Magic in the Dark

It’s a story I’ve told many times, but it seems appropriate to this web publication to trot it out once more.

Late summer – 1981: I was a high school junior taking part in band camp for the third time. We had learned the music for that year’s marching show, and were on the practice field learning the “drill”, i.e. the marching movements that go with the music. It was a hot day, and my band mates and I were happy to see a thunderstorm on the horizon heading our way. As it neared we could see there was a lot of electrical activity in it, so shortly before it became dangerous Mr. Thompson, our band director, gave the word to head indoors.

We had barely made it inside our windowless band room when we heard the heavy rain and thunder pummeling the roof. Not wanting to waste the time we had left on our practice for the day, Mr. Thompson dismissed the percussion to a different part of the building to work on their music, and had us wind players form a large circle in the band room. While we faced each other, our field commander counted us off and we started playing the first song in our show. Before we had gone halfway through the tune, the power cut out and we found ourselves playing in pitch darkness. A few members dropped out expecting us to stop, but when no word to stop came from our field commander or Mr. Thompson we all continued playing without missing a beat.

That’s when it happened. Our music, well memorized by this point, took on its own life. With no visual distractions, we were totally focused on how it sounded. It sounded better and better as we went along, and when the final note sounded, we just stood there dumbfounded. We were a bunch of teenagers, good enough to make it through the music, but only just, and we had just been treated with the opportunity to see what it felt like to be musicians. We heard the disembodied voice of Mr. Thompson as he calmly gave the word to keep going. The field commander kicked us off again and we started the second song; then the third; and finally, the closer.

By this time the shock had worn off enough that we were able to talk excitedly to each other. The band room door was propped open, which let in enough light that we were able to put our instruments away, and we left, each of us carrying the memory of that experience. I don’t know how many of them still carry it with them now, three decades later, but I will never forget. That was the day I became a musician.

There are art forms that people get into almost from their earliest memory; visual arts originates with a box of crayons and sheets of paper, or sculpting with modeling clay or Play-Doh™. Some kids sing, sometimes before they can even talk. But there are some arts that require a certain amount of education and training before you can even start. Writing is one of these, and so is instrumental music.

Of course, kids can make up stories before they can write, and they can drum on the bottoms of upturned boxes, but there are things they have to learn before they can truly dive into the art for which these proto-endeavors are the seeds.

Sometimes I feel that this gives us an edge. Who can remember the first time they were praised for a good drawing, or how well they can carry a tune? These people have carried their abilities with them all their remembered lives. But those of us who came to our arts later, we can remember. Nearly any writer can tell you the first story or poem they wrote that was singled out as being particularly good, the first time that people called them a “writer” instead of saying that they could “become a writer”. Instrumental musicians have similar memories. Most are from an especially good performance. Mine happens to be from a rehearsal, but it still means the same thing to me.

These become gems that we carry with us all our lives. If we’re lucky, there’s no recording of the incident, and all we have to go by is our memory of it. It keeps the magic of the moment going without the harsh realities of its actual quality. Logically, I can’t believe that that rehearsal was flawless, but it sure seemed that way to my 17 year old mind. My whole life feels like a pursuit of having that feeling again, and I’ve been lucky enough to get close to it a few times.

The arts are like that. It’s exhilarating and humbling at the same time. You come away from a work or performance and think, “Wow. Where did that come from?” I imagine it’s related to painting instructor Bob Ross’s “happy accidents”, when something unexpected just clicks. The humility comes from admitting, at least to yourself, that you’re not really that good; the exhilaration from thinking, “Well, maybe I am.” And so we keep going just to find out.

These are moments that demand to be cherished. They supply the fuel that keeps us working. They supply a level to which we can aspire, and give us the strength and pride to keep going when it isn’t working. Today, I routinely play better than I’m sure I played in that darkened band room back in the day, so the skill level isn’t what I’m working for. It’s that feeling, the one that says that this is something special. Someday I hope to come away from playing shocked into silence, certain that something magical has taken place, and thankful that I got to be a part of it again.