By Kevin Kling
Musically, I pretty much plateaued in junior high school. I always thought it was because a week after I got my trumpet, my brother threw a pencil down the bell, which, it seemed to me, gave it a nice smoky jazz sound. But the band director saw it differently, and had to have a heart-to-heart talk with me.
“Kevin,” he said. “You know, there are many other avenues of artistic expression that you might explore.”
“Kevin, you can’t stay in the band.”
“But sir, I can’t join choir. I’m tone deaf.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know.”
And art was so messy, and home economics scared me. And I knew there was a song in my heart, somewhere, though I was tone deaf and had no rhythm. And I cried and he softened up and he gave me the last chair in the worst band: the Cadet Band, all seventh-graders, and me by then a ninth-grader.
Now, Mark Twain said, “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.” Everybody’s music was better than it sounded when we played it. Listening to our band, you always felt like there was a bee trapped in your head somewhere that couldn’t get out. At the Wall of Jericho, we could have been the band that prevented structural damage, because I’m sure the Philistines would have just said, “Stop it. We’re coming out.”
I have to admit I was part of the problem. Whenever the band finished playing a song, I always had more music left to play. Or I would finish and put down my horn and the band would keep going, and quick, I would have to pick up my horn and pretend I had more to do. One time I was playing the “Hogan’s Heroes” march, and low and behold, I finished at the same time as the band. A miracle! Then the band director said, “Very good, and now we’ll play the ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ march.” I still don’t know what they were playing.
The best time of year to be in band was the summer. I loved marching band. For one thing, everybody got to play, and I was right there next to Kim Feller, first chair trumpet, the state champ. The drummers, all hockey players, were tough and cocky and sinewy. And the music, not regular band music, oh no: in marching band we played bona fi de pop hits.
Everything could be a marching band song: “Hello, darkness, my old friend”: ba-da-bada-badapa; BUM, BUM (snares, then bass drums). “Silence is golden, golden”: ratatatattata (high hat cymbals). “See the tree, how big it’s grown”: BOOM (timpani), dagadaga (high tom-toms), daga-daga (low toms), BOOM (timpani). “Purple Haze”: brrrrump perrididdle (snares). “Dog, dog, dog eat dog”: taka-diddle-poppop-chee (whole hockey team: center, wings, offense and defense). “Tequila” (vocals)!
Best of all were the uniforms. School colors black and orange, ancient and wool, for both seasons. High beefeater-style fur hats that had to be cinched in so tight your eyebrows sat just above your upper lip. I remember bringing my uniform home. I was so excited. I was also kind of small, so they’d given me a girl’s uniform...with darts sewn into the chest. Even worse, when I put it on, the darts went in, hugging my concave, sunken chest, making me look like the mold for a 1957 Cadillac bumper. My mom, bless her, stayed up late taking out the darts. I was set.
That summer, Mr. Sand, the director, announced we’d been invited to a real parade: the Old Milwaukee Days parade in Wisconsin, three miles long, and we would be judged against other bands.
Mr. Sand also announced he was going to turn us into something. (We thought we already were something: wrong!) We drilled for a month. “Come on, you lazy good for nothin’s. You call that an embouchure? Put that horn to your lips and give me twenty!”
We marched into the night, up and down, under the streetlights of Osseo. Kids were sitting on the corners, taunting us. Corner after corner, lines tight, eyes forward, and Mr. Sand turned us into a well-oiled machine.
We made the drive to Milwaukee and spent the night in a motel. In the morning the entire drum section was in the motel office promising they’d “never do” something again, and they’d “pay for it.” They seemed a little foggy and their uniforms a bit off, like they were in the Italian Army.
We made our way to the parade site. There were busloads of bands from all over the country, eyeballing each other, a real once-over. As we lined up, I almost laughed. We had this whipped. Mr. Sand’s plan was flawless. A block away we’d start with “Hogan’s Heroes,” an old basic. Then, as we approached the judging area, feint back with “MacArthur Park” as a palate cleanser. Then hit ’em hard with “25 or 6 to 4.” It was brilliant.
I looked up front at our drum major, Mike Marachek, size 15 boot, all-white uniform and hat. An imposing figure, he was haughty, powdered, pampered, rouged and ready for action. (Actually, he looked like a giant Q-Tip.)
We had just lined up when all of a sudden, a parade official jumped in front of our drum major. “Hold it, hold it,” he said, “Bring ’em in.”
We watched as they positioned the 40-horse Clydesdale team in front of our band, amazing, majestic, imposing beasts pulling a large wagon of beer and barrels. And no clean-up crew. Which meant we’d be marching down the middle of Milwaukee in 98-degree heat, with the
40-horse fun factory mining every step of our way.
Those wool uniforms were heating up. My beefeater hat felt like a solar collector. “Keep your heads high,” directed Mr. Sand. “Don’t panic, we’ve trained for this.” He also handed out salt pills to take “only in case of an emergency.”
I’ll never forget it. Just before the judging table, our front-row flute section hit something on the pavement. Watching those beefeater hats drop was like a scene from The Patriot. Horrible. I decided to not look down no matter how or what I felt. The drummers were unfazed. Mr. Sands kept shouting words of encouragement. We hit the judging area and kept our heads high.
“…25 or 6 to 4…”
After the parade, Mr. Sands came around to everyone individually, and told us he was proud. I looked down at what was once a spotless spat.
“Mr. Sand, look.”
“Throw ’em away son, just throw ’em away. You did good boy, real good.”
And right there the song in my heart took off. I was still a little tone deaf, still without rhythm, but the song was no longer trapped inside me. I marched. I did my job. Music was mine.
Kevin Kling’s plays have been produced in the Twin Cities and around the world, and he is the writer of the Minnesota Orchestra’s annual Home for the Holidays program. His collaborations with composer Victor Zupanc include For the Birds for Zeitgeist, The Burning Wisdom of Finn McCool with the Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and, most recently, The Best Summer Ever for the Children’s Theatre Company. A frequent commentator for TPT’s Almanac, NPR and MPR’s All Things Considered, Kling was named the Minneapolis Story Laureate by then-Mayor R.T. Rybak in 2014. He grew up in Osseo, Minnesota, and graduated from Gustavus Adolphus College. More: kevinkling.com.
Kling wrote this essay for the Sommerfest 2006 issue of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Showcase magazine.