“Oh, crap! Not again!” For the third time this year, second chair French horn player Doug challenged first chair Anna. Now she had to sacrifice another lunch hour to a play off. She didn’t question Doug’s right to challenge her. She just had so little free time and now she had less. She had wanted to use lunchtime to polish her English paper for the county contest. Now she’d have to turn it in as is.
She knew the play off was pointless. Doug practiced a lot. He tried hard. He just didn’t have natural rhythm. His fingering was correct. He counted the tempo accurately; but that was just it, he had to count, he didn’t feel it.
Anna loved music in the way that people do who sing along in their cars. For the fun of it. Because it mirrored their emotions or improved their mood. She liked it when Mr. Mason, his back to the audience, mouthed, “Good job,” when she had a solo. That was fun, too.
Sometimes old Doug, as second chair, had a solo. Solos made him nervous. When it came time for him to perform, his eyes shifted repeatedly – almost desperately – between the music and the conductor, as if asking Mr. Mason to get him through it. He played correctly, but the sound came out mechanical and pinched. It just didn’t sing. And Anna was pretty sure he wasn’t having fun.
Sometimes she almost wished Doug would win a challenge. He cared a lot more than she did. He was only in band. It was his main thing. She was in a lot of stuff.
A month ago, Mr. Mason had come to Anna with a scholarship application for a French horn player who planned to go into music education. “You’ve got a good chance,” he said.
She liked Mr. Mason. He was fair. He was a good teacher and conductor. She hated to turn him down. She thanked him, but told him, “I want to major in English in college.” She thought of the day they studied Browning’s “My Last Duchess” in English. Her mind opened right up. Before Mrs. Blair explained the poem, Anna hadn’t a clue; but when Mrs. B. talked about dramatic monologues and irony, like what the duke really meant when he said “I gave commands. Then all smiles stopped together.” To learn it meant the duke had had the duchess killed, was a revelation. When you knew that, all the other lines made sense, too. So that was it! Cool! Poetry was a code to crack, a puzzle to unlock! She’d discovered a whole new world.
* * *
That noon Anna reported to the music room. Doug was already there. Mr. Mason was leafing through music, choosing what they’d play. He set the music on Doug’s stand.
“Take it from the third line to the middle of the next page.”
Doug raised his horn to his lips, placing the rim of the bell just so on his thigh – the way horn players do. Mr. Mason tapped out the tempo on the music stand and cued Doug on two. His first note squawked a little but he got into it and relaxed a little. He only had to back up once. His face turned all red when he did that and Anna knew he was mad at himself. She felt sorry for him.
She recognized the section of music. In it, the first horn played the melody with the flute and the clarinet sections. Then half way through, the whole band came in as the melody danced its way to the bridge. It was a beautiful section.
“Okay, Anna. Give it a try.”
She blew spit from her horn, adjusted her position, and waited for her cue. Rich and mellow, the melody line sang through her horn. Anna let the emotion of the passage set the pace and the volume until Mr. Mason signaled “Cut.” That’s where the band came in.
Mr. Mason tapped his baton on the music stand. He did that when he was thinking. He stared at the page. Then he reached out his hand to Doug. “Good job, but I’m sorry.” Anna watched Doug’s face fall.
The director turned to Anna, “I’ll expect you to play it that well in spring concert.” He shook her hand.
She looked at Doug’s long face, caught his eye, and shrugged. Then she took a fast look at the clock and muttered “Darn!” It was time for English.
* * *
Anna sat next to Patsy in English. Patsy played third horn in band. Anna whispered, “Got challenged by old Doug again.”
Patsy complained in a whisper, “Now he’ll probably get all crabby. He just upsets himself and then he upsets me.” Looked like it made Patsy crabby, too. Patsy hated when Doug challenged her and lost because he complained about Anna to her and she felt stuck in the middle. She just wanted the three of them to get along.
Patsy leaned over and added, “Maybe I should challenge him for second chair. That’d keep him out of your hair. Except with my luck, I’d probably win.” She grimaced at Anna who knew Patsy was content at third chair. Band provided a social outlet for her. That was all.
* * *
Last bell rang. Anna hurried to the music room to pick up her horn to take it home. As she pulled it off the shelf, Mr. Mason came up beside her and said, “You’re off the hook. I set a limit of three challenges a year.” He grinned at her sympathetically. “Doug would probably never stop otherwise.”
She told him thanks as she left the room. Because of the challenge, she knew her English paper today had not been her best work. Now she didn’t have a chance in the contest.
* * *
The next two weeks the band practiced hard for the spring concert. Anna could probably play that passage by heart, the one she and Doug had played in the play off. With only days before the concert, she got some news she never expected.
She stopped at the band room. As she pulled open the door, Doug shot out. He was grinning and running and smacking his hand on the hallway walls as he ran.
Anna watched him go. “What’s up with him?” she asked Mr. Mason as he came out of his office.
“He just got some good news.”
She told Mr. Mason her good news. She had won Honorable Mention in the county writing contest and the reading was the same night as the spring concert. Could she please miss the concert so she could read?
“No, Anna, I can’t let you go. You know you’ve got an important part in this concert.” He questioned why she would sacrifice the lead part in the horn section for a mere Honorable Mention in writing.
It was hard to explain.
She tried harder to convince Mr. Mason to let her go. “But Doug could do it. You know he could.”
Mr. Mason stood behind his director’s stand tapping his baton the way he did, looking at the floor. “I could give him extra practice, I suppose.”
“Please, Mr. Mason. Please.” She knew she was begging, but she pushed her advantage.
“All right, you’ve got the night off. I guess you deserve it with all those challenges this year.”
She thanked him over and over until he told her to get out of the band room and go find Doug. “Just tell him I need to see him again.” He had told her to get out, but he did it with a smile on his face.
* * *
The day after the county contest reading, Anna walked on air. It didn’t make sense because she knew her piece had been far inferior to the others, but she didn’t care. She’d do better next time. She wasn’t even jealous of the others, just pleased to be chosen at all.
Not until she bumped into Patsy at their lockers did she remember she had missed the concert. Patsy grinned from ear to ear, “You should have heard old Doug last night. He was really good.”
Anna said that was great and asked how she had liked playing second. “Kinda fun. I wasn’t wonderful, but I got a kick out of it. But you’ll never guess what else.”
Anna asked what and she rushed on, “Old Doug got a scholarship! Mason announced it after the piece with the solo. He’s gonna be a music teacher!”
So that explained why Doug went rushing down the hall that day. That was his “good news.” When she’d turned down the chance to apply, Mr. Mason must have asked him.
It appeared to Anna that getting the scholarship and being first chair for a night gave Doug that extra something he needed to shine. Maybe it did for him what being mentioned in the writing contest did for her.
She and Patsy looked up to see Doug heading to the music room to store his horn before class. He saw the two of them and came over looking like he felt as good as Anna felt.
“Patsy said you were great! And congratulations on the scholarship.”
“Thanks,” Doug said. “The concert was lots of fun!” He asked her about her reading. She told him about being last but that it felt like being a winner. Then Patsy and Anna turned and walked Doug down to the music room, all of them loudly singing the passage with the horn solo, walking – almost marching – in time to the song. The principal caught their eye, gave them a disapproving look and a tiny shake of the head. They giggled and abruptly brought the volume to a low hum. Still humming, they rounded the corner in rhythm with the piece, a musical threesome on their way to class.