15 March 2010

Anxiety riffs

I was sitting in the waiting room with an old acquaintance. He was called in and soon after his tall, curly-headed self disappeared behind the door, I heard him light up riffs on his guitar. I took my sax and walked down the hall looking for somewhere out of earshot to warm up.

I reached the end of the hall and stopped, facing an exit door. His guitar playing was faint, but I could still hear it; it sounded like he was having a great audition. I bet they'll ask him to join their tour. I pushed the door open and stepped through as I made sure I wouldn't get locked outside. It was comfortably warm, near dusk, all the greens muted out of distraction.

I licked my reed a few times, repositioned it on my mouthpiece, and played a few notes that weren't really there, had no body to them, a breathy insubstantiality. It was like clearing my throat; after I coughed up those notes, the rest were rich and lush. I played a few scales, arpeggios, and riffs, felt my groove, and then went back inside.

Another musician was in the waiting room when I got back. He better not think he's cutting in line, I thought to myself but then remembered I'd signed in somewhere so it wasn't an issue. He held an instrument I wasn't familiar with on his lap that reminded me of an accordion. It's overall shape was boxy and it had shoulder straps like an accordion, but it didn't have keys, it had finger holes. I can't remember what he called it.

"Does it squeeze like an accordion?" I asked.


I examined the array of holes on the front more carefully. Of course it doesn't squeeze, it's one ceramic piece. Two protrusions with openings at the top had more shape to them than the other finger holes. Mouthpieces.

"You blow into those," I guessed, "and then play the rest like a recorder." I wanted him to play a few notes so I could hear it, but he just said, "You got it," with a friendly smile.

The audition room door opened and my old associate emerged beaming. A man behind him looked at me and said, "Sorry for the wait. We'll be with you in a few minutes," and closed the door.

"They offered me a job! It's probationary, but I'm one of 23 spots on the tour."

I gave him a hug, well, I reciprocated his bear hug, as I said, "Congratulations." The moment felt familiar.

Over a decade earlier, I'd been waiting for my grad school interview when I saw the woman before me emerge from the interview room at the end of the hall. She immediately saw someone she knew--which in and of itself seemed improbable--and gave him a huge hug.

Well, that turned out all right in the end. 23 spots for a rock band's tour, eh? I still have a shot at this. The door opened and I was beckoned inside. There hadn't been anything I could really prepare because the band didn't have a saxophonist in it. I figured I'd get an idea of what they wanted and improv from that or play whatever they handed me. Sight reading had always been my forte.

The room was covered with loose papers. I sat on a metal folding chair, the only clean surface. The man who'd called me in was in his late forties, with thick brown hair like that scandalized politician. It was short, but he kept it long enough to show off all his hair. The manager, probably.

Another man sat to my left and slightly behind me with an instrument. He was so still and quiet it was like he wasn't there.

"We'd just like you to play this," the manager said, pointing to a tv screen in front of me.

"Sure." I wasn't sure what I was looking at but then staves started scrolling across the black screen from right to left. It was a conductor's score with music for all of the instruments. The musician behind me started to play as his notes came up while I struggled to find the correct staff. I didn't see it but noticed a piano graphic by one and asked, "So you want me to play that?"

The manager paused the scrolling playback and said, "No," as though I were an idiot, not entirely unfair since an alto sax can't play chords or bass clef. "We're doing the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera."

He was clearly excited about it, and I--thinking I was there to audition for a rock band's tour--was nonplussed. He showed me some promotional posters, one with Cary Elwes looking Princess-Bride-hot in bed with the lead actress. So the Phantom's not actually disfigured? What's the point then? Well, Cary Elwes... Whatever the gig was, it'd be steady work for a few months.

The manager indicated which staff on the screen was for the sax and resumed playback. Even knowing where to look, the staff scrolled by way too fast for me to process. It was dense with a mix of 16th, 32nd and 64th notes, and since it was entirely new music, I had no aural memory of it to help me out. The sporadic notes I hit sounded sputtery and breathy, just plain awful.

I stopped and asked if he had sheet music instead. I wondered if I should just leave, but the manager didn't seem bothered by my request. "Sure," he said.

Instead of a book or a handful of sheets however, he pulled out a folded 3 foot by 3 foot sheet and began unfolding it. It was the composer's score with notation for all the instruments printed on one massive sheet. The font size was still the same as usual and I wondered how I would manage to read the notes.

The page was 20 feet high but the room was only 7. Then my saxophone started acting up: the reed wouldn't stay in place; screws wouldn't tighten; the mouthpiece was loose, and then fell impossibly inward.

I just wanted to finish the audition so I could leave, but I woke up. No matter how well my dreamself was coping, my unconscious self wouldn't take anymore.


  1. I knew my old acquaintance looked like Amy's older brother in Judging Amy, but when I was in the shower, I remembered the character was trying to get in or start a band at one point in the series. Think he played bass, but close enough. So not so much looked like him as him. (Clean shaven though.)

  2. Grad school only had 24 spots when I applied (though only 18 of us made it through the program). Hmm.