Friday, September 30, 2011

Clarinets and Saxophones

A long time ago I used to fall asleep to the sound of James Galway playing the flute on my mom's old record player. For a very long time I believed that the flute was the most beautiful instrument in the whole world, and if I ever had the chance to play an instrument, that would be the one.

But that was before I heard the clarinet. When fifth grade came around—the year I got to pick what I would play—just before that moment of decision I heard the music teacher perform a simple piece on the clarinet. And suddenly I was hooked.

I loved everything about the clarinet: the nostalgic tone, the look of the silver keys against the dark wood, and the way it seemed to tell me “there's more here if you're willing to look.” I didn't want to try out anything else; clarinet was for me.

And when I first got a clarinet of my own I became even more sure. I didn't just love hearing it, I loved playing it too. We were a great fit. We worked. (And I was ever so glad I had not chosen to go with, say, the saxophone—if the sounds coming from the sax section were any indication, it was a miserable instrument to play.) For several months, my clarinet and I were BFFs.

But then, one day, playing got a little bit harder. I had to transition from the comfortable low notes to the tricky, squeaky high notes. And suddenly I wasn't quite so sure that this clarinet thing was going to work out for me.

I remember something my teacher said at that time. She told us, “Clarinets, do you remember picking on the sax players just a few months ago for all their squeaks and messy notes? Well, now you get to go through what they did. And saxophones, it's your turn to sit back and learn some easier notes.”

That was motivation enough for me. If the sax players could stick with it through the hard notes, then I sure could too. And I did. I stuck with clarinet for a long time, and I never wished I'd chosen anything else. Clarinet wasn't always the absolute perfection I'd first thought it was, but it was worth the hard work.

And I kept that lesson of clarinets and saxophones in mind. I came to learn that a lot of things in life could be separated into “clarinet” groups and “saxophone” groups. Some things come naturally to me and at first seem like the perfect fit. Math was like that. For a long, long time it was really, really easy. Only once I got to college did it get hard. Other things start off really hard and get progressively more comfortable as I go along. And that's writing for me—difficult from the start, so I knew that I must really love it if I was willing to deal with all that difficulty right away. But regardless of whether something is a “clarinet” or a “saxophone,” if it's worth doing, at some point it will be challenging.

I think relationships are like that too. Sometimes we meet people and immediately hit it off and feel that click. Everything is rosy and the other person can do no wrong. The rose-colored glasses can sometimes stay on for a really long time. But eventually, they're going to come off. Something the other person does is going to rub us wrong. Something they say won't ring so well in our ears. And suddenly the relationship isn't so easy.

Other times we meet people we have no spark with. We have nothing in common, and their personalities are grating, and given a choice between talking with them and eating dinner with a hyena, we'd pick the hyena. But sometimes, whether through circumstance or simply being in proximity day after day, we come to find a lot of good in these people. We find that we love them in spite of all those things that originally annoyed us... and maybe we even start to love the very things that used to drive us crazy.

I guess all this is on my mind because right now I've got a lot of “clarinet” people and a lot of “saxophone” people in my life. So maybe this post is for them.

To all the “clarinets”: Some of us still have on the rosy glasses, and that's cool—let's enjoy that for a while. It's fun.

But some of us are starting to take the glasses off. And that's a little scary. I don't know if you'll like what you see in me when they come off. Maybe you'll notice one of my many bad habits and start to flinch every time it happens. Or maybe something you originally liked about me will start to get on your nerves. Maybe I'll start to feel that way about you too. But listen, if you're still willing to be friends with me, then I'm not letting go of you.

And to all the “saxophones”: I already like you more than you probably think I do. Because I know that even if nothing about us seems to work right now, the future has a lot of potential. Maybe one day we'll click. Maybe not. Either way, keep being you. In some way or another, you're awesome, even if I can't see it right now.


  1. I used to play the saxophone. I never liked it well (my parents forced me to learn it), and after the cat peed in the case it never smelled right again.

    I'm not sure what lesson one should learn from my example. :)

  2. Keep an eye on the family cat? I love my cat, but she's a monster sometimes.