Nervous as hell

I’m wired. Frayed. Bruised. I’ve been bashed around just a bit too much today. Probably let my fingers get too close to the flame.

London is far away. Stupid, superficial, ignorant, bitchy disrespectful London is just over an hour away on the high-speed train, but a world away in my head. And that’s where it should stay for this weekend.

Unexpectedly, the hubbub of Ipswich’s Salthouse Harbour Hotel helps soothe things. There’s space to think, an opportunity to contemplate things and Becks Vier on tap.

I have this idea that I felt the same I do now the night before I attended my first Suffolk Youth Orchestra course back in ’89. If I had any expectations at all back then I’m sure they would have been low. Uppermost in mind would have been the assumption that the yawning chasms in between doing things like rehearsals would almost certainly turn out to be as agonisingly depressing as they were at school. Social interaction will be difficult. This will be a painful affair. What the fuck am I doing?

School was hell. Not a never-ending barrage of noise, physical abuse and ill-thought out pranks. Rather, the ongoing self-imposed mental torture that follows extended periods of loneliness. The place I spent most of my waking hours in as a kid didn’t want me there. The feeling was mutual. School could fuck off.

But, the morning I attended SYO for the first time, something worked of its own volition. I didn’t have to make it happen. It just happened. Something clicked. Something fell into place. The music. The people. Me. I clicked. This was my place.

I still don’t know what it was that made it all work. The more I want to know, the more I find it impossible to determine. Was it something fundamental? Was it my core? Or was it just a case of networks, recommendations and endorsements? And its important for me to find out too. Was it a dream? Have I dreamt all of this? Was my place there a fluke? Was I substandard? Did everyone know it but no-one wanted to say? Was I feeding off the fumes of a good time?

Come to think of it, was there anyone there who didn’t have a good time? That I’d like to know. Were there miserable people at Suffolk Youth Orchestra? Were there kids who returned from the residential courses at Culford and the tours across Europe and looked forward to seeing their parents again? Did they feel relief at being back home? I’ve assumed everyone loved the experience. Were there people who didn’t?

The night before we re-convene, I have no expectations. But still I wonder what that experience tomorrow will be like. Will we all collectively concentrate on the music wanting to do our best? Or will it be a glorified hack in pursuit of a party ? Will the rehearsals be nothing more than a giggle and a comparison of notes accumulated during the intervening years?

“Your scallops, sir?”

The waitress is surprised to find my head down in my notebook when she arrives with my main course. “You’re always writing, aren’t you?” she says, slightly confused. “Are you a writer? You’re a writer, aren’t you?”

Writing. It’s what I return to time and time again.

Playing the clarinet became an increasingly arid proposition. My failing technique made a professional career a laughable idea. Amateur opportunities were few and far between thanks to a glut of clarinets. All credit to Emma Johnson for winning BBC Young Musician, but fuck me you inspired way too many young girls and boys to pick up thousands of mass produced plastic clarinets, in the process producing a pile of dashed hopes and rusting keys.

For those of us who still thought playing in amateur orchestras might offer some semblance of joy were bitterly disappointed. Ropey playing and a lacklustre sense of commitment. Concerts in fusty churches with no sense of occasion and precious few in the audience. Why bother?

Music failed me after university, but writing offered me hope. Writing was my friend. Immediate. Precious. Ever-changing. Dynamic. Tactile. Patient. Forgiving. Accommodating. Always there with a smile and a ‘that was marvellous’, even if it was anything but.

Writing helps establish a framework for thinking. A rulebook. A set of guidelines. It assists with self-calibration. Writing is the outline sketches in pencil; re-writing and editing, the colouring-in with lurid felt tips. Writing makes sense of the world – my world. And in that way, writing has the same restorative effect that SYO did 25 years ago. And its that I’m holding out for this weekend: a sign that it wasn’t a dream and it wasn’t a fluke.

But still the one big question remains. What was the secret to that formative moment? What made it all happen for me? Why was it so important? Was it just social interaction or was it the music? Why didn’t the same magic happen at university? What was the missing link? The missing piece in the jigsaw?

And why the night before we’re all getting together to play again so nervous? Why do I feel as though everything is going to fall apart? Why is this something I want to run away from?



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