Like the majority of musicians in my school, I started playing the violin at the age of eight, and I continued music lessons until I left primary school. I joined a string ensemble instead of lessons and continued to play the violin every week, which meant that my instrument wasn’t destined to gather dust behind my wardrobe for months without ever being thought, let alone touched.
However, one fatal flaw in this plan remained the most important factor of all – I hated the violin with a passion, and all wonder and awe had faded over the years. I trudged into school every Wednesday morning, dragging my huge suitcase beside me and inadvertently kicking anyone who came between me, the suitcase and a door, only to play a squeaky tune for half an hour after school. school and contribute the bare minimum to the whole. There was something very pitiful about it – I really loved music as a subject and explored an eclectic taste in different genres, from heavy metal to classical, from Smiths to Zombies. And yet, listening to music is not quite the same as making music, in the same way that watching The Great British Bake Off is not the same as cooking and eating cakes and cookies . My knowledge of music therefore remained limited, and always one-sided.
What changed was very sudden, and no one could have predicted it. In early September 2020, I read a book called ‘The Rehearsal’, which was about several high school girls who explore the fine line between stage and reality. Although it didn’t spur in me any ambition to become an actor of any kind, I found one thing that connected all the girls very intriguing – they were all connected to the saxophone and seemed to make a living from its music as they walked through their trouble the young years. I became stunned by this alien instrument that had only clouded the back of my mind like a light fog throughout my years in the music department. It wasn’t the formidable instrument that the piano or the flute was – the saxophone, with its golden panache and snaking body, had a certain bite.
I kept reading ‘The Rehearsal’ to understand the saxophone and why it was able to support girls living both on the metaphorical stage and in the folds of gossip around school hallways. As I got closer and closer to the end of the book, I suddenly realized that I wouldn’t be able to find a real answer to what the novel was trying so desperately to communicate, because it all ended way too fast for me.
I became confused, but in awe of Eleanor Catton, that she could walk into my life brandishing an innocent first book, and then imbue my very existence with new ideas, and even a completely new style of writing. So I thought the only solution to this perplexity was to tackle this overwhelming new instrument that is the saxophone.
Others were skeptical at first. The saxophone is seen primarily as a very masculine instrument, perhaps reminiscent of the archaic idea that a woman should be delicate and gentle, and resign herself to the piano or traditional clarinet instead, and that the force of the growl and of the low bark of the saxophone is too much for a young girl. Maybe they didn’t think I had the lung power or the physical strength to hold a big, heavy brass instrument and pull it out. It didn’t help that the saxophone was ridiculously expensive compared to a simple violin.
I listened to jazz everywhere I went – on the bus, while studying, in my bedroom. I discovered the greats of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Yolanda Brown, Stan Getz. I watched the BBC Young Jazz Musician 2020 and had an instant admiration for Alex Clarke, who played both tenor sax and alto sax with such ferocity it seemed like she and the instrument were together, not two separate beings who co-existed. It was becoming more and more obvious that it was an obsession.
I took matters into my own hands – looked for a saxophone teacher, learned what reeds I needed, what type of saxophone would be best for a beginner, where to rent the instrument, what different books I needed to buy. Then lockdown hit, and I was trapped inside, wearing chunky sweaters against the ice-blue chill and wrapping myself in jazz that blasted from my phone and shoved into my ears.
As long as I live, I will never forget the day I received a phone call from the rental store telling me that an alto sax was available. It was the day after New Years, and we walked to Sutton in the dark ghost town of closed shops and empty streets, and retrieved a black plastic case with silver clasps, which opened into a golden horn that shone in the dull dullness of a winter sun. I must have watched countless YouTube videos and fiddled with my mouthpiece over and over again until the sound resonating through my sax suddenly sounded a lot less like a foghorn and a little softer. I think maybe I was a bit afraid of my new instrument, because it seemed so complicated and so fragile to me. From then on, I played the saxophone every day for hours, accelerating progress through my practice notebook and participating in blurry Skype sessions with my teacher while delving into every note. It seemed to be more than a hobby, but a life force. The lockdown has been cold and dull. We’ve been trapped behind our desks for days and days, only to retreat to the couch and watch TV on the weekends as a reward. There was a feeling of hopelessness, and it felt like an eternity. I sincerely believe that if I hadn’t learned the saxophone, my mental health wouldn’t be in good shape today.
The saxophone gave me a reason to wake up on those dark, miserable mornings; a distraction from the pile of mounting work and the ever-increasing numbers on the news. It was a path to survival, a sparkling shine in dark evenings alone with a laptop and a desk.
Those months have passed, and I hope they never come back. I will soon complete my sixth grade exam and continue to play the saxophone desperately as an escape, where I can retreat for hours without fail.
Although I never really understood the meaning of “The Rehearsal” as a whole, I learned the most important aspect of learning a new instrument: that although I understood the violin and enjoyed its involvement in the musical world, it would never compare to the gratitude and respect I had for the saxophone.