“Remember, with the slurs, keep the notes nice and light. Let’s pick up at measure 69.”
The conductor taps his baton on the black music stand, and the St. Louis Wind Symphony breaks into John Williams’s Midway March, with the flute section playing brightly above the lush harmonies. This is the group’s first of only two rehearsals before next Sunday’s concert, a week from today. All are experienced musicians. My older sister plays piccolo and flute, first chair.
It’s been decades since I’ve heard her perform. During this two-hour afternoon session, the group is spot-rehearsing summer show-stoppers like the Candide overture, a Gershwin medley, The Magic of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Big Band Bash. It’s up to each musician to practice and learn or review whatever needs polishing before next Sunday. My sister makes the syncopated piccolo riffs in Bernstein’s Candide sound easy.
Today is the last of my three day visit, my first trip out here in seven years. Far too long. But something always seemed to get in the way of travel—tight budgets, busy schedules, the fact that she made a number of trips east while our father was ailing from Parkinson’s, the fact that flying by myself is exhausting. We’ve kept in touch by occasional phone calls, Facebook and email. Weeks, months, years, have slipped by.
So many years that when I checked my bag at the Delta counter at Logan last Thursday afrernoon, I was shocked that I had to pay $25 for the privilege. “We’ve been doing that for years,” snapped the ticket agent. Well, sorry, I didn’t know—and, by the way, if you didn’t charge so much per bag, maybe there would actually be room in the overhead compartments for everyone’s carry-on luggage. But I digress.
I’d love to carry on my bag. But I can’t lift it overhead or pull it down, and I don’t want to have to ask for help all the time. Getting through security with just my small shoulder bag was exhausting, enough—pulling out my boarding passes, juggling my photo ID, removing and replacing my laptop, taking off my coat, shoes.
Other than being squished like a sardine in my window seat and partially losing my hearing in my right ear due to shifting air pressure on the descent into St. Louis (it cleared by the next morning), the trip was blessedly uneventful. It was a relief to see my sister waving at the edge of the security barrier when I arrived.
Over the past few days, we’ve gone shoe shopping (she helped me find a great pair of Naot sandals that are both elegant and comfortable for my difficult-to-fit feet), walked through the stunning Missouri Botanical Garden in 90-plus heat and humidity, attended the St. Louis Fringe Festival, had lunch with friends I haven’t seen in decades, played Scrabble (no chance of winning against my sister, who has become a Scrabble online maven) and watched a hilarious performance of Spamalot at the outdoor Muny Opera. I’ve shared my new weather spotting fascination with my brother-in-law, had wonderful conversations about favorite writers with my younger niece and enjoyed our joint interpretation of what Tarot cards have to say about my business prospects (trust your intuition).
But sitting in on the Wind Symphony practice is the highlight. Music was a big part of our childhood. My sister was always the lead flutist in our school orchestras and bands. I played first violin and was concert mistress as a high school senior. I also played alto, bass and contrabass clarinet in our wind ensemble. It’s been nearly 35 years since I’ve been part, albeit vicariously, of a band rehearsal.
As the musicians wander into the music department practice room at Missouri U-St. Louis, I try to guess what instruments they play from the shape of the cases slung over their backs and shoulders. No more of those heavy black fiberglass cases that I remembered from high school—everything is lightweight, durable mesh fabric.
Watching one of the clarinetists assemble his instrument, plucking black and silver sections from their blue-velvet lining, I’m surprised as my throat clutches and eyes tear. I miss this. I miss the tangy smell of oiled wood and the bitter-sweet taste of reed on my tongue. I miss being able to make music myself. I can’t play clarinet anymore, because I can’t tighten my lips around the mouthpiece or manage the keys. It’s been decades since I could play my violin—an impossibility with my damaged hands. Octave spreads on the piano are beyond me, now.
So, instead, I write on my laptop as I listen. Composing sentences, capturing rhythms in words, is my music making. I sway to Gershwin and big band hits as I type, stopping to focus on my sister’s flute solos. I enjoy the stop-and-start practice to refine phrasing, the conductor’s bop-a-dah-be-dah-ba-dat-dat explanations of how the music should sound, the group’s wonderful sight reading, the great arrangements, my sister’s fluid notes.
Monday morning, she will drive me to the airport. But the music will linger, long after. And I won’t let another seven years drift past before I return.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.