Nothing's Gonna Change My World
Everyone has a favorite song, one that he or she likes for whatever reason. Sometimes, it's because it's just a catchy tune or a cool artist. But often, a favorite song holds its significance because of the memories attached to it - both memories relating to the subject of the song, and relating to things that happened while hearing the song. So many songs hold significance to me for this reason; I've always loved music and have experienced some amazing moments because of my involvement with it. Music has taught me so much about love, life, and loss through various experiences that I've had in my many years of playing and listening.
Music was always in my life. I remember being 4 or 5 years old, cranky and hyper, while my mom was trying to put my brother to bed, falling into a state of silent awe as I watched the Boston Pops play their annual Fourth of July concert on TV. It's not that I hadn't been exposed to music before ? I had been to a few children's concerts. And my dad always played and sang for me ? but I had never heard or seen anything of that caliber, 100 people, 100 instruments, moving in perfect synchronicity and all being controlled by one tiny stick. They played with such conviction; all that mattered to them was that one note, making it as excellent and significant as possible. To my young self, this phenomenon didn't seem amazing. It seemed magical, like something from a fairy tale. From that moment, I wanted desperately to be a part of it, to make something from nothing, to love a song not just because I loved it, but because I lived it.
After a childhood filled with music from my mom's ever-playing records, the wail of my dad's trumpet, to hearing the Boston Pops every Fourth of July, I was all too eager to join band as soon as I hit 5th grade. I always really liked the silly hats that the flute players in the Boston Pops got to wear during the "Stars and Stripes Forever" feature. So I decided I would learn flute, and I would go to Julliard (the only music school I knew at the time) and as soon as I graduated I would go play with the Pops and meet Keith Lockhart and become a rich and famous flute star. After playing for a week without even getting a sound out of the instrument, I started growing resentful of it, miserable being trapped inside getting dizzy from blowing my brains out on a beautiful fall day. My dad pushed me to keep trying, saying that eventually I'd get it and reap the rewards. With him being a musician and me being a 5th grader, I listened, and eventually I managed to get a note out of my flute. Sure, blowing a really ugly B-flat was not much of an accomplishment ? some prodigies can pick up the instrument for the first time and get out a note that I couldn't hit for two months ? but it was enough to keep me going.
My dad's encouragement was not just incidental, he had been through the agony of quitting music. He played trumpet in school, was good enough that he got into All-States twice, and picked up some piano and guitar along the way. But ultimately, he decided he didn't want to take the leap into the uncertainty of a career in music ? it could still be a hobby, but not a life. He kept playing, to this day he still has his instruments, but he had felt the agony of giving up on music. I guess it was a defensive move, not wanting me to quit ? he wanted to shield me from the misery he had to endure. Sometimes playing well enough isn't sufficient, one often needs the opportunity to get better and to do more in order to feel fulfilled.
By the end of freshman year, playing flute had become incredibly frustrating for me. There were no advanced groups for me to play with like there were in middle school; the music we played in concert band was a joke, and many of the youth groups around the area I had played in had age restrictions. I still played for myself, but I had lost a lot of motivation ? it's much easier to practice when you know someone else is depending on you ? and didn't get a whole lot better as a musician. I decided to join percussion ensemble for the next year, they had just come back from winning a world championship and worked hard to become great musicians. As soon as the first rehearsal came I was hooked ? we spent 2? hours working incredibly hard, attempting to master instruments that most of us had never played so that we could become the best in the world on them in under a year. It was certainly no small task, but all of us were up for the challenge.
We rehearsed constantly, at the height of our season putting in 12 hours a week of ensemble time, plus individual practice. We had a very successful local season, going undefeated and scoring a 99.0 in our league finals, so we were excited for the possibilities of international competition.
Finally, it was time to head out to Dayton, Ohio for world championships. Even the night that we left, we were rehearsing right up until it was time to load our instruments onto the truck. Eighteen exhausting hours later, we were in Dayton, Ohio, sleepily unloading the equipment truck for more practice out in the parking lot. As soon as we had everything set up, tents and sunglasses and generators for our electronics and mallet bags and instruments and everything else we had hauled with us, we started practicing, still convinced in our exhaustion-induced delirium that we needed to get even better. It's incredibly hard to focus when you haven't slept much in the past 24 hours, but we pushed through it, making sure that the show was amazing when it counted. Every time we slacked a little, our instructor Matt would scare us with stories of the horror that had happened two years earlier, when Mansfield missed finals by one tenth of a point. Even on no sleep, everyone was firmly set against this fate, so we worked as hard as we possibly could in the hot sun, still wearing our pajamas and struggling to keep our eyes open, almost as hungry for lunch as we were for a world championship.
