Book Excerpt: How Marching Band Can Make A Feminist

What exactly does it take for a woman to embrace the idea of being a feminist? Two of our favorite writers, Courtney E. Martin (who wrote Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters) and J. Courtney Sullivan (the lady who brought us Commencement), have joined forces to answer this question. In their awesome new anthology Click: Young Women On The Moments They Knew They Were Feminists, the Courtneys have collected essays from 30 young, female writers. After the jump, read one of them—Colleen Clemens’ description of how marching band made her realize she was the f-word.

The day Ralph Ciotti said a girl couldn’t play the tuba, a feminist angel got her wings. I sat on the grass astonished by his pronouncement, but in fact, his assumption felt correct. The girls held instruments of softness and light, just as they were supposed to walk in the world, while the boys banged with mallets and blew as hard as they could.

“The Right Pitch”
By Colleen Clemens

I became a feminist on the marching band field.

Though I never struggled with math and science (in fact, I did better on my math SAT than the verbal—a story I never fail to tell my students when bemoaning the emphasis on standardized tests in our No Child Left Behind world), I figured out pretty early in life that I needed to choose a humanities path. I joined chorus, though I really couldn’t sing confidently, and took French, which I saw as a highway out of my working class family. Madame Koch, so sophisticated in her knotted scarf, showed me a world beyond Mack Trucks and The Steel, a world that didn’t have harvesting times or government cheese. However, my first thrust into the arts came in fifth grade when I began to learn how to play the clarinet.

My mom made me practice on the screened-in porch with the back door closed. Our neighbors in the row of townhomes heard “Mary Had a Little Lamb” squealing through their kitchen windows while they made dinner. My parents bought me the clarinet, not rented it, and this financial commitment sealed my fate with the black plastic, shiny-keyed “licorice stick.” I bought Benny Goodman cassettes at the Woolworths. I rubbed cork grease on the instrument’s joints. I invested in expensive reeds early in my playing; I watched what the girls who had private lessons did and then I did the same. The clarinet section took up half the orchestral arc in the gym, but Timmy O’Donnell was the only boy. We stared at the flutists across the way; no boys sat amongst them.

Instead, the boys loomed over us from behind, always a bit higher on the stage. They held polished brass instruments and wooden mallets, which made loud, crashing sounds rarely in time with the conductor. When the delicate winds came in on patriotic songs and holiday arrangements, he would look back at them and passionately signal them to grow quiet, but pianissimo was not part of their boys’ vernacular. There was no nuance in their performances; the girls barely noticed that our parents never heard us through the crashing of the boys.

Throughout middle school, I grew as a player, always playing first or second clarinet, starting to take on the head mistress role of entering the concert hall last, playing a high C as the rest of the band tuned to me. When the band members seemed content, I nodded and took my seat where the audience watched the right side of my body for the rest of the evening. My embouchure improved. I sometimes practiced at home, but I belonged to several smaller groups such that I played every day already. Wind ensemble. Orchestra. Pit band for plays. Jazz band when I took up tenor sax. Its heft made me feel strong. I relished putting the strap around my neck to hold the length of the sax. My hips and arms supported this new instrument as I held it at my side. But my delicate reed-worn lips and strong mouth muscles remained attuned to my clarinet as I left middle school.

Though not eager to join the marching band’s clarinet line in high school—I was smart enough to understand the stigma attached to it—I realized I would be alone on Friday nights since all my friends would be marching at football games. To me it seemed a crude art, forcing Souza marches through my versatile instrument. What sounded melodic echoing through the auditorium’s acoustics became shrill and screechy out in the open. The footwork became more important than the music. As we toe-heeled around the practice field remembering our stops, I missed the Mozart and Bach whose performance never required sunscreen. New to the high school, I moved back down to the end of the first clarinets with the understanding I would find my way back to the top in a few years.

I listened to the section leader tune us, but by now all of the clarinetists were girls. Watching the football players’ practice across the field became more important than finding the right pitch. Staring at them run, sweat dripping from under their helmets, made us feel the warmth of the day even more; they were the cute boys, the ones who would pair up with the popular cheerleaders practicing on the other side of the stadium, their silver pom-poms catching the August sun. In the end, though, the clarinetists and the cheerleaders shared a common goal: on the sidelines with our marches and their short skirts, we were to rouse the winning nature of the boys. Even so, we marched and marched all summer long. The woodwinds dated the brass or percussion line. They paired up, sometimes passing each other on the field as we made our way into an X formation.

