Reprise of the Band Nerds

There are many types of nerds and geeks: computer nerds, film geeks, tech nerds, “gleeks” (“Glee” geeks)… the list is endless. But none may be so quintessentially representative of the awkwardness and obsession that defines all nerds and geeks as the Band Nerd. (Capitalized here as a sign of respect.) Here are a few reminiscences of one such nerd… me, even though “band nerd” is a label I adamantly resisted at the time.

In my teenaged years, I was not only a Band Nerd, I was the Band Nerd; the Queen of the Nerds, if you will. For two years I was the drum major, a job that required boundless energy, a tolerance for inadequacy and apathy, and an ability to adapt to constant change: In other words, it was great preparation for my future careers, parenthood, and life.

As training for my new role, I attended “Band Camp” (Yes, seriously.) at Boise State University during the summer. We future drum majors were in our own elite group, learning marching and direction techniques. Included in this training were about fifty different styles of fancy drum major salutes to be used before a performance. None of these would have passed muster in the military, but your average dance team member would have thought they were fabulous. One of the highlights of my trip were the evening sessions in the dormitory lounge, watching video tapes of marching band performances. The dimmed lighting and my peers’ focus on the screen gave me the perfect opportunity to make out in the back row with Mike Jones, a drum major from another school who was attending the camp. He had a very unique 80’s coiffure that incorporated very blunt layering in the back, making the back of his head look like M.C. Escher stair steps. For some unexplained teenaged reason, I found this attractive. It was something like this, but with a few more layers in between the top of his head and his neck.

(Yes, “Mike Jones” is his real name, but I figure there are way too many Mike Joneses out there to make this story specific enough to find him. Then again, if you are “the” Mike Jones, and happen to have stumbled upon this blog and are having an “OMG!” moment, I would love to hear from you and see a picture of what your hair looks like now.)

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, you learn a few survival techniques for living in a rainy climate. Among these is remembering to bring rubber boots to band practice. For anyone who forgot these, we kept a supply of large zip-lock bags that could be slipped over shoes to create water-proof booties. We cheekily referred to this footwear as “Zip-Walks”. Sometimes, the mud and rain were so bad that we would have to make an announcement over the loudspeaker asking the seniors to move their cars to the junior and sophomore lots, giving us a space on which to march free of mud.

As with any marching band, at least any that I’ve observed, band instruments have alternative uses during slow periods in practice: drums become stools, Sousaphones become basketball hoops, drum sticks become projectiles, and flutes become batons. I’ve seen many a flute player attempt a spinning catch only to see her flute stick down to the keys in the mud.

One of my very best friends throughout childhood, “Skip”, played the French Horn. Throughout his band career, he was the only French Horn player, which means that he had to carry the part all by himself; this also meant that he was always first chair. I remember in our first few years of band as young children, walking home from school, carrying my light, little flute and encountering him on the road ahead, sitting on the case to his heavy, awkward horn and awaiting my approach. Despite the fact that he was at least a foot taller than me, I would swap instruments with him for the walk home, giving him a reprieve from his musical burden.

The marching band uniform is a special hell all its own. Being an especially petite person (read: puny) I was always the first in line to receive my uniform for the year, since everyone was lined up from smallest to largest. Even the smallest available pants required hemming, altering, and suspenders to keep from sagging off of me in a way that threatened to reveal my panties as they fell to my ankles while marching. And the hats seem to have been designed purely for torture and not for any uniform, military-esque look. The hats we had were “white”, tall, fuzzy affairs with a painful band encircling the head and a chin strap that would rival the restraints of any dominatrix. (“White” must be in quotations, as their color was solely dependent on the care they received from the previous year’s wearer.) We referred to them as Q-Tips, since they made some of the more svelte band members look like walking cotton swabs on a stick. These hats endured a yearly washing that involved dishwashing soap and a hose, but the more discerning and fastidious band members would use Woolite and warm water, followed by a cool blow dry after they received theirs.

I remember getting clocked by one of these hats during one of my first shows as a drum major. As everyone was lining up in position and preparing to be announced, one of the clarinetists waved me over, telling me that she didn’t feel well and thought she was going to pass out. She has a bit green and sweaty, so I attempted to assist her to the sidelines but her knees buckled beneath her. In one fluid motion she dropped onto the grass, nailing me with her fuzzy, white hat on the way down. My own hat was dislodged, bouncing off of her head and landing in a mud puddle, creating a dark, dripping stain down one side. Help arrived, and the rest of the show went off without a hitch… except for the occasional dribble of mud rolling down my face or neck. By the time we’d finished the show, the clarinetist was feeling a little bit better and sat with her fellow woodwinds throughout the rest of the evening.

As a drum major, I had the added challenge of a band director with what I can only guess was a severe drug and alcohol problem; He was absent frequently and had a mercurial personality reminiscent of Sally Field’s portrayal of “Sybil”. We had substitute teachers about twice a week, which had the potential to cut into our rehearsal time. These well-meaning “educators” (read: babysitters) would advise the class that since they were not music teachers that we would have study hall for the band period. I would quickly and rather loudly interrupt, directing my musical minions to get their instruments and take the field for practice, leaving a befuddled and miffed substitute teacher in our wake.

All-in-all, I learned what one is expected to learn from band: musicianship, teamwork, discipline. But I also learned a tolerance for the less than perfect, empathy for those with a more difficult path than mine, alternative uses for everyday objects, and how to make the most out of a bad situation. Maybe being a band nerd wasn’t so terrible after all.

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