Throughout the next two days, we practiced so much. Everyone back home was jealous that we got to miss school, but rehearsing this much was definitely more exhausting than any class. This was a class in excellence ? doing whatever it takes to be the best and achieve your goals ? Matt and our other instructors Dave and Laurie were not going to let us fail. It was probably two of the harder days of my life, everyone was emotionally and physically exhausted, and yet we had to keep pushing, keep practicing even harder. Matt was pushing us incredibly hard because he wanted to leave the judges no option in choosing who should win. He wanted us to go in, beat them across the head with our show, and literally shock them with good playing. Concert class, the groups without marching units under which we compete, has been known to be less than exciting, but he wanted us to make everyone in the stadium feel as if we were the single best group in the competition. We were relentless, practicing constantly when other groups were probably at the nearby mall or hanging out in their hotel rooms. We truly wanted to be the best, and even though we hadn't seen another group we were to compete against yet, we knew that it would take a lot to beat them.
Thursday was prelims night, so we packed up the truck and headed over to the University of Dayton Arena, where we would be competing. We got there early and practiced in the parking lot, making last minute tweaks to the show, trying to get it as close to perfect as we could before giving the judges their first impressions of us. We wanted to blow them away so finals tomorrow would be a cakewalk, so we kept pushing until the last possible minute when we had to start moving our equipment into the stadium.
All was going well as we moved our equipment from the parking lot to the loading entrance. It was almost comical to see the massive exodus towards that area as other groups prepared to move their things as well. It was a long walk, but a walk of confidence, we all knew we were well prepared to blow the judges away. None of us were nervous to perform, we had been through so many competitions before and this was just a larger stage (theoretically at least, there were less people in the massive stadium when we performed than there had been to see us at our home show in Mansfield). The most nerve-wracking part of the night was definitely "the ramp", a very long, steep runway that we had to maneuver all of our equipment down in order to get it to the competition floor. We would be penalized if we made a lot of noise because we would disturb the other groups performing, so we had to get 8 mallet instruments and 6 carts down without anything falling or banging together.
After watching another group struggle, we determined that our best strategy would be to send the mallets down first, then the carts. We wheeled them down carefully, unaccustomed to having to push against where we wanted them. Those were not too difficult to maneuver without sound; the only loose parts were the mallets, which were soft enough that they fell silently. A few times one would tap harmlessly against a wall, but other than that, we got them down no problem.
As soon as we had them secured and set behind the next up curtain, we started hearing signs of trouble farther up the ramp. Fortunately, the crashing equipment wasn't loud enough that we would be penalized, but we couldn't afford to have any equipment damaged. We all sprinted up the stairs to where the carts were, pulling everything back onto the cart that had fallen over and helping guide all the carts down the ramp. It was almost comical, a human wall around the sides of the carts to keep cymbals from falling and wind chimes from pinging and drumheads from cracking. We managed to hold it all together with a lot of teamwork and willpower, getting everything safely to the bottom with plenty of time to spare.
We walked onto the floor after the previous group had finished, ready and eager to impress the judges. Setting up quickly, we looked up into the empty stands, save a few hardcore percussion fanatics, some parents, and the 4 judges, and realized that it didn't matter how many people we were playing for. Matt had talked about it all year, how we weren't just playing for the audience, we were playing for ourselves. We had to remember that ultimately we were the ones who decided if the show was a success ? the judges would be giving us a number to help us out, but we were the ones who had to live with whatever we did out there. We played our show very well, nailing it just as we had in the parking lot earlier that day. We packed up and left to get dinner even before scores were announced, confident that we had made the cut to get into finals the next day.
We sat at CiCi's Pizza, eating and relaxing and celebrating and waiting to hear our score. Our instructors had stayed at the arena, waiting to hear our score and place and whether we would move up a division depending on how well we did. We waited anxiously to hear from them, growing nervous as no call and no instructors came. We grew impatient, dying to call our parents and find out how we did, since the scores were already posted online. Finally, one of the chaperones got a call that the instructors would meet us back at the hotel to tell us the news. We grew even more nervous, fearing the worst, suddenly facing the possibility that we didn't make finals. The drive from the restaurant to the hotel was tense, everyone wanted to know, and yet no one could do anything about it.
