Monday, April 30, 2012

XYZ is for xyzlophone (no, that's not how you spell it)

When I was in sixth grade, I signed up to take percussion in junior high because the boy I'd liked since fourth grade said he was going to, too. (He ended up taking saxophone.)

Percussion and I were not a great fit. I was a shy kid and the idea of being the loudest person in the room was terrifying -- in fact, I could never decide which I found scarier, the junior high band teacher or a timpani solo.

The summer after seventh grade, I was seriously considering quitting and taking something nicer, quieter, like art. This was a pipe dream, since I had never quit anything in my life (and for some reason believed that my parents would force me to keep taking percussion, which was clearly not true since years later Charlie quit trombone and Alpha quit French horn with their full support). But the idea of never having to walk into the junior high band room again was intoxicating, and I daydreamed about it like other girls daydreamed about boys.

And then my family went down to the Kaysville 4th of July Parade and I saw something that literally changed my teenage life: the Davis High School Drumline.

If you've never seen a really good drumline in person, you're missing out. No, the movie doesn't count. I'd highly recommend you go check one out at your earliest convenience.

Suddenly, suffering through percussion class in junior high didn't seem so awful if it meant I could be on drumline in high school. So I stuck with it, and eventually learned that I did like it, after all, despite never quite losing the feeling that I was trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Because no matter how much I eventually learned to love snare drum solos, runs on a marimba, or the way the way a suspended cymbal could send chills down your spine -- no matter how much I coveted that Davis High Drumline jacket -- the one characteristic that defined teenage Ru was "TERRIFIED OF MISTAKES."

There is no way to hide a percussionist's mistakes.

You might think that taking percussion was therapeutic, that forcing myself to continue the one path where all my failures would be revealed in a very public forum would help me overcome my fears. That was not the case. If anything, life as a percussionist highlighted how crippling I found failure, to the point where if given a solo, I would freeze up and not hit a single note rather than go for it and make a mistake. By high school percussion ensemble class, this eventually turned into finding excuses to not practice the solo at all.

Shockingly, high school drumline didn't work out how I wanted, either. Long story short, you have to try out for drumline, which meant sophomores were automatically in the marching band pit (the section at the front of the field with the non-moving percussion instruments, like xylophones and chimes) until spring tryouts.
My sophomore year in pit was not so bad -- pretty fun, actually. I made new friends, since Davis took kids from three different junior high schools, finally lost some (but not all) of my fear of the crazy-loud instruments, and seriously improved my muscle tone. (1. Percussion instruments are heavy, and guess who was in charge of loading them up on the trailer every day after school? The pit. 2. Every mistake in marching band was rewarded with 25 pushups. I was one cute little sophomore, albeit one who still didn't know how to apply eyeliner, by the time the Davis Cup rolled around.)

My junior year in pit was pretty awful.

See, I didn't make drumline as a sophomore. Out of 40 or so kids who tried out for 20 or so spots, I was fourth alternate.

And then, when drumline added six spots (five cymbals, one tenor drum) at the beginning of summer, I still wasn't on drumline. Unlike percussion, I was naturally pretty good at math in high school, and I knew that a fourth alternate should have taken one of those six additional spots.

But I was too terrified of the drumline instructor (who was a perfectly nice guy) to go ask him why I had been skipped over. In fact, I'm coming up on my 10-year high school reunion, and I still don't know why, or how, my name was passed over when six spots were added to drumline between the school year ending and summer marching band beginning -- because I never got the guts to just ask him.

Instead, I just suffered through pit again, a junior among sophomores (since all the other juniors who had tried out for drumline and not made it had the good sense to try something else instead of flogging themselves for another year), wishing that I had the guts to ask the drumline instructor what had happened, or better yet, just quit percussion and go join the color guard with my friends.

I wish this story had a really happy ending, that by my senior year I was playing tenor drums (my dream position all along, I'll confess) in the Davis High Drumline.

But instead I made cymbal line. The position for kids who was good ... but not quite as good.

And even though I was finally part of the group I had dreamed about since I was 13, I felt crushed. Cymbal line? I was the only other senior on cymbal line other than the section leader -- there were even sophomores in our section, because by then the rule on ninth graders trying out while in junior high had been loosened.

