Leanne Sowul

The Band Room

The low rumble of timpani mallets contrasts with the peaked pitch of teenaged voices as I enter the band room on the first day of high school. Shiny instruments emerge from cases big and small. Four half-circles of chairs and music stands face a podium, and there’s a folder with my name on it in the front row. I unpack my flute on my knees and blow a few soft, experimental notes across the mouthpiece while keeping my chin down to hide the fresh scar on my throat. 

Six weeks ago, a surgeon slit my throat and scooped out my thyroid gland to remove the malignant tumor wrapped around it. There’s still more cancer inside my lymph nodes. As my life split itself into before and after, I found myself focusing on one thing that still mattered to me: starting marching band before my freshman year. But band camp—required for learning routines to that year’s show—was scheduled during my first week of cancer treatment. Instead of marching the field in patterns coordinated to the music I’d already memorized, slopping through mud and heat with my bandmates and giggling in bunk beds at night, I ingested radioactive iodine and spent four days isolated in a hospital room. 

Today is the first time I’ve opened my flute case in weeks. Though the marching band director said I could play the show’s music from the sidelines this season—a compromise for missing band camp—I’d said no. If I’d been given special circumstances, the whole marching band would find out why and I’d become the “cancer kid.” Pity equals attention; I don’t want either. If I try hard enough, maybe I can pretend the cancer doesn’t exist here. Two separate worlds: one for cancer, one for school. 

The Wind Ensemble director raps his baton on the conductor’s stand in front of me. As talk dies down, he meets my wide-eyed gaze and awards me what I’ll learn is a rare but genuine smile. He directs us to take a piece of music from our folders, then raises his baton. We breathe as one and release our first sound. 

Layers of tones vibrate from woodwinds, brass and percussion. We listen for balance and intonation, then adjust. The tones condense, purify. We listen and adjust again, all without words. The next chord comes, and the next, and soon my heartbeat aligns with the beat of the baton and my skin thrums in harmony with each pitch. My summer without music left me parched, and now I’m guzzling it down. A swell of trapped emotion fights its way out of my chest and into the air of my flute. 

Slowly, cautiously, I straighten my spine. I lift my chin.

The cancer will stay with me throughout high school, but only here in the band room do I allow myself to open the doors between my two worlds. I share my deepest fears with my bandmates, not with words, but with breath and tongue and silvery tone. The flutes wail their grief with me in plaintive melody. Saxophones and clarinets sing consolation; trumpets and trombones blare brassy-bright hope. The snare drum raps a strengthening cadence. Through music, we forge my soul’s resting place. 

The following year on the marching band field, my feet march to the music; I’m no longer on the sidelines.

Years later, I rap my own baton on a conductor’s stand and give my students a not-so-rare smile. We breathe as one and release our first sound. They pass the music between them, listening and blending, communicating their hearts through breath and tongue and silvery tone. Fears are shared, grievances aired, anxieties voiced. The band absorbs, diffuses, and transforms it all into melodious salve and harmonious joy. 

I look out over the band room, watching my students. Slowly, cautiously, they straighten their spines. They lift their chins.

Leanne Sowul is an award-winning writer and music teacher. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus, Confrontation, Hudson Valley Magazine, and other online and print journals; her live readings include Read 650’s “The Great Outdoors” in 2016. As an elementary band director, Leanne can play every woodwind, brass and percussion instrument (just don’t give her a cello). She is also a highly-sought private flute teacher. In 2017, Leanne won both the Scott Meyer Award for personal essay and the All-American Dream Champion Award for music teaching. Her novels are represented by Suzie Townsend of New Leaf Literary Agency. Leanne lives with her husband and two children in the Hudson Valley. Connect with Leanne at www.leannesowul.com, via Facebook at Words from the Sowul, and on Twitter @sowulwords.

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