Applying to college is a place where people can get lost between worlds.
In high school you can be good at everything: math and literature, sports and music, artistic pursuits and hard science. But once you choose, once you decide what you’re going to do with your life, you can’t deviate without consequences, and changing your mind only puts you behind the rest of your peers. Is it any wonder why people drop their hobbies after high school?
Perhaps that was what was going through my head when I wrote my college application essay, which I was sending in to Engineering schools, about my experiences in a band. I’ve always been a musician — the classically trained kind, not the rock and roll kind — and I guess I wanted to prove to myself that I always would be, no matter what I chose to study.
The essay has long since been lost to time and the voracious appetites of school google accounts that get deleted the day after graduation, but I still remember writing about the feeling of sitting in the front row of a symphonic band.
I was fifteen. It was an honors music festival. I chafed at the girls sitting next to me. We were so close; just a couple of points apart. We lorded it over one another silently: how we were so similar in skill, and yet arbitrarily sorted best to worst, one, two, three, four, eight, twelve, too many flutes for a band this size. They were better than me at runs; my fingers were clunky on the keys. But my vibrato was better. My low tones were the best in the section, and I knew how to blend. But that wasn’t what mattered to the scorers.
The pieces were standard, boring, forgettable. Opener: high and loud. March: Sousa this year, didn’t matter which one. Ballad: elegy. Weird contemporary piece: impossible to count. Closer: epic stinger.
We were fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, unable to take ourselves seriously. We wanted loud, we wanted fast, we wanted to show off. I glissed all my unplayable runs (I still do). We practiced the elegy; easy. Notes were slow. Sight read the whole thing. But the conductor was disappointed.
He was a contratenor, sang for us once. His voice never dropped, left him with a girl’s voice and no Adam’s apple. Said he could have made a fortune in opera because natural contratenores are so rare, but was here because he loved conducting high school bands, for some reason. He lectured us in his high voice, light even when he tried to artificially darken it.
Ballads are hard, he said, the hardest of any song. Notes are easy, but music? Music isn’t notes. This is an elegy, an elegy to a tragedy you’re too young to remember: Columbine. Play it again.
But we were fourteen, sixteen, eighteen; we didn’t understand loss. He stopped us again, disappointment clear. We didn’t understand. We had to understand.
I was young, and the memories I have of that festival still remain fractured, but I remember what he told us that day, and I doubt that time will ever remove the words seared into my brain:
“Every parent should have the luxury to die before their child.”
The festival was short. We were soon on stage. Notes rang, fingers twitched, the hall boomed with sound, and then we played the elegy.
Even when I did not play, I played. I was the ensemble; sitting in the front row, the sound from behind me made the whole stage vibrate, and I pressed the sole of my shoe to the floor. The sound traveled up my foot, my leg, my spine, my head, a quiet rumble that shook my body, and then the oboe two chairs away from me began his haunting solo.
His was the only face I remembered. He looked so young, barely tall enough to escape the bell of his instrument. In the front row, I sat with my flute in my lap and watched the baton slice through the air. At the crest, the conductor faltered, and his free hand wiped wetness from his eyes for a single moment.
I was fifteen: on the cusp of childhood and impressionable adulthood. As an adult, my vision blurred as the sound surrounded me, the conductor my cue as he always was. But as a child, I panicked about being able to read my music and blinked the tears away before they could touch my soul.
Sometimes, I wonder if this small, meaningless moment, the instant between panic and enlightenment, was the pinnacle of my musical career, because it remains the first and only performance of my own that has brought me to tears.
It wasn’t until years later as a college student, sitting in the Engineering major that music essay had netted me and growing restless and irritated from the lack of music in my life, that I thought about trying to find the name of the piece my teenage self hadn’t cared enough to remember. Unfortunately, a quick google search of “song to honor Columbine victims” didn’t cut it, because there were thousands of pieces composed for the tragedy, and symphonic music tends to get buried under the flashier sounds of pop and rock.
I wasted days listening to piece after piece in my search, but only grew more frustrated. Perhaps, like a real elegy, it had lived its purpose. Elegies are not for the dead, but for the living, to allow them to remember and heal. I had already been inspired. Maybe I didn’t need it anymore. Six months later, I finally picked up my flute again and joined a campus band.
