Uphill Starts
Emma Oulton

Amateur Hour

When I went to college, I (of course) had the explicit intention of reinventing myself: I was the only person in my year going to a school across the country, and I was determined to be the coolest one, the most glittering girl at the inevitable Thanksgiving weekend reunion, so help me gods.

I gorged myself on independence, and for a couple of months, it fed me. Then my boyfriend broke up with me over Skype, my roommate stopped talking to me, and I learned that everybody back home had tightened up our-no, their friend group, around my absence.

It felt like I’d been dropped like an anchor, thrown overboard without having a chance to make my case. But given the choice between sink or swim — well, that really isn’t a choice, not if you want to live.

In grade school, I played the flute for ten years: from ages 8 to 18, the kind of steady showing of success that looks good on a college application but, on its own, is whatever; just because I played the flute didn’t mean that I had any long-seated attachment to or adoration of the instrument, especially not after learning about American Pie. (Which I’ve still never seen.) But, due to two important factors—perfect pitch, and the knowledge that my parents were desperate to support and see their daughter succeed at something, anything—I could coast on lightly cultivated and relatively unchallenged talent. For most of my years in school band, I was first chair; when I wasn’t, I knew it would only be a matter of time.

Yet, as I wasn’t “serious” about music in a “my life’s pursuit” way, I thought I’d keep up playing in college through a more casual outlet: marching band. Alas: I “missed” my freshman year application deadline (read: my parents still had sway over me, and had forbidden me from joining) and gave up on that dream, instead sporadically attending football games and watching my flute gather dust in a corner of my room. Then, perceived rejection from my hometown crew; then, an understanding that I was no longer, if I was ever, the “best” in the room; then, a thought that wormed its way into my mind. Maybe… you should just be the worst. Maybe, you should swallow your unearned pride and see what happens.

The first day of band camp, right before the start of my sophomore year, I traded in my flute for a mellophone and began the arduous process of learning how to:

  • March while playing an instrument
  • Play a brass instrument, after spending years refining my technique around a flute’s very specific mouthpiece
  • Read music that sounded totally at odds with what I expected read music to sound (a function of having, and coasting on, perfect pitch)

In the end, I learned most of my music by ear anyway. But I lost myself in what was, to me, a deep dive into a totally foreign culture—it was only in marching band that I made any straight, white male friends.

After three years of literally bleeding, sweating, and crying on football fields across America, I handed in my uniform and my instrument and tackled something else. My stint in marching band had reignited my love of live music and performance, but while I’d pursued the former by covering live music around Los Angeles, I set the latter aside. There were limited opportunities, even when I was a marching band member in school, to play a mellophone outside of the football season. Though the flute is more versatile, I could now barely hit the upper and lower ends of the three-octave range; no serious non-professional orchestra would want me, not that I had the time to pursue that kind of commitment anyway.

It’s oftentimes assumed that the easiest, “truest” way to write about something is to go through the thing yourself. It’s the backbone of publications like The Talkhouse or the Players’ Tribune or the reason behind the emphasis on first-person POVs, but the standard of “you write what you know” is oftentimes unfairly placed at women writers’ feet. (After all, our feminine upbringings make us impossible of seeing and feeling impartially, right?) So I wasn’t too hard on myself when I stopped performing live music but continued writing about it, because shit, no dude would ever deny himself the self-proclaimed title of “expert” or “authority” just because he wasn’t actively involved in or with something. (Relevant: pickup artists.)

Which didn’t mean I stopped imagining the feeling, of the rush of blood to your flushed cheeks, the thrum in your heart when you pick up your instrument or step up to the mic and stare out at your would-be listeners, the seeming roar of approval that comes at finding community through sound. I wanted to tell every performer I ever interviewed, hell, every person I’ve ever spoken to in passing: I know this feeling too, I’ve felt it before and it’s one of the only things that makes the mess of living worthwhile. Creating music alone can be cathartic in its own way, but the beauty is in the birth, the giving up, the giving over. “I trust myself,” laced behind every bass hit or cymbal crash or slamming of the keys; “I trust you,” screamed out in a shriek or in a furiously strummed harmony or a lone horn call.

So, I’m doing it again: I’m picking up a totally new instrument from scratch and teaching myself how to play through YouTube and broken nails and muscle memory. The bass is my friend’s older sister’s; the strings need to be replaced, and the volume knob is missing. I can barely reach the head stock. When I feel its weight settle across my back, I stand tall, like I did in uniform on a field in front of thousands. I remember what it means to play.