Constructing Your Identity
Let me tell you about my friend Jake, the trumpet player. He hung out with the wrong kids. He was caught drinking on campus and was suspended. Then he was caught smoking pot on campus and was suspended. He was arrested for robbery and thrown in juvenile hall my sophomore year. All the parents in the Jazz Ensemble signed a letter of support and faith in Jake and sent the letter to the Judge. Jake was let out of juvenile hall, under the mandate that he was to stay in Ensemble. Within a week, he got into a fight. Some of his teeth were knocked out. It was the best thing that ever happened to him. He couldn't play trumpet for weeks and realized that something in his life had to change. He started hanging out with new friends and rearranged his life. He was back in the Ensemble in a few weeks. The next year I saw him prevent fights, and break up fights after they had begun. Now he goes to Cal State San Jose, where he has had no disciplinary problems.
Let me tell you about my friend Ted. He has no parents and is being raised by his single grandmother. He won the Yamaha National Drum Competition against college students when he was nine years old. One day he did not come to Ensemble. The day before, the gang he hung out with was the target of a drive-by shooting. He hid beneath a car. He was too afraid to come to school the next day. He stopped hanging out with the gang. When he was a sophomore in high school, he was awarded a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music. Now he attends Berklee when he is not on tour.
Let me tell you about my friend Joe, the drummer. He lived in Concord and every day commuted fifty minutes each way to Berkeley High, so he could play drums in the Jazz Ensemble. His drum set was stolen. His family started saving money to buy another drum set. Then his house burned down. Now he lives in Oakland, another long commute, and does not own a drum set. His junior year, he won a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music. He is the drummer on the CD I produced; he played on a borrowed set of drums.
Let me tell you about my friend Tony. He was arrested for defacing public property his sophomore year. He was held in juvenile hall for two days. Several weeks later, he escaped the police by jumping a fence topped with barbed wire. He cut his hands and could not play trumpet for three weeks. This was a turning point for him. Now he avoids all hard drugs and paints in a sketchbook. He does not fail classes anymore. He practices several hours a day and has a direction to his life.
What has Ensemble meant to me? Every day in Ensemble, I work with Ted, Joe, Jake, and Tony. And I work with everyone else in the band. After four years in the band, I have become friends with all of them. Through them I have seen many different sides of life. What has this experience meant to me? It has changed the way I look at life. I no longer take anything for granted. Every day in Ensemble I am reminded that I am lucky, not because my parents are together, but because I have parents at all. Every day I am reminded that I am lucky because I have never had to worry about getting shot while hanging out with my friends. Every day I am reminded that I am lucky because I don't have to worry about having enough to eat. I love life. I love life no matter what, because I see every day how much worse it could be. But I also see joy in the musicians' lives. All of us love music. And when we play, everyone's troubles are forgotten. Or if not forgotten, expressed, and so released through the music. When the Ensemble plays, our various backgrounds combine to form an incredible mosaic of music. And I love it. And everyone else in the band loves it. And most people listening love it too, for whether or not they understand the music, they can feel the energy. And for a few moments, everyone is truly, genuinely happy. What has playing in the Ensemble meant to me? It has shown me a release from sorrow, from anger, from fear. It has shown me a bonding of people and of cultures. It has shown me that it is an insult to others to take anything for granted. It has shown me how to express myself in a way that can be understood by musicians anywhere. It has shown me how to work with people and, more important, how to become friends with them. It has given me a window into other cultures, other backgrounds, and other lives, and it has given me a window into myself.
Ensemble has also given me a way to help. I organize and lead a quartet: drums, bass, piano, and me, sax. We get gigs around the Bay Area, $300 to $500 per gig. All our earnings go to the Ensemble scholarship fund. The fund is for instruments, lessons, and tour costs. The Ensemble has an "all-or-nothing" policy for tours-everyone goes or nobody goes. Many of the musicians cannot afford to pay any tour costs, and most cannot afford to pay all of the costs. My combo raises thousands of dollars for the fund. It feels good to play with members of the Ensemble, and it feels good when my combo gets paid and a new trombone appears in class the next week.