It wasn’t the best band on campus, nor the best I’d ever played in, but it was full of musicians like me who refused to give up their love of their instruments, even if they had decided not to pursue music as a career.
I was eighteen, and we got a new piece that day. We didn’t know if we’d play it; sometimes the music appeared in our folders and then dispersed. It was just another song, another set of notes, another paper to be subsumed. It was a ballad, an elegy. Emotional music, we all knew, was the hardest. We were eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. We knew all the ways to play.
Our conductor was a joker, but that day he was serious. He explained the story behind the piece: the commission, the first concert, the tragedy. The Columbine school shooting.
There wasn’t that many symphonic band pieces composed in memory of the victims of the Columbine school shooting, not nearly enough that I didn’t recognize the title from my desperate search months before: Tichelli’s An American Elegy. It wasn’t the same piece; it couldn’t be. I couldn’t remember what it sounded like.
My fingers remembered the piece. I played it without fault, perfect at eighteen what was perfected at fifteen. There was an oboe solo, then a trumpet. The elements lined up. But it didn’t sound the same.
Speakers crackled in poor alignment as the conductor played a piece into the stillness of the room, telling a story, making magic with music. Choir, four parts mixed, hissing with poor recording quality. The words washed away, but the tune stuck.
Mountains rising to the sun, tow’ring o’re the plains.
Heads held high we stand as one, and proudly we proclaim:
We are Columbine! We all are Columbine!
Let the world be told, blue and silver we uphold forever!
In the elegy was the Columbine school song. All this time, and I hadn’t known. But I still couldn’t feel the energy, feel no cristaline “ah-ha”. It was the same, but it was different, and we suffered for it.
It stunned me how I couldn’t recognize the song, felt no smoking gunshot of a shiver. Hadn’t I spent hours of my life living and breathing it years before; hadn’t I already decided it was the most emotional moment of my life? None of the chords made sense to my ears. We played the piece for weeks, with unsure section leaders haltingly trying out the solos, but it wasn’t the same.
Each time we played it, more and more of the feelings I remembered came back, but at the same time I became more and more critical of it. This wasn’t the way I remembered, I kept finding myself thinking, this isn’t good enough. It was good, one of the best pieces our band played, but all I could think of was the elegy I remembered and wish I was back there. In some black place inside of me, I felt I was owed a perfect recreation, because this was my elegy.
When the time finally came to perform the piece in concert, I couldn’t tell if I was excited or not. We could play well, but I felt badly knowing how harshly I was judging the band against my memories. But when we all took the stage, I forced myself to take a deep breath and leave all the baggage behind me. We were here to make music, and we were all going to leave the best music we could on that stage, and that was all any musician ever wanted.
The lights were multicolored, white fracturing into facets of gleaming hope as it reflected from the bells of a hundred instruments. In the darkness beyond the stage, a hundred mutters fractured the compound audience. The fart of a saxophone; the blast of a trombone. The shrill scream of a piccolo, competing with the oboe’s reeded trill. I was on the end, in the front row, always the front row, so I stood when the contractor entered. The baton was a comet shooting through the sky as it brought us to the impact of the downbeat.
From the first note, something was different. The sound was liquid gold, burnished from the notes of a dozen trumpets and embellished with a bow of clarinets. It swam around us, through us like the lazy river, and I pressed my foot into the stage, feeling the current slice over me on a wave. We were eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one. We never laughed; I never cried. But when the conductor smiled at us, we all sang back to him:
“We are Columbine, we all are Columbine!”
And finally, I recognized my elegy.
But it wasn’t my elegy anymore. It was ours.
Sometimes I still listen to An American Elegy. I can finally recognize it now, though some of the meaning I regained in that concert has since been lost again. But that’s okay, because that’s the purpose of an elegy: to mourn and give tribute to something that has gone, then give those who remain a chance to move on with their lives. And sometimes if I listen hard enough to a recording, shutting out everything but the call of the oboe and the line proclaiming us all Columbine, I can still feel a shiver run down my spine, and I instinctively press my foot to the floor.