letting down the band

A work ethic doesn’t come out of nowhere.

In high school, the band teacher casually asked those of us in the clarinet section if anyone wanted to tackle the E♭ clarinet for a couple of pieces that year. There was a moment of silence.

The E♭ clarinet is a fickle beast. The piccolo of the clarinet family, it plays a fourth higher than a normal B♭ clarinet, an instrument already famous for its capacity to punish the ear drums. This is an E♭ clarinet played well. It’s easy to imagine what it sounds like otherwise: Wince, and then extrapolate backward. A composer calls on the E♭ clarinet for its piercing quality. Why you’d ever want any of your music to pierce is beyond me, but remember that Beethoven was deaf.

Also, and despite what you might imagine, public schools don’t stock top-of-the-line musical instruments in excellent repair, either. The lone E♭ they dug out of the basement storeroom represented exactly what David Dinkins—or, more likely, Fiorello La Guardia—considered adequate for an obscure and rarely played orchestral instrument at a New York City high school. If clarinets came in Cracker Jack boxes…

All of which is to say, the deck was stacked against the holy fool who volunteered for the job: Me.

Bad idea.

In our year-end concert, the whole band would be counting on me to nail those scattered flurries of ceiling-scraping arpeggios. The pressure was on. Except, it kind of wasn’t. Sure, I practiced here and there between bouts of Doom, but somehow the notion that I would no longer be able to blend into the clarinet section the way I normally did never settled into my awareness. The alarm bells of adrenaline and norepinephrine simply didn’t go off. When the big night finally came, I sauntered onto the gallows—er, stage—without a care in the world.

Did I squeak? Of course I did. Squeaking on any clarinet is a hazard of the trade, but on the E♭ it constitutes a war crime. In fact, you can still hear the echo of that squeak more than two decades later, here in the Maven Game. Afterward, my friend’s dad, a wonderfully blunt lawyer I always suspected of mob ties, summed it up with characteristic eloquence: “You guys sucked. Let’s eat.”

The lesson sank in. An evening of humiliation became a plank in the foundation of my work ethic. It’s a sturdy platform in my case because there are a bunch of planks alongside that one. Those painful lessons support me in all the work I do for my clients.

Unfortunately, I don’t stand on that platform when it comes to my own work. I’m still perfectly comfortable squeaking when I’m playing to an empty auditorium—somehow, it isn’t sufficiently humiliating when I don’t show up for myself.

It seems like it would be a simple thing, a small mental shift, to hold myself accountable for work that doesn’t involve collaborators. But that work ethic was formed in the fires of my subconscious and it resists conscious tampering. The best I can do is weave other people into the mechanics of my work to create a protective web of accountability. To this day, I depend on the rest of the band when I want to show up for myself.

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