Newspaper Column

by Angus MacDonald

(First published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Thursday, February 26, 1998, Datebook Section, Page E-10)

I never played a reed instrument before I decided to rent a saxophone in December. My previous musical experience had been mostly as a bass guitarist, notably in 1980, when I joined a punk rock band that fired me for incompetence after three months.

On Saturday the thirteenth, I went to the nearest music store (East Bay Music in Concord), was briefed with the minimum knowledge required for getting music-like sounds, and took home an alto horn. I hoped to learn "Jingle Bells."

Getting through my first scale took a half hour; then my mouth was too tired to keep blowing and I put down the instrument. Both our cats had fled the house. Later, when Bjork, the younger cat, returned, she spotted me reading on the couch and ran more quickly than usual onto my lap. My guess is that she believed the saxophone was an animal that had been attacking my face, so she was glad to find me alive.

As I continued playing that week, my biggest problem came from my misunderstanding of how the reed should fit. For the first few days, I had it protruding 1/8" beyond the the mouthpiece, but when I clamped it even with the mouthpiece tip, there was much less squawking (the store guy had said "like a thumbnail," but people trim theirs differently...). The cats still fled, but for briefer periods.

Even when I sounded real bad, though, I enjoyed working the saxophone as a mechanical thing: operating the buttons and levers and noting how they affected the various shafts and rods.

After five days, I could get through the beginning of "Jingle Bells" (the part before "Dashing through the snow") with better than 50% accuracy.

At the one-week mark, I needed more reeds; I'd had three, and the first two went quick, what with being mounted wrong. The store guys decided I could probably manage heavier reeds, which was apparently a measure of progress. The same day, my wife told me "You're getting better"; her earlier comments, prompted by concern for the cats and neighbors, had been typified by "It's an evil thing you're doing in that garage."

When we arrived at my sister's on Christmas, my wife determined that both niece and nephew were up from their naps, so I was able to stride to the porch and play my section from "Jingle Bells" without causing anyone to wake up screaming. The relatives were surprised and delighted, if somewhat puzzled. Mom asked, "Is that something I didn't let you do?"; I assured her I'd never even thought of it till recently. My brother-in-law looked at me funny, but he always does. My sister hugged me and guffawed.

After dinner, the nephew wanted to try, so I washed my holiday cold germs off the mouthpiece with the heavily antiseptic soap my sister favors, put a fresh reed on, and handed the horn over to the tyke. He blew for about five minutes, achieving a remarkable variety of tones, before gazing up at me woozily and saying, "You play it now" and sagging against some furniture. I repeated the microbe-killing regimen (the mouthpiece was dripping inside and out, and the reed had substantial chew-marks) then waited ninety seconds at my sister's direction while she adjusted her camcorder; meanwhile, the nephew kept calling "Okay, blow!" at me, like a bop-era frontman ordering a solo.

Once my sister gave the sign, I reprised "Jingle Bells" for posterity while the niece laughed and the nephew danced, more on beat than I was.

In the new year, I've changed the alto for a tenor (same rental fee, even though the tenor is bigger and shinier), letting me play more of the low notes I'm used to from the bass-punk days. The older cat often keeps napping for the whole time I play; Bjork sometimes doesn't leave the house.

I'm learning a non-seasonal song (Ronnie Lane's "Annie") to keep my chops up till the Christmas decorations appear in September. Then I'll learn the rest of "Jingle Bells," and maybe also that one about chestnuts. We'll see how it goes.

(Angus MacDonald lives in Concord.)