Saturday, September 23, 2006

Bluegrass 101

Date: September 22
Mileage: 25.6
September mileage: 294.2

If there's one thing Alaska will never have a shortage of, it's live bluegrass music. You can't wheel a cart down the frozen food aisle without bumping into someone who plays in some kind of bluegrass band. I personally work with more than a handful of such musicians. Tonight we went to the Island Pub for thin-crust pizza and ended up spending a couple of hours watching the stylings of a decent Juneau bluegrass band, "Bluegrass 101." Most of the musicians were inexplicably dressed like mod hipsters, dancing around the stage as they shared a single microphone. But in the back, almost lost in shadows, was the female bass player. Decked out like an extra in "Annie, Get Your Gun," she stood with quiet dignity and plucked at the strings as the whirlwind swirled around her. It made me wish I never gave up the bass.

It happened in the seventh grade - a terrible time to take up any instrument, really, let alone such a social monstrosity. But that's how things happen with me. I showed up at Orchestra 101 on the first day of school and sat in quiet confusion as they doled out all the string instruments. After a while, my bespeckled string-bean of a teacher held up a bass. Nobody volunteered. He looked pleadingly at the class, in such a way that without even saying a word, he somehow convinced me that I would be adored and showered with As if I accepted the strange challenge. I remember the decision being motivated by a misguided attempt to be a teacher's pet. But I think there were early sparks of an inherent desire to be unique. Either way, my reluctant hand crept into the air.

I didn't quite realize the gravity of my mistake until the teacher assigned everyone an hour of practice per night. He said this as I stood next to my instrument, towering a full two feet above my 5-foot, 90-pound frame. But it didn't sink in until he handed me the body-bag-sized carrying case.

In middle school, I lived literally behind my school building. It was a two-minute walk if I dawdled. But the prospect of hoisting that thing across the soccer field, past the fence and into my house filled me with the kind of terror that only 12-year-olds can appreciate. I've been trapped beneath an overturned raft in churning whitewater. I've ridden out a swirling storm at 13,000 feet in a turboprop plane. Those later experiences don't even come close to the kind of scary I was facing as I stood in the empty orchestra room and contemplated my walk home from school.

So there I was, the end of my first day in middle school, waiting and waiting and waiting in the dark room until I was certain that either the building had cleared out or the apocalypse had come. I crept into the empty hall, first dragging the bass behind me, then bear-hugging it as a waddled slowly foward. When I reached the door, I lifted it over my head with all the strength my tiny arms could muster and broke into a full-out, no-holds-barred sprint. I truly believed that by running fast enough, I would somehow become invisible. My lungs burned and biceps ached, but they were no match for the searing humiliation, the indignity of it all. I don't know that I've since run so hard, or experienced a 200-yard commute that took so long. But I made it home, wheezing, panting, sinking into the numb realization that this was what my life was going to be like every day from now on.

Well, the next day my mom put in a call to the school and came to an agreement that they would give me two basses, one to keep at home and one to play at school. That first-day bass run was the only one I ever did, but the damage was done. Any chance I ever had for musical passion had burned out in a flash of embarrassment. I was, from that day forward, the surly, scowling adolescent slumped over a string bass in the back row.

Do you ever wonder how your life would be different if one single day, one simple humiliation had somehow worked out differently? That's what I wonder sometimes about the upright bass. Maybe I wouldn't have become one of those people that obsessively rides a bicycle every day. Maybe I'd be in a band called Bluegrass 101.

It almost seems strange that I'll never know.


  1. I used to play the violin.

    No, let's re-phrase that............

    I held the violin under my chin and tortured my music teacher with it.

  2. it's never too late....

    peace out, yo!

  3. Life is a strange and wonderfull thing. Great post.

  4. I love the image of you sprinting with the bass over your head...while in the midst of 7th grade angst.


    Luckily, my dad found me a used flute....

  5. I'd be able to pee in a public urinal...

  6. I had to play the upright bass in college, because the electric bass was not considered a legitimate instrument. I was older and wasn't embarrassed about it, but it was like transporting a canoe around with you! And because of this, I left it in the locker at school a lot. And because of this, I could never make a pleasant sound out of it. And because of this, I ditched orchestra a lot... Thankfully I was allowed to play electric bass in the jazz band, which I really enjoyed. If I remember correctly though, you could take the peg out of the bottom of the bass and replace it with a wheeled peg, making it easier to get it to my pickup truck in the rare event that I took it home to practice.

  7. I don't understand why people don't enjoy the bass more, I'm a Junior in High School in Alaska, and I've played the bass in many of the bluegrass bands the writer talks about, it's great! :D


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