Even Sweeter the Second Time Around
Life can be unpredictable at times, and that is how I came back to playing baritone saxophone after twenty years of the horn collecting dust in my attic. It was the most unlikely course of events, but I am a firm believer that those are the times to make adventurous choices.
Life can be unpredictable at times, and that is how I came back to playing baritone saxophone after twenty years of the horn collecting dust in my attic. It was the most unlikely course of events, but I am a firm believer that those are the times to make adventurous choices. I had no idea how life-changing that “sure, why not?” moment would be and how it would end up being one of the most rewarding choices of my life.
I would like to say that the opinions I am about to express are about my personal journey and how I feel about my own evolution and self-discovery. I am fully aware of the amount of discipline it takes to execute a piece of sheet music to perfection, and I still quite enjoy hearing others perform that music. However, I am not exploring that side of my practice at this time.
I started my love affair with the baritone saxophone when I was still in diapers. My mother tells a story of how I sat down in front of this giant saxophone when I was a toddler and refused to move until the band left the stage. Every time she tried to remove me I threw a fit. Legend has it, we were there for 3 applications of sunscreen. Ten years later I found my way to the horn again, playing it through middle school and high school.
I was the best student; I practiced daily and loved pursuing the perfection of different techniques. I consumed sheet music and explored all sorts of composers and genres. I was little Lisa Simpson, with the perfect grades to match. I picked up playing piano and working with hand percussion. I did have an area of weakness, as I could not wrap my head around the concept of improvisation.
After I left high school, I got a non-music-related scholarship. Like many young adults in that transitional time, I decided to be an adult and focus on my future career path. One day, I put my horn in its case and did not return to it.
I ended up marrying a musician and helping him with his career. His process of creating music mystified me. He would stare off into space, and from that void, he would find a song. This creation from seemingly nothing, as a person who was always pinned to sheet music, was nothing short of magic to me. I watched his band swell to success and then implode on itself. I watched the loss almost destroy him.
After the breakup of his band, we decided to travel to Nashville to find him a partner for creating new music. We discussed the dream candidate for a counterbalance, a multi-instrumentalist with a background very different than his own. Someone who was possibly classically trained would pull his self-taught indie blues body of work in fresh and exciting directions. In retrospect, I should have realized that I fit all the qualifications.
It seemed we had struck out on finding someone different enough. However, we did win free tickets to the Bonnaroo Music Festival during that trip, and at Bonnaroo I watched my husband refill his creative well. We found an EDM act featuring a saxophone, Goldfish, and remarked on how a sax could be an interesting instrument to bring into his writing. Still, I was oblivious to how this related to me. A writer for MTV.com stumbled upon us while he was working on a new song in a camping area, leading to her writing about a husband and wife music duo she met at the festival, which was odd as I hadn’t played an instrument in 20 years.
We then elected to launch him as a solo act, since it’s not often you have MTV’s blessing as an artist with no released music. Six months later I received a message on Facebook from a person wanting to book the duo that was featured in the MTV article. He was scouting for acts to play in Austin during SXSW. The catch was every act on the bill had a female musician. Not wanting to give up the opportunity, I decided to come back to music and join my husband on stage.
I had 8 weeks before I was expected on stage and I had several things stacked against me. I had not played in 20 years and my embouchure was gone, but also I had no idea what I still remembered about playing a horn. My husband not only didn’t write sheet music, he also didn’t know how to read it. I had crippling stage fright and a fear of heights. When I opened my case, half my pads fell out of my horn – they’d completely dried out from 20 years of extreme temperatures in my attic.
After breaking the news to my partner that he had a new partner, we went about trying to figure out how I could understand this world of music written by ear. Over the two weeks that the horn was in the shop for repairs, I learned how the music he wrote existed in repeating patterns. The dynamics that are associated with verse, chorus, and bridge. To learn how to play his music, I had to learn the logic that went behind creating these pieces. In the past, I never considered how a composer created a work, I just made sure I counted my rests and executed every note as it was written.
Although I know it may make some people cringe, we ended up creating a shorthand that served as a middle ground where we could communicate with each other. We both knew the notes by name and used a transposition chart so I would know to play an E on my E flat horn when he needed the note he knew as a G on his guitars and keyboards. My ability to read sheet music was foggy and slow, and it felt right to learn in this new notation. This new method required me to feel the rhythm by singing my parts and required me to understand where my parts fit into the wholeness of the piece. This was my first experience with grasping how each instrument danced with each other.
After 8 weeks of working almost every day in this space, I had a part come to me while Chris was playing guitar. That was the first time I wrote my own part for anything. It was simple, gentle, and most importantly completed the song. It just came to me, my fingers just naturally went to those notes, and I could already hear how this countermelody would fit in the song.
During the pandemic, I spent seemingly endless days creating music with Chris as a way to cope with the isolation and anxiety of the shutdown. I lost the concept of what time it was, what day it was, or when the last time I ate was – but I rediscovered my love for other saxophones, pianos and synths, and hand percussion. I made the unreasonable purchases of a kalimba and a 1923 Conn New Wonder bass saxophone, neither of which I regret. We discovered using instruments in untraditional ways and explored manipulating sounds we recorded while urban exploring to create incredible textures and synth patches.
Music saved me during that time, and I think being able to give those two months of undivided attention to exploring the craft is how I became the artist I am today. When I was younger, I used music to show off how precise I was; how practiced and accurate each note could be executed. Now I am a different musician. I find myself thriving in grace notes and falls. I understand and live in the messiness of the composition, and my voice is a response to the other instruments in the piece. I use songs to share my story. Music has become a deeper level of connection with my partner, private conversations we choose to share with the world one song at a time.
At some point, I gave up on worrying if at my age I was too old to be trying to break into the indie music game with a baritone saxophone. The stage fright and fear of heights faded as well. We are building a diehard fanbase, signed music for representation for sync, and recently joined the Recording Academy. We are finding ourselves stepping into music festivals and events.
This has been a wild adventure of self-exploration and artistic expression. I think back and see how easy it would have been to not step up and take that chance. I see the effects it has had on my physical and mental health, I have recaptured that sense of joy I had lost. I now see how important music can be and I play every chance I get. So many people close the chapter of performing after school, and find it so intimidating to return back. I feel lucky that universe kept nudging me back to music. I hope this finds someone that needs that same nudge and this inspires them, so they can have music in their lives as an adult. It really is a different experience the second time around.