From Dying Duck to Marching Band Member

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It’s my last month of that glorious nonexistence between graduating high school and starting college. I am insubstantial, unreal and awash in possibilities. The past is past, filled with prom and graduation caps. The future gapes before me like a choose-your-own-adventure novel, only with 50,000 more possibilities. My dorm stuff is already purchased and waiting at Grandpa’s house, 10 minutes from the University of Notre Dame. It’s almost go time. But then—

“Do you want to try out for marching band?” The late arrival of a shiny brochure prompts a strange question from Mom.

Sure, Mom. Only problem is that the Notre Dame band doesn’t have a color guard—my thing, my number one activity in high school. But Mom doesn’t mean guard. She means an instrument. Well then, let me just grab my marching piano. Or ukulele. Or… yeah, I don’t actually play brass or woodwind or percussion anything. But after tossing the thought around for a few days, it starts to sound like a fantastic idea.

Most of my friends in high school were in band, and even if I don’t make it, I’ll have made a bunch of new friends during a grueling band camp experience who also won’t have made the cut. I’ll know the layout of campus before classes even start. And I do need something to anchor myself in the vast sea of opportunities that will soon engulf me. A capella? Swing dancing? Creative writing club? Absolutely. But first, an attempt at marching band to ease myself into the world of college extracurriculars.

The next step—choosing an instrument I won’t totally embarrass myself with. Calls to my high school band director and to the ND band office reveal that saxophone, baritone, and trombone are the easiest instruments to learn and that Notre Dame needs more tubas, baritones, and trombones. There’s some overlap to work with, so it’s time to weigh my options. Literally.

Tubas are heavy. Like, really heavy. Trombones are awkwardly long and I don’t trust myself not to spear someone in the face. No idea what a baritone is, so it’s the winner. It turns out to be a low-brass horn, essentially a marching version of a euphonium. Heavy for a short, not-terribly-muscled girl, but not impossible. So I have an instrument I want to learn and… approximately three weeks before it’s time to leave for band camp. No biggie.

Since many people have never even heard of the baritone, it’s easy to imagine the shortage of baritone teachers in the world. I found a trombone teacher who decided I wasn’t quite a lost cause. Thus began three weeks of intense lessons—four hours a day and solo practice on the weekends. It was rough—there were days when my lips were so tired that my instrument sounded like a dying duck. I struggled with memorizing finger positions. My dog absolutely hated the sounds coming from my horn. But I kept going, and one day I managed a very muffled, wavering version of the Notre Dame Victory March. I left for band camp with the audition music memorized, a huge bottle of sunscreen to prevent Indiana from turning me into a lobster, and a very cautious hope that I actually might make the band after all.

My last thought on the first day of band camp: “I made a mistake.” My arms ached from holding my baritone up all day. I had minimal marching experience. What was I doing there, next to people who had been playing since middle school?

To my surprise, it got better. Once I was able to march and play at the same time, I felt much more confident. Even if I didn’t make the band, there were a million other things I could do. But spending three days sweating in the sun, learning a routine and connecting with four hundred other suffering people made me certain this was what I wanted to do. There was no going back and I was fully prepared to pull a Rudy and audition again next year if necessary.

Auditions came and went. I wasn’t remarkably good, but I wasn’t awful either. The upperclassmen thought I could make it, but it was all up to the band directors. The next day, I trudged to the band building at 8 A.M. to check the list, passing several disappointed piccolos and a sobbing clarinet. My gut twisting, I scanned that terrifying piece of white paper and found my name.

And that is the story of how I found my niche in college, my place of belonging. It’s not always a direct path to your favorite activity or friend group. Sometimes you have to go out of your way and try something you’re completely unsure of. Whether it’s as crazy as learning an instrument in three weeks and shipping off to worlds unknown (AKA band camp) is up to you.

A Floridian learning to survive in the tundra that is the Midwest. Sophomore English major at the University of Notre Dame. Goal in life is to be a cross between Jane Goodall and Walt Disney.

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