By Chantel Blackburn
As I write this, I am only 8 days away from my debut on the soprano saxophone at this quarter’s Christmas on the Hill Candlelight Concert. It’s an instrument I never touched before November and have only played a handful of times. My “first” instrument (other than my voice – my mom has said that my brother and I were “screamers” as children) was the piano. I took lessons for two years until my parents finally let me quit. “You’ll regret it,” they told me; I did not.
The last recital piece I prepared was Lady Allyson’s Minuet. I don’t remember if I even performed it but what I remember is that I only wanted to practice the piece, not the exercises I was assigned by my teacher. I much preferred playing a handful of notes at a time with our chime and handbell choir to the piano.
In the early grades we also played recorders and being in a musical household, not only did we have our own sopranos, we also had an alto that I was able to play with my class. My teacher told me that the fingerings of the alto were similar to clarinet so that made for a natural transition when I started band in fifth grade. I played the clarinet until the end of my junior year in high school when I started to get more serious about it.
I was eager to take over as first chair of the wind ensemble during my senior year; I was spending time in the practice room, and starting to take lessons from my band teacher. As the year progressed, however, I noticed I was having trouble moving my fingers when my hands got cold and I couldn’t maintain my embouchure for substantial lengths of time. There were other, seemingly unrelated symptoms too: drooping eyelids, double vision, dragging feet, and weakness in my extremities. By that summer I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that causes weakness in the voluntary muscle groups.
With my muscles not cooperating and trying to figure out a treatment plan to keep my condition stable, I only picked up the clarinet one or two times over the next decade or so. I spent my senior year of high school singing alto in a quartet and the select touring group, sang one quarter in the women’s chorus in college, and near the end of my time in graduate school helped prompt the formation of a short-lived church choir. My instrumental amusement came from playing hymns on Sabbath afternoons with my recorders and improving on the guitar, which ultimately helped me pick up basic chords on the piano.
When I arrived at PUC and heard the wind ensemble play Variations on a Korean Folk Song at their Winter concert that year, I was overwhelmed by distant memories of playing that very piece in high school and just had to join. I hadn’t played for so long, my clarinet case had dead bugs inside that I had to vacuum out. I tried to play on 10-year-old reeds and with a busted ligature. It was a disaster. But I was participating in music with my clarinet again and it was wonderful.
Since then, my skill has grown. As we continued graduating talented clarinetists in the chairs above me, I suddenly found myself taking on more responsibility and leadership in the section. I still have doubts in my abilities every time a new student plays their scales to warm up and struggle with physical limitations but eventually, I found myself joining the orchestra and playing Beethoven’s 5th Symphony wondering how I ended up there.
At PUC I’ve had the opportunity to perform as Snoopy in a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, sing with Chorale and Vox Pro Musica, play the A clarinet in Orchestra, tour with our music groups to southern California, and attempt a couple tunes on the Eb clarinet with PUC Wind Ensemble. I enjoy how music enriches my life and takes my mind off the daily grind one rehearsal at a time.
I’m no professional and I don’t have the discipline (or the physical ability) to be one, but in my own amateurish wanderings, music has taken me places I never thought possible. The next step in my journey is on the soprano saxophone and I look forward to seeing where this goes.
Editor’s Note: Join us as we celebrate the sacred sounds of Christmas in the 2021 Christmas on the Hill Candlelight Concert. This concert is presented twice: Friday, Dec. 10, at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Dec. 11, at 4 p.m., both in the PUC Church. Admission is free.
Chantel Blackburn is professor of mathematics at Pacific Union College.