I never belonged to a serious jazz community before college. As far as I knew, my closest mentors were books and ten-minute YouTube videos. I didn’t quite know how to handle myself when I started taking real jazz studies classes with real musicians as classmates. Were we all friends? Competitors? Are the upperclassmen my buddies or my teachers?
The line skewed even more when our professor invited Ben––a classically trained grad student who played lead alto in one of my bands––to teach us jazz cats extended saxophone techniques. While we lounged on the music building’s porch, Ben switched from my quirky-yet-intimidating bandmate to a lecturing professor.
“This exercise is so important. It’s how I trained myself to pitch bend front F over an octave.”
“Bull,” I muttered. No college player could pitch bend more than a fifth, hardly any professionals can!
[bf_image id="j965s94tnt9mpw36ckcj8x3"] And then, he did it. My eyebrows shot up. Who is this guy?
Before class ended, he invited us all to take a one-hour lesson from him, compliments of the school. I still felt weird about how I was supposed to interact with him, but my ambition to play so powerfully trumped my shyness and I shuffled over.
“I’ll take a lesson if the offer is really out there.” I told him.
“Great, how’s next Friday after class?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s fine.”
[bf_image id="q65wq34bc3b8jfnh6v235cc4"] That Friday he taught me an entirely new warmup routine. I spent most of the lesson furiously scribbling in my notebook goals, new exercises, and things to focus on. Ben was kind yet brutally honest with me about my playing. As I packed up my horn, he asked, “Do you need a ride back to your dorm?”
I was confused. Teachers never give their students rides home, but it was either that or a fourteen-minute trudge back.
“Yes, actually. That would be great!”
We walked out to his car, a forest green Subaru. “I have a Subaru too back in Illinois!” I said.
“Really? This is the first car I ever bought myself. I love it.” On the drive back he asked me how my first quarter was going, and I told him about the boy drama in my dorm.
“Ah, Sam, you’re just like I was freshman year. A little player!” Ben suddenly didn’t feel like a scary upperclassman, or a teacher, or a strange bandmate. He felt like a great friend.
[bf_image id="95g795tb6863sc53s9p7p3p"] Ben and I started talking before rehearsals every day. He would tell me about his girlfriend and how I absolutely had to meet her, and I would tell him about the ridiculous things that happened in the dining hall the night before. We would give each other tips during rehearsals, too; he would point out the places I was flat, and I would help him play vibrato at the right time. One day Ben came in and said, “So I have come up with our two-year plan.”
“Our two-year plan for what?”
“For your lessons, of course! I’ll be here two more years, and you’re my favorite student.”
When he said that, two years felt like way too short. Ben had helped me learn to play confidently, receive criticism, and be bold in music and making friends.
I see Ben as both a close friend and a challenge. He is a successful professional musician who, still only in his twenties, is leaving his mark on the world and passing on his wealth of knowledge to younger saxophonists. Can I live up to that too? I’m so grateful that he took me under his wing. Whether it’s in a practice room or at Snarf’s sandwhich shop, I constantly have fun and learn from him. Ben possesses a lot of the qualities I want to see in myself: ambition, generosity, mastery of the saxophone, and a willingness to constantly put himself out there.