In the fifth grade my classmates and I gleefully accepted the lie that we could choose our instruments. It was an exciting new frontier in brass, string and woodwind. The falsehood was the choice. Parents’ finances trumped their kids’ desires for the trumpet, issues of space (and fear of migraines) dashed the hopes of many a would-be drummer, and no matter how much a child might want to play the cello, the instrument’s size was undeniably prohibitive.
The greater force in play was the personality of the instruments themselves; they orchestrated the students as they saw fit. At an age when we were desperately searching for identity, our instruments became our alternate monikers. He’s a trombone. She’s an oboe. Whatever we were seemed to fit who we were. Hyperactive children were relegated to percussive pursuits in the back. Delicate students played the flute across from the nerdy (though we preferred the term advanced) clarinetists.
Cool kids played the sax.
As a child of the ’80s, I attributed this wholly to Rob Lowe’s portrayal of Billy in St. Elmo’s Fire. There was something about that combination of sweat and sax, or maybe it was the yellow tank top with black bats and random scrap of fabric tied around his head. If you were a sax, you were cool.
The problem with putting too much stock into the roles within the band was that everything changed on the other side of puberty. The once-delicate flautist toughened and blackened the eye of a football player, while the percussion section mellowed into a young adult book club. The sax players held their cool, but suddenly wondered why guitar hadn’t been an option, because a rewatching of St. Elmo’s Fire showed that most of all, Billy was silly. We children of the ’80s, at the dawn of the ’90s, realized that our version of “cool” was just as ridiculous as what we’d mocked of the ’70s.
After high school the illusion of choosing your instrument returned with the new-found freedom of young adulthood. With no band practice to attend, I was free to unearth the musical genius that surely lurked inside. A friend of mine bought a second-hand guitar and I purchased a variety of harmonicas. They’re not that expensive and I thought that owning a multitude of them might compensate for any lack in talent. I would have opted to pursue guitar myself, but I’m an atrocious singer and thought it best to occupy my mouth.
My friend and I wrote and performed one song. My lyrics were the angst-ridden whining of a girl who had very little to whine about. They were also entirely inappropriate for our audience—forty small children for whom we were camp counselors. We struggled through the song, often off-key and forgetting words. The children looked up to us and were therefore the perfect audience, though I cringe at the thought of our employers and fellow counselors taking it in. Almost twenty years later, I still contemplate writing to them and apologizing for the three minutes of auditory hell we put them through.
I never mastered the harmonica. While I may have chosen the instrument, it didn’t necessarily choose me back. After years of trying various instructional methods, my skills on the mouth harp are still no greater than those of my four-year-old when she plays her kazoo. I don’t think I’ll ever be a harmonica or a guitar, but with age comes acceptance of one’s cool-versus-nerd quotient. I’ll be honest: I lean toward the latter. I’ve outgrown my childhood daydreams which, along with rock star, included International Super Spy and the more general identity of Most Awesome Person on Earth.
In adulthood, being a nerd is a good thing. I don’t bounce checks, lose my keys or ever have to appear in court, jury duty aside. I guess when it comes down to it, I’m still a clarinet.