspired me to continue with ensemble music throughout my life. No matter though, I was on a roll. After I acquired the new clarinet, my section leader told me about another band in the area as well as a community orchestra. I joined the other band he’d mentioned, and another player in that group told me about yet a third band that I also joined. The orchestra didn’t pan out at the time, and I experienced my second truly awful audition, but it was probably for the best in the long run.

Later that same year, I even restarted my ragtime band with a new cast of characters, although our flute player wouldn’t let me call it Avogadro’s Ragtime Band in this incarnation. He said that was too nerdy and that nobody would get the joke. We were in the Silicon Valley though, so I contended that everyone would get it, but relented. The group consensus was to just call us Ande’s Ragtime Band to keep the “A” theme alive, even if we couldn’t be quite so nerdy. And it was my band after all, so the name kind of fit. Interestingly, I wasn’t even the one who suggested that particular name.

Eventually, one of my friends in two of the community bands I was playing with gave my name to a music director for a local community production of Kiss Me, Kate. At that point, I was rehearsing two or three nights a week and was performing in several concerts throughout the year. I received an email from the music director asking if I’d be interested in playing in the pit for his show. I responded asking a few questions and never heard back. I hadn’t been told the schedule for the show at the time, so I gathered that the offer was rescinded and kind of forgot about it focusing instead on balancing my existing very busy music schedule with my equally busy work schedule.

That fall, one Saturday morning I went to the local clinic to get a flu shot. The phone was ringing as I arrived back home at about 0930.

“Are you coming to the rehearsal this morning?” asked a friend from one of my community bands.

“What rehearsal?” I asked.

“The rehearsal for Kiss Me, Kate,” he responded.

He went on to tell me that it was the second orchestra rehearsal for the show and began at 1000. He also gave me the address and directions to the location. Glancing at my watch, I realized I could just make it in time. Not knowing what I’d need, I threw my clarinet and alto sax in the car, and headed over to the rehearsal. As I walked in the door, the music director stuck a schedule in my face and asked if I could cover all of the performances and remaining rehearsals. I noticed that the preview performance fell on the same night as a band concert I was obligated to play. If it had been just the band concert, I could have missed it, but my ragtime band was also performing as part of that concert, and I kind of had to play that. The music director shook his head, but allowed that, and I was assigned the Reed 1 book.

I hadn’t played a musical in 26 years, yet suddenly I was in a pit orchestra assigned the lead reed part, but no pressure. Also, the book had a small amount of flute, and I didn’t yet play flute which was only a minor hiccup. I went home after the rehearsal and immediately wrote out transpositions for those few flute sections to play them on clarinet, and I readied myself for my community theatre pit debut.

To this day, the original score to Kiss Me, Kate remains one of my favorites. As part of my practice at the time, I did some searches for a cast recording of the show. I found a lovely London cast recording that had the entire score without any cuts sans the scene change music. This meant that I could just about play my book cover-to-cover with the recording to prepare. Of course we were taking a couple of numbers at slightly different tempos from the cast recording, but it was still a good way to get the music in my head. The run was more than I could have wished for with a stellar cast and a very solid orchestra. The theater had no pit, so the orchestra was seated against the stage in the house. As an added perk, when we weren’t playing, we could watch the show so long as we didn’t miss any of our cues.

I was hooked! I wanted to be a pit musician in the local community circuit, but I would have to expand my musical arsenal if I wanted to continue playing shows. As a reed player, just playing clarinet along with soprano, alto, and tenor sax wouldn’t get me very far given most shows required additional doubling. I had an important decision to make at that point. While not an absolute rule, the reed books for shows often used to fall into three categories:

  • upper reeds including flute, piccolo, clarinet, and the smaller saxes;
  • double reeds combined with the upper reeds including oboe, English horn, flute, clarinet, and some kind of sax;
  • low reeds including the big instruments like bass clarinet, baritone sax, sometimes bassoon, sometimes bass sax, etc.

There were exceptions of course, but in general these groupings tended to hold. I didn’t want to go with low reeds like bass clarinet or bari or bass sax. The instruments were much too expensive, needed more adjustments than their smaller counterparts, and were too heavy to haul around and to play. They also really didn’t fit my hands.

I didn’t want to go near the double reeds because they make your head explode.

That left me with the task of learning to play flute, and later piccolo and alto flute.

As a clarinet player who doubled on sax, I knew that there would likely be some things I would inherently do incorrectly on flute, so I sought out a teacher who would push me hard to be ready to play flute for a show as quickly as possible. I already had one lined up a few months hence, so I had no time to waste. I had played a tiny bit of flute in high school, but not much. Although not mentioned in Part 2 of this series, in jazz band during my junior year of high school, our band director at the time chose an arrangement of Color Me Warm for us to perform for a music festival that required the sax players to play flute. The school provided the instruments to us, and given flute fingering is much like sax fingering, we figured out what we needed to do fairly quickly. I suspect our director just really liked the look of all the sax players switching instruments more than anything else.

Dad’s sop sax

I began taking flute lessons in the January following that Kiss Me, Kate run, but before that, in December right after the run ended, I began what would become a longstanding, annual tradition and played my first San Jose Saxophone Christmas, or SJ SaxMas for short. I played my father’s cute little curved soprano sax for the event, as this was an event where “cute” counted. The event has been running for 26 years now, and I started playing them before they even hit double digits. The man behind San Jose’s Saxophone Christmas was a local middle school band director, and he also happened to play in one of the community bands I had joined. He played everything, but his first love and passion surrounded saxophones. He had (and still has) an encyclopedic knowledge of everything about saxophones and had quite a collection of his own ranging from all the normal ones you see in bands to some very esoteric horns, almost all of which are represented at each year’s SaxMasses. I wrote a piece about the 2019 SJ SaxMas late last year looking at what makes up a SaxMas and including videos of one of the 2019 concerts.

After just three months of lessons, I started rehearsals for another show that used my flute in April. I was able to play my flute parts on flute for the show. What I still lacked was consistency. I could get by, but it took a couple of years before I gained true consistency on flute and piccolo in my show work. Still, I started picking up more shows, and every single one would be an adventure.

My return to ensemble music was a new beginning for me, and I finally realized what that hole in my life had been for so long. It was like finding a part of myself that had been just out of my reach for decades.

Additional reading:
My magical musical journey: Part 3 – the college years
My magical musical journey: Part 2 – high school acceleration
My magical musical journey: Part 1 – the beginning
Classical Music, Why Bother?: Hearing the World of Contemporary Culture Through a Composer’s Ears by Joshua Fineberg
The Great Courses: How Music and Mathematics Relate
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music by The Great Courses
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks
Remembering Mom and Dad by Ande Jacobson
The Student Conductor by Robert Ford
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
What to Listen for in Music by Aaron Copland
What to Listen for in Mozart by Robert Harris
What to Listen for in Beethoven by Robert Harris
Who Needs Classical Music?: Cultural Choice and Musical Voice by Julian Johnson

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