Sebastian Crocker/ (saxophone); (music notes)

All the Right Notes

Who needs perfection anyway?

By Kristin Lewis
From the May 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: after reading a heartfelt story, students complete an activity focused on one literary element: inference.

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When you make an inference, you draw a conclusion from clues in a story. For example, if a character rolls his eyes, you could INFER that the character is annoyed.

When Genevieve Jordan played the tenor saxophone, she forgot about spilling grape soda on her white sneakers. She forgot about her wrong answer to that question about ribosomes. She forgot about her friends going to Starbucks without her. When Genevieve played the sax, her shoulders relaxed and the corners of her eyes crinkled up. When she hit a bad note (which was often), she laughed.

But when Genevieve played the tenor sax, the three other kids in music elective did not laugh. Their shoulders did not relax. Their eyes did not crinkle up.

When Genevieve practiced her scales, Ankur Roosjen stared at his trumpet and tried not to cringe. Josh Francis belched out notes on his tuba loud enough to drown her out. Tara Smith took to cleaning her piccolo with the hyper-focus of a surgeon operating on a heart.

Ankur, Josh, and Tara were in the school marching band and had been playing their instruments for years. They felt bad for Genevieve, who, before this class, had never played a single note in her life.

On the first day of music elective, Mr. Tamez let Genevieve pick an instrument to learn. She looked at the clarinets, flutes, oboes—all small and delicate. Then she spied a large saxophone sitting by itself in the corner, as if it hadn’t been invited to the party.

“The tenor sax,” Mr. Tamez said, following her eyes. “It’s a very misunderstood instrument,” he added.

Genevieve picked it up. She liked that it was shiny and heavy and took some muscle to hold. Mr. Tamez showed her how to attach the reed and purse her lips to make notes. The more she played, the more she liked the feeling of the keys opening and closing under her fingers, and the challenge of timing her breath so she wouldn’t get light-headed. As the weeks passed, she liked that she could almost play “Three Blind Mice” all the way through without squeaking.

But it was more than just those things. She liked that the music room had musty old carpeting and water-stained walls. She liked how Tara’s fingers moved hummingbird fast on her piccolo and how when Josh bellowed on the tuba, it felt like a thunderstorm under her feet. She liked how when Ankur was frustrated, he circled the room muttering and eating string cheese. She liked how Mr. Tamez tapped his foot all the time, even when no music was being played, because there was always music playing inside of him.

“Genevieve,” Mr. Tamez said one day. The band kids had a big concert coming up, so Mr. Tamez had given them the period to practice on their own. But no music, aside from Genevieve’s, was actually being played. Ankur was circling the room with his cheese. Tara was rubbing her fingers. Josh was glaring at a piece of sheet music like it had just insulted him.

“How do you feel it’s going?” Mr. Tamez asked. His foot wasn’t tapping at all.

“What do you mean?” she asked brightly.

“Your work ethic is commendable. But do you feel you’re improving?”

Genevieve shrugged. “Sure.”

“Well, I was wondering if you might like to try something new. The triangle?”

“Why? I like the tenor sax.”

Mr. Tamez nodded.

“I know I’m not very good,” she stated, watching a rain cloud pass over Mr. Tamez’s face.

Genevieve blew a note that came out as an ear-piercing honk. Then she started to laugh. Slowly, a smile spread across Mr. Tamez’s face. Genevieve returned to honking out “Three Blind Mice,” but at a faster pace, like an overwound music box.

Josh looked up, grinned, and shouted, “Go, Genevieve! Go!” He snatched his tuba and played along, but softly, so as not to drown her out. Tara grabbed her piccolo and played in harmony. Ankur swallowed his cheese and riffed on his trumpet. And Mr. Tamez’s foot resumed tapping—with fervor, as if a whole jazz band were playing in his head. They slowly formed a circle, jamming together on their weird little tune.

Mr. Tamez sprang to the door and opened it, gesturing for them to file out behind him. And off they marched into the afternoon sunshine: Josh, his tuba thundering; Ankur, his notes as smooth as silk; Tara, her fingers hummingbird fast. And of course, Genevieve, her pitch flat, her tempo uneven. But every few steps, she bent her knees deeply and gave a dramatic whirl.

When they reached the school yard, their song floated into the air. It wasn’t the most perfect or the most beautiful. In fact, it wasn’t at all perfect and not even a little bit beautiful. But their eyes crinkled up and their shoulders relaxed, and to everyone who listened, it sounded like joy.

This story was originally published in the May 2020 issue.

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