We gathered in the hotel lobby, trying to be quiet because it was incredibly late by then, and we sat and waited for our instructors. And we waited . . . and waited . . . and waited. The dark lobby was no longer dark, the glow of all of us checking our cell phones for the time every two seconds kept it bright. Finally, they walked in, expressionless faces that concerned all of us even more. Finally, the news came. We made finals, in first place, with an impressive score of 96.15. We all finally relaxed, the tension released from the room. We had so far done exactly what we went there to do ? to excel. We knew we had a long day ahead of us, though, so we all went up to our hotel rooms and tried to get some sleeps so we could be well rested for finals day.
Even on finals day, even posting such a good score, we practiced. Oh, did we practice. We listened to the judges' tapes first, how they had reacted while we were playing the previous night, so we could use their comments to improve. They were all very impressed, some almost comically so. A judge who had formerly worked with the Blue Devils Drum and Bugle Corps, which has one of the best percussion sections in the world, called out every great thing we did, from "Go Mr. Castanet" to Elliot, who played a difficult castanet solo, to "Yeah yeah, my home girl on the bass!" to Bethany during a particularly impressive bass line. The judges were almost comical, falling over themselves to compliment us. Our improvements ended up being a lot of "play that louder" or "make that a focus" so that we really showed the judges the stuff that they liked. After listening to the tapes, we pushed through a long practice session, knowing that to post a great score we had to work even harder. After having lunch, it was time to pack up again and head back to the arena.
Again, we practiced in the arena parking lot, ignoring the buses and other groups and spectators all around us. We were only focused on one thing ? a world championship. With every passing moment we could see it more, we knew we were good enough. We knew we had worked hard enough. We knew the judges wanted to give it to us. All we had to do was let them. Once again, it was time to move into the arena. We had a lot less trouble with the ramp this time, we moved in two waves, having the carts wait to start heading down until everyone was back at the top. We got everything to the bottom no problem, all the hard stuff was now over. Now it was time just to do what we did best.
Once we were all set up and ready to move, we had a last minute pep talk. Matt told us how proud of us he was, how much we deserved this, how all we had to do was play like we had during every run-through in the parking lot and we'd blow the judges away. Laurie told us how much this meant to her and how she knew we were going to be great, and Dave, being his typical self, told us not to mess up and to think about all the things that we had worked on, ending with his typical slogan, "in time all the time". After a group hug, quiet cheer, and high fives all around (we had those down to a science from earlier in the season), we were ready to go on. We stood ready at our instruments, realizing the hugeness of what we were about to do. As the previous group finished, all of our thoughts were elsewhere ? how much we had worked, how much we had sacrificed, how much this meant to us. We were ready to take on the best groups in the world; we knew we had become one.
We entered the floor and set up to roaring applause; everyone had heard about our performance the night before. As we looked up to the balconies, seemingly miles above the covered gym floor upon which we stood, we realized that this was it. This was what we had been working for all year. This was the reason we sacrificed so much. This was our time. This was what we were meant to do. We all gave each other a look, a look of confidence and excitement and adrenaline and anticipation. As we were announced to start playing, our drummer started his count off, and I remembered when he had messed it up at a show earlier in the year but we still all came in together. As we hit our first note, aggressive and loud, I remembered the first time we literally made Matt jump when we played it. We played our first song amazingly ? better than we ever had before ? getting one of our judges to scream out of excitement when Rob, our lead mallet player, pointed at him in a pause near the end.
We all knew the second song would be the hardest to play; it was a ballad, so it was very important that we were able to reign in the excited adrenaline enough to play it with the right feel. As we quickly switched mallets before the song, we looked at each other, knowing that we could do this. Rob started, one silent motion bringing the entire ensemble into a rush of subtle motion and sound. We all got swept up in the flowing melody, playing it with more feeling than we ever had before.
The judges watched us, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as we nailed a complicated jazz ballad that most other groups wouldn't even consider doable. What we had once played at a flat, depressing little ditty had become an emotional, inspiring song ? we played it with more feeling than we ever had, transforming a simple melody into something that meant so much more. At the sudden silent pause, all of us looked up at the audience, many of them with tears in their eyes, all fixated on us ? even the parents who had seen us perform a dozen times didn't know what was coming next ? even a random guy screaming for us couldn't distract their attention. We closed out the ballad better than we ever had before, barely sounding the last note, leaving a hint of a question over whether the story of the song had ever fully resolved.