It certainly didn't help "Super Annoying Percussion Girl," who also made cymbal line and decided to quit before practices even began rather than suffer the indignity of it all, decided to come tell me how much she "admired" me for being able to take the humiliation. (Seriously, band kids. Take the drama down a notch, okay?)

But I didn't quit, because quitting at that point would have felt like I had wasted my time from seventh grade until my junior year. And I have I mentioned yet that I didn't learn how to quit anything until college?

Fortunately for me, not-quitting was a great decision in this instance, because cymbal-line or not, that one year of drumline was the highlight of my high school experience. I'd list the reasons why, but this post is already far too long.

After graduation, I did not keep up with percussion, unlike a lot of my peers. The fact was, I was never really cut out for it. More to the point, the sight of that drumline jacket did make me feel proud ... but also slightly embarrassed, and that's not something I'm proud of. Because for me, high school was not defined by my successes (AP classes taken and passed, scholarships earned, science competitions won, miles run, volunteer projects completed, short stories written), but by the thing that I tried so hard to achieve, and only kind-of-did. In fact, until I began typing this post, I had actually forgotten about being a National Merit Scholar and winning Science Olympiad awards because drumline overshadows all of it.

I've always thought there are three kinds of people -- those who hated high school, those who loved high school, and those who look back on high school with a sort of vague, awkward fondness.

I'm in the third category all the way, and here's why:

Because of high school drumline, when I realized in college that medical school was the wrong choice for me, I immediately quit and became pre-law.

("Why did you decide to go to law school?" "Because of drumline." It makes no sense, but it's true.)

Because of high school drumline, when I found out my boss at the student newspaper thought I wasn't doing a good enough job, I stormed into his office to ask why.

(And from that moment on, when he had a problem with me, he told me so himself.)

Because of high school drumline, when the junior associates at my firm decided to prank the summer associates by telling us that a partner was angry about our goofing off at firm events, I told them in no uncertain terms that was bullshit, and if they didn't want us to have fun, they shouldn't have taken us golfing in the first place.

(Not the reaction they expected.)

Because of high school drumline, standing up in front of a professor or judge and making an argument has never seemed scary to me.

(No judge or client will ever compare to being a lone cymbal crash during a rest note in front of a stadium full of people.)

The thing about life-lessons is, you generally don't realize you've learned them until a decade later.


(It's a drumline thing.)


  1. What a great post. Thanks for sharing. I quit the basketball team my Senior year because I hadn't played much my Junior year and figured Senior year would be more of the same if I made the team, and it didn't make a ton of sense to just go to practice and never get to play. It was really scary to tell the coach (who I respected) that I wasn't going to play that year. And thankfully my parents were fine with it.

  2. This is a great story. Your high school drumline is my B.S. in math. I earned it, but I hated most of it, it's the reason I'm a lawyer now. Quitting is the best, but only after you've learned that you have it in you to stick it out and survive. Rock on.

  3. great story and you're right about not learning the lesson until much later

  4. Thanks, guys :) The strange thing is, I really did love being on drumline for that year, but I just had some many weird, conflicting feelings of embarrassment about it too. All the same, I wouldn't go back and change anything - other than perhaps telling my 16 year old self to grow a pair and go ask the drumline instructor what happened that summer. Grrr. He really was a nice guy, I have no idea why I found him so scary.

  5. I am in the third category, too. I was relatively popular in high school--but not top-tier popular. I actually missed out getting a gold seal on my diploma rather than a silver one because I didn't sign up and pay my dues for one semester of Honor Society! I should have gone in and argued about it, but I was too intimidated.

    My past failures overshadow my triumphs, too. I was never terribly shy or embarrassed to get up in front of people and do stuff, but I was very easily intimidated, and I didn't dare complain to my parents because I didn't think they'd go to bat for me.

    Excellent post. Glad you learned from your mistakes! Me, I got my chutzpah from having to deal with the public school system on behalf of my kids. (Even when you're a lot older than the teacher, she can be intimidating at first.)