Stephen Howard Woodwind - Repairs, reviews, advice, tips and tales...
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Notes from a small workshop - anecdotes & musings from the workbench
Haynes woodwind maintenance manuals

Of fate and saxophone



Every business has its common questions.
A taxi driver gets asked how he or she remembers all those streets (or more often than not, why they can't), a doctor gets asked who they see when they're ill, a jockey gets asked if they have any tips for the 4.30 at Chepstow Park on Saturday. I have two questions commonly asked of me - usually by clients waiting in the workshop whilst I perform an 'on the spot' repair to their instrument. The first is how I got into the business of repairing - but I'm just as likely to be asked how I started my career as a musician.
It's this second question that has the most curious answer; I did it to avoid music lessons.

Let me set the scene.
It was my first year in secondary school. I'd never before had formal music lessons - my previous experience with music in education had been confined to singing hymns in school assemblies, banging assorted percussion instruments together and taking the mickey out of Slade on Top-of-the-Pops.
To then find myself having to attend a lesson devoted entirely to music was quite an odd experience...almost as odd as having to go to a lesson about religion, though a great deal less scary.

Ah yes, the Great British Music Lesson.
If you had to host a music lesson for a bunch of (admittedly) disinterested pre-teenagers, where would you start?
Would you perhaps invite theories as to what the very first form of man-made music might have been? Maybe you'd try to convey the staggering talent required by a chap called Bach to turn out so much work of outstanding quality... and still have time to get very jiggy with Mrs. Bach.
How about trying to convey the culture shock that hit the world when rock 'n roll was first heard...or the social upheaval that made Punk a possibility?

What you'd probably, most definitely, almost certainly not do is pop a scratchy recording of Elgar on a steam-driven record player, dish out pens and paper and ask the entire class to write down what the music describes to them.
Even now, with all the knowledge and regard I have for music I cannot listen to Elgar without seeing those words I wrote come back to haunt me...."It's all quiet, here comes a black cloud, it's raining, it's thundering, it's really windy...now it's all calm again.."
I can just imagine Elgar standing in front of me, apoplectic with rage, screaming "Is that it?? I might as well have not bothered!!"

So you can imagine the thoughts that crossed my mind when one day the lesson was interrupted by another teacher asking if anyone would be interested in joining the recorder group.
Silence... save for a couple of giggling girls tentatively raising their hands.
The recorder group meets during (and therefore instead of) the music lesson, we're told.
Slight pause whilst we all figure out the enormity of this statement...followed by fully 50% of the class raising their hands. To the recorder teacher's credit she instantly dismissed the eager waving from the 'usual suspects' - but I'd figured that with just the right blend of fake enthusiasm, and a suitably angelic look, I could wangle my way in on this skive.
And so it was that I started my playing career.

I surprised myself, I have to admit.
We were given a book that contained such ear-bending melodies as 'Bobby Shaftoe' (always a great source of amusement, that title), London Bridge is Falling Down, Three Blind Mice...and the dreaded Au Clair de la Lune.
We struggled bravely on...the attrition rate was enormous though, and the class took many weeks to settle down as various people came and went - having either decided that listening to scratchy Elgar was preferable to blowing into a plastic whistle, or simply having got fed up of describing that same bloody storm a-comin'.
I found I got on quite well, even to the point where I actually practised at home.
It was during one of these practice sessions that I started to tinker about with a melody I'd heard. It wasn't that difficult to play, it had a nice bit in the middle and it didn't go on too long (so there wasn't much to remember).
It turned out to be Bach's "Ode to Joy".

I played it at the next recorder lesson, in the five minutes before the lesson officially started. The teacher commented on it, and for a brief moment I dwelt in the no-man's land that is being popular with the teacher and reviled by your classmates for being a nerdy teacher's pet.
It had repercussions that I could never have imagined...and indeed didn't.

A few days later I was asked by the recorder teacher to take my recorder along to the head teacher's office. This I did, and was mortified to find myself being asked to play into a microphone!
It turns out that the tune was the 'anthem' for some sort of European Schools Initiative - and the head had spotted a kudos-building PR moment. This was followed by an even more terrifying request to play the piece in front of the whole school during assembly. Head teachers never directly ask you to do such things, they use such phrases as "Wouldn't it be lovely if..." or "You know what I think would be a good idea...".
And so I gave my very first public performance.
I think it went down well - at least, I don't recall being beaten up in the playground afterwards.

Now, that anecdote alone is merely the entrée...

A few weeks later I found myself attending the rehearsals for the school concert. The recorder group were to play a piece en-masse. I can't offhand remember the tune, but it must have been either the theme from Van der Valk (a popular Dutch detective series on the telly at that time) or Paper Lace's "Billy don't be a hero". If you're unfamiliar with these melodies you can quite easily replicate the effect of listening to them by taking a cheesegrater to your head...when you have a hangover.

So there I was, sitting in the hall, eyeing up the senior girls in their leotards, when the new head of music came trundling in (the old one had apparently had a breakdown in class...I missed it 'cos I was in recorder lessons. Had I been there I might well have become a psychologist instead).
I remember his words even now...he strode straight over to me and said "I've got some good news and some bad news". I said to give me the bad news first. He replied "You're playing it". The good news was "We've got a saxophone".

I was taken along to a little room just off the music room that contained shelves of battered cases - and smelt rather of sneakily smoked cigarettes and that peculiar brand of instant coffee that teachers drink - and a brown oblong box was placed on a chair in front of me.
Ever since that day I've tried to recapture the thoughts and feelings that swept over me as the lid was lifted on the case. Sitting snugly in the case was a brass instrument of seemingly impossible complexity.
Familiarity with the saxophone over the years that have passed means that I can no longer feel that same sense of awe at the way the thing seemed to bristle with sticky-out bits. How the Dickens was I going to play all of those keys at once?? How the hell do I even put the thing on?? I honestly don't think I'd ever even seen one before.

There was another gentleman in the room, the peripatetic woodwind teacher, and between the three of us we got the thing out of the case, assembled it and produced the first note. I walked home that afternoon carrying a brand new saxophone, my arms aching with the weight of it as I rushed the half mile or so home, wanting so much to see the look on my parent's faces.

And so it began.

I don't think it's being overly sentimental to offer up a few thank-yous at this point - after all, it was a moment that changed my life, for better or worse.
So I'd like to thank Lloyd Harris for bringing me and the saxophone together, Alf Kendall for teaching me how to play it (and to say 'Gradely', a fine Yorkshireman that he was) and to Mrs. Dorman for not dismissing me as one of the 'likely lads' who put their hands up that fateful day in the music lesson.
And Elgar too, who inspired me in such a way that even he could not have foreseen.

 


Copyright © Stephen Howard Woodwind 2015