I haven’t used any illicit substances, but when I was in high school I nevertheless had some “Stoner Thoughts.”  Most of them were the adolescent standard: I was introduced to the concept of solipsism and I spent a week telling everyone who would listen that they might not actually exist, and I watched the German movie Mostly Martha and had the mind blowing revelation that some people are fluent in multiple languages, none of which is English.  

One of those thoughts that sticks with me, though, and that still gives me that feeling of smallness and connectedness that correlates with out-of-body transcendence, is something that my high school band director, Mr. Moore, once said offhandedly in the middle of class:

Humans have spent our entire existence making our senses into art. For instance, we realized we could enjoy sight, so some people took up painting. In fact, we have historically taken the things that have hurt us the most and turned them into something beautiful that we could somehow take pleasure in.  Stones crushed us, prevented us from planting, and made us feel small and powerless: we turned them into sculpture. Nature starved us, forced us to work for every meal, and reminded us of our mortality: we planted gardens. Time took everything we loved, made strong joints creaky, and ticked ever forward, keeping us from accomplishing all we could: we made time into music.

I happened to go to see the Dallas Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night with my husband’s company.  I haven’t been to a symphony since early in college, nearly ten years ago. This performance celebrated the year that would have been Leonard Bernstein’s one hundredth, so the orchestra played selections of dances from three of his famous shows: Fancy Free, On the Town, and, of course, West Side Story.  This was time art in more than one sense.

Even when I was still at home, getting ready to go to the concert, the music was transporting me back to high school.  Mr. Moore had assigned us “Concert Review” essays every semester, which forced us to go out into the community and experience concert bands and orchestras other than our own, and I always felt silly going to those. I was an awkward teenager with clothes that were always in various stages of fitting or not fitting, and I had the fashion sense of a person who hated shopping and could not fathom spending more than twenty dollars on clothes at a time. So asking me to get dressed up to go to a concert at the local community college or, heaven forbid, downtown Chicago, became an order to stitch together a patchwork outfit that more often made me look like a hostess at Chili’s than a girl out on the town.  

And here I was again, all these years later, having recently purged my closet in order to move across country, and desperately trying to guess how fancy I should dress given the people we would be meeting.  My shoes didn’t match my dress, my earrings didn’t match my necklace, and my eyeshadow managed only to accentuate a weird bruise that recently popped up on my chin. I felt fourteen years old again.

More than my stylish stumbling, Bernstein’s work took me back. The sweeping strings called to my mind all of the beautiful scores from Old Broadway.  Through the midst of The Depression, the Great Wars, and all the uncertainty that followed afterwards, popular music was grand and hopeful, even when the stories it was attached to were full of pain and ignorance.  To listen to the soundtrack of the era, you might not realize just how much fear and brokenness our country held at the time. I’m sure, in fifty years, when my grandchildren hear the music of Hamilton, they’ll wonder at our current celebration of our nation’s creation, as we’re all living in fear of the political forces that are tearing that nation apart.

I played the saxophone for nine years, so I was not invited to take part in any orchestras. Most orchestras have no need for saxophones, in part because most famous classical orchestral music was written before the instrument’s invention in the late 1800s.  But for one concert in my junior year of high school, the symphonic orchestra wanted to play a medley from West Side Story, which included a portion of the song “Cool.”  That show, and that song especially, prominently features saxophones due to New York’s exploding contemporary jazz scene.  So the orchestra director asked the band director to loan her three saxophone players for that one concert, that one song.  

Saturday night, as I sat in the audience at the Meyerson Symphony Center, I scanned the orchestra over and over again, looking for the saxophone player who had to be there.  Saxophones have connected me to music throughout my life: I maintain an unironic love of ska music, I jam (uncomfortably) to the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, of all things, and I love a good street busker on a tenor sax (even terribly out of tune in cold weather).  So when, during the final bow of the concert, the conductor gestured for the lone saxophone player to stand and be recognized, my heart leapt, as if that man’s existence alone was my reason for attending this concert.

I nearly cried during the violins’ singing “Somewhere.”  I shouted “Mambo!” along with the rest of the huge concert hall.  I felt the dread implicit in the discordant notes lurking at the end of “Maria.”  I sat through an hour of my Saturday, and barely noticed.

The whole night, I kept thinking back to my band director, and his mind-blowing statement that Music is the art of Time.  And as the saxophonist stood to our applause, I silently thanked Mr. Moore for teaching me the language of time, imbuing this Saturday night with more meaning than it could otherwise have had.

This morning, I woke up and readied for work, and I half hummed, half mumble-sang “…time together with with time to spare, time to love, time to care…” and forgot for a moment the worries on my mind, as humans have done since the beginning of time.

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