The brass player I liked wasn’t interested in a sophomore, so I watched from the lines as my friends found partners. Over bologna sandwiches and bug juice, I would talk to the other single members of the band. Mainly we talked about music, teachers, and cars and avoided the topic of dating. The tuba boys were all single, so we spent a lot of time together. They took great pride in the dented instruments they toted around the field in the heat. Their cheeks reddened at the great puffing required to emit a sound from the sousaphone. Our lunch chatter often turned to the virtues of the tuba and the glee of not having to wear the painfully dorky feathered band hat the rest of us wore; they donned red berets, slanted on the head to make way for the tuba that wrapped their bodies.

The day Ralph Ciotti said a girl couldn’t play the tuba, a feminist angel got her wings. I sat on the grass astonished by his pronouncement, but in fact, his assumption felt correct. The girls held instruments of softness and light, just as they were supposed to walk in the world, while the boys banged with mallets and blew as hard as they could, making blaring cuts in their air with brash sounds. His utterance of the unspoken gender rule in the band infuriated me. I needed to prove Ralph wrong.

Mr. Watson, our band director, loved music and would do anything to produce the best sound from our group. A composer who happened to teach high school, his esoteric compositions befuddled us, but his dedication to our excellence mesmerized us. Now a teacher myself, I laugh to imagine his response when a fine clarinetist approached him and asserted that in the next season of marching band she would play the tuba instead. He could have balked at my demand, but instead, he encouraged me and gave selflessly of his time. He confirmed that I would be the school’s first female tuba player, and his joy at the thought fueled my drive to prove a girl could do it.

I didn’t take into consideration that I was now going to have to relearn everything I ever knew about playing an instrument, even how to carry it. Now a junior in high school, I could hold my clarinet or saxophone case while juggling books and a Trapper Keeper, but the sousaphone required a full bodily commitment from our first encounter. The instrument wound around itself like a snake waiting to be charmed out of the battered black case. I needed both arms to wrap around the circumference of the new beast. My lessons served as the training required to heft the instrument on a playing field, something I had not attempted yet. In his free time during the summer, Mr. Watson showed me how to assemble the bell to the body, the mouthpiece to the rest. No finesse required, no cork grease or shimmying: simply inserting the dulled metals into each other.

For the first two weeks, my parents banished me to the basement with this brute. My first attempts to push air through the body of the tuba resulted in the sound of spittle echoing through several feet of brass. My delicate lip muscles now had to learn how to purse, to make duck call sounds instead of placing my mouth around a smooth point. No reed was there to create vibrations; now the vibrations had to come from me. The most I could muster was a few farting sounds when I abandoned all decorum and blasted into the instrument.

At school, I left the rows of clarinets, nestled safely near the conductor, and headed to the back of the room where the boys joked in between songs. Band gossip had spread the word that I was coming, but the boys still raised the eyebrows and poked each other in the ribs. I was terrible at the tuba, blurting out of tune notes, but no one seemed to mind or notice, even though my mistakes overtook the band. Being in the back row with the boys meant I couldn’t hear what the rest of the band on the lower tiers were doing; I was free to make mistakes without understanding their ramifications on the rest of the group. I began to drown out the woodwinds where I felt I belonged.

After a few weeks, the time to head out of the marching field arrived. I would now have to slip my body into the hole of the instrument and rest it on my shoulder for hours in the hot sun. The first day of carrying this strange creature left me missing the delicateness of my clarinet and wondering why I felt the need to prove a girl could play such an instrument; my doubt grew, but Mr. Watson’s pride and the thrill of doing something I thought a girl shouldn’t be doing propelled me on field. The other tuba players were kind and patient with me, perhaps wondering how long I would actually last before quitting, though I did survive the entire season. My arm muscles grew ropey, my thin legs showed defined quads as day after day I learned that in fact a girl could play the tuba in the marching band, even if she didn’t do it all that well. Once the season ended, I hung up my beret and didn’t return to the marching field my senior year.

Every day that summer we worked on the theme song to a popular show I detested: “Married with Children.” In it, the women played dim-witted sexpots in leopard-print skirts, always bickering with the gross men in their lives. I hated the popularity of the Bundy family and didn’t understand why the band was endorsing such a silly show based on machismo and misogyny. At the end of the song, the tuba line found its way to the center of the field for a solo; the last two notes of “Love and Marriage” were a descending blurt I came to regard as a noisy vehicle to express my disdain for the show, for a world where women should be tramps who circled around their men who made their lives miserable. I stood in middle of the action, took a deep breath, and sent all of my budding anger through the tuba’s body until it spoke for me in a voice louder than I had yet to know was inside of me.