We got so many cheers. The audience erupted to the point where it was hard to hear the introduction to the next song. Knowing from other shows that this was bound to happen, we all knew to watch Eliza, who played the solo introduction, so we could keep time. We executed this and the rest of the final song flawlessly, our adrenaline pumping for the final push, as we played fast, hard, and loud right through the last note. Then, overwhelmed with the roar of applause, we moved our equipment off the floor so as not to receive a timing penalty. We were so excited, pure adrenaline had us speeding all the instruments back up the ramp so we could load them onto the truck before the awards ceremony. As we packed the truck, having to make sure it was done well since we didn't need the instruments again in Dayton, we started to realize what we had just done ? we had given the performance of our lives, left it all out on the floor, and truly reached excellence. We finished quickly, eager to go prepare for the awards ceremony. We rushed over, Rob yelling "We don't run in uniform!" but only half meaning it, we were all too excited to walk and look dignified.
We got in line outside the arena, the seniors debated whether they would do a salute when called up to get the trophy, and we waited. Eventually, they called us inside group by group, we walked down the stairs to flashing lights and loud announcements, lining up shoulder to shoulder with the best high school percussionists in the world. After all the groups were called down, the gym floor was a mass of musicians, all of us eagerly waiting to hear our scores and rankings. Every group had a different standard, from the group next to us that just didn't want to come in last, to us, who wanted a perfect score.
The rankings were to be announced last to first, alternating between Open and World divisions. Corona Del Sol. Daphne. Tarpon Springs. Clayton. Warsaw Community. Muscle Shoals. Tunstall. Bear Creek, 2nd place in open division. We knew at that point we had won, but not our score ? we were the only group not yet called in our division, so we looked at each other excitedly and ready to celebrate. Slower than every, the announcer boomed, Goshen (2nd place in the other division). Then, "with a ... Ninety-nine point one, Mansfield High School from Mansfield, Massachusetts, 1st place in Percussion Scholastic Concert Open!" We all looked at each other, shocked at such a high score. Our seniors, Alycia, Mike, and Eliza, went out to get our trophy and banner, then we all filed across the red carpet for the medal ceremony. Matt, Dave, and Laurie ran down from their seats in the stands, making their way down the line with smiles, hugs, and . . . Oh yeah, gold medals. As a trumpet fanfare played, we stood there, looking up at the roaring crowd, realizing what we had just done. We were the best in the world at what we did. We had achieved what so many others had dreamed of. All our hard work had paid off. This was what excellence was all about ? achieving the highest of highs, and having unforgettable moments along the way. It wasn't worth it just because we got to stand there and get lots of pictures taken of us, it was worth it because of all the little things along the way ? all the inside jokes and little mistakes and smaller victories that had come along the way.
It was an amazing journey, managing to learn new instruments in 10 months well enough to be the best in the world. We hadn't just learned about music, we had learned about life. Time management, every time we chose practice over sleep or TV. Priorities, every time we got in trouble with Matt because our parents were angry with him because our grades slipped. Perseverance, every time our hands hurt in rehearsal and Matt told us to play through it. So many other life lessons came from this experience, we certainly gained more than we could ever imagine. The very feeling of standing on the floor having a medal draped around my neck has never left me. It's one of those life-changing moments, seeing that you've done something so great. It's almost bittersweet, in some ways. You know you've done something so great, but you don't know if anything will ever compare to it again. It brought back so many memories, so much emotion, and that all just made it even more significant.
As we loaded the bus happily after awards to head back to the hotel, I couldn't help but think of what had come before this. From listening to my dad play to watching the Boston Pops to starting flute, it was all so simple. Sure, there were ups and downs, but ultimately the music kept me going. It made every high a little higher and every low a little less tragic. Playing for my dying grandfather, which meant so much to both of us, wasn't so heartbreaking as if I had just gone to say goodbye in words. That's the thing about music; you can say something even when it's too complicated or too emotional for words. A goodbye in a white, sad nursing home to a beloved relative should have been difficult to accept. But somehow, sitting there playing "Titanic", I knew it wasn't really a goodbye at all. My grandpa would still be there, in every song I played, and every tear I cried. I knew "my heart will go on and on" even though he wouldn't be there much longer. I knew the "magic tree" in his yard would still be there, and he'd still be there if I needed him. All these memories, all the emotions, they were a part of every song I played, everything I thought, everything I did or said. This life's journey, and the journey of so many before me, made every note, every measure, every song, mean something. To someone, somewhere out there, that song was all they had. I could give it to them as a gift, if I chose to. Every song is a testament not only to the musician, but to the people who shaped them ? friends, family, instructors, idols, and so many others who touched their life in some way. That's what music is all about ? human connection, love and hate and joy and sadness and fear and excitement and all the other emotions that make us who we are.