What I learned from playing the saxophone

And how I rediscovered music

At the end of January this year, I decided to join my school’s Jazz Band. This was a university band of students with years of musical experience. But here's the thing: I couldn’t exactly read notes. At all.

Let’s back up a little. As a child growing up with immigrant Asian parents, playing a musical instrument is kind of expected, and my parents dutifully signed up my brother and I for piano lessons and violin lessons. Long story short, my musical career was very short and after a few years I angrily quit music and resolved never to play ever again. It turns out forcing a kid who would rather spend his time reading and drawing to memorize pieces for recitals is not a great way to introduce them to music. I remember not being able to really read sheet music and just doing the hand movements until it was muscle memory. So for the rest of elementary and high school, I didn’t play an instrument. I even somehow managed to get out of Grade 7 band, which was mandatory, and did choir instead. (Yes, apparently I was gay before I knew myself.) But the damage was done. My parents were appeased and would tell relatives and friends that I could play the piano and violin, and I would tell my friends really casually that I used to play a little bit but not anymore if the topic ever came up.

When I started university, for some reason music made its way into my life. I had moved into dorms, and at the beginning of each semester we have like a week of activities and shit, for residents to get to know each other and feel part of the community, etc. And one of the programs was Open Mic Night, and we piled into a dim basement lounge with couches everywhere and there was a microphone, a chair, a guitar, a keyboard, and some string lights. To be honest, it was magical. The performers were amazing. They sang popular songs, they sang songs they wrote themselves, they played some melodies, there were duets, it was wild. But I think what made that Open Mic Night so amazing was the energy in the room. Most of us were new residents who had just moved away from home, and everyone was so supportive. We recognized their vulnerability and courage, and after every performance we would erupt in the loudest cheers, whether or not their performance went as expected. We would cheer and show support whenever someone forgot a word or played a wrong note or were just nervous. It was unconditional acceptance.

Some of my friends also played a bunch of instruments. A friend had found a lot of peace with piano, and eventually got the loveliest keyboard of their own for their dorm. Another friend played the ukulele. Another played the trumpet and I got to attend their concerts, which were amazing. But in second year, I met Jill, who played the alto saxophone. Jill was part of jazz band, and I went to their concert in December. The concert was great. I remember being told afterward that it did not go smoothly and that many mistakes had happened, but I think it was great. I guess that’s the magic of jazz. Anyways, I was talking to Jill, and Jill was like “you should join Jazz Band!” and I was like “haha, I can’t really play an instrument but thanks,” but in the end I think I agreed to go to one of the practices to support Jill, but also because inside I was really curious.

So it’s mid-January, another semester had started and another Open Mic Night had passed, and Jill’s jazz band practice rolls around, which I agreed to go to. But I had another meeting at the same time, for a different club I had already committed to. The meeting was happening in the same building, and I remember thinking like damn, I really wanted to go, but now I have this meeting thing I don’t really want to go to! That was super tragic, until I decided I was actually going to leave the meeting early and go hang out with Jill at jazz band. This was also around the time I realized I was burning out and I needed to cut a lot of my commitments for my mental health, so I used jazz band as an excuse. So I help set up, I get the meeting started, I’m kind of frazzled and awkward, I let one of the organizing people know that I’m actually leaving early, and they’re like “oh, are you in Jazz Band now?” And I kind of freeze, and I’m like, “…yup!” and at that point I had basically committed to at least trying Jazz Band, so I went. I felt super awkward at first just sitting on the side listening to everyone actually play music, but it was awesome. There’s just something about band energy. If you’re a band kid you know exactly what I’m talking out. It’s like a combination of weirdness that’s cool at the same time. Also it was jazz band! So it was definitely super jazzy.

The practice ends and I’m feeling kind of pumped. Jill comes to me and is like “so are you joining Jazz Band?” and I’m like “I guess so, I don’t have an instrument though,” because most of the members bring their own instruments because they’re musical people, I guess, and Jill is like “you should just ask Gordon I think we have extra instruments!”

So Gordon is this guy who I surprisingly already know from the climbing wall (which is another whole story in itself) and he’s super cool and also super chill. So I was like fine, and I go to Gordon and he’s excited that I’m here because he usually just sees me at the wall struggling so this is different! In a good way! And the conversation basically goes:

“Hey I’m thinking of joining Jazz Band!”

“Great! What instrument do you play?”

“Uh I can’t really play anything but I’m willing to learn??”

“Okay, what do you want to learn?”

“Uhhhhhh, what do you have?”

And that’s basically how I got chosen as an alto sax player. The next week I picked up the extra sax someone had previously left lying around and Jill showed me how to put it together, how to hold it, how to use a reed, basically everything. If you’re reading this Jill, you’re awesome. Thank you.

What I learned from playing the sax

1. Sucking is a part of life.

Playing the sax was really, really hard. Like, there’s so much you need to concentrate on. You need to read the notes, then your fingers have to do the correct notes, and at the same time you need to have the proper embouchure (lip positioning) and then blow the air correctly so the reed makes the sound. Also saxes are kind of heavy and not super easy to carry around, but it’s fine, this was my own choice and I’m FINE! Basically the first few weeks were rough. I realized I need to learn how to read sheet music quickly, both in terms of in the near future and also at a rapid speed. Then I could concentrate on making the right fingering and tonguing on the reed (yes, I know how that sounds). I think one of the biggest barriers to trying something new is definitely the fear of being bad at something. But we all have to start somewhere! And yes, I absolutely sucked, but I accepted that I was going to suck, I showed up at practice, I tried my best, I messed up, and I moved on. Own your sucking.

2. Do things for yourself, not for others.

So as it turns out, music is a very different experience when you’re learning to do it completely from your own volition. And I made that a point: it was my choice. I also didn’t really tell a lot of people that I was picking up the sax until much later, for a few reasons: one, if I gave up nobody would know, but also two, I wanted to do this for myself and not because I felt like I needed to prove myself to anyone. And in the end I was choosing to practice two or three times a week in addition to the weekly practices, and although I didn’t realize it at first I was improving steadily. I could read notes much faster. My fingers knew where to go without me thinking. Things were making sense, and Jill would give me more advice every time we practiced. You need to do the things you really want to do. Empower yourself.

3. Throw yourself into it and don’t take yourself too seriously!

Reflecting back, picking up the sax at the beginning of a new semester with only two months until our spring concert still looks like a terrible idea. But I’m so glad I did it, and I’m so glad I took the risk. I set the bar realistically: I’m definitely not going to be able to play those scales in Sir Duke fluently for the concert, but I can sure as hell play the majority of Crunchy Frog. And I improved really quickly, even after only a month! Jazz Band was also so good for my mental health: I was pushed to go out of my comfort zone, I met new and cool people, I played some super fun songs, and it was cathartic. I was genuinely excited to go to practice every week, and these were practices that could go for three hours on a Monday evening. It was the sense of community and energy that made it all the more worthwhile. Do your best and good things will happen.

And that’s the story on how I joined a band.

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