First Chair: Muscle Memory

During second year of playing clarinet, we were allowed to fight for the positions we sat in.


In a band, an orchestra, or similar performance groups, chair rankings are much like DPS charts, deeply narrow reflections of the player’s ability to perform against their peers, usually coming with the same problems that DPS charts face. The players think they know everything based upon that sliver of information, while those in charge know far more about their ability to perform. Needless to say, everyone’s failures in relation to this yardstick, and shocking successes were well-known as they became the topic of discussion after our director made the final call of if who won or lost.

Our very first year was a casual affair; we privately took a test after the first week playing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ and sat in the same order for much of the year. The second year? The blood was in the water.  Fridays were the days we where we were allowed to name another person we wanted to challenge, and each person would play a certain number of bars of music. The director would decide exactly how well each person did.


It’s much like pointing to another person who played your class and then taking them to a target dummy while everyone in your guild watched. Terrifying.


The order that a group of small children sit in seems unrelatable to the adjustment period that is a Pre-Expansion patch, or a raid group gathering a new member. Yet, they’re somehow strangely identical. The rolling apprehension when an 11 year old is put on the spot and asked to do something they don’t know how to do in front of a group of their peers? Usually with your crush in attendance, since it was just one small class. Well, I don’t think I need to say much more.


Much like picking cherry-picking your favorite boss fight; my school allowed one “Phrase” in a large piece of the student’s choosing, meaning we could be challenged to anything within a sometimes very long piece. Usually, people would challenge others to same stretch of music, and, most often, everyone picked the parts of the sheet music we had practiced the most often.


In any situation in life, music, or video games, your peers know the things your leaders don’t notice. Perhaps it is because your Raid Leaders are too busy tanking or healing to see every mishap, your boss doesn’t actually have eyes on the back of their heads, or your music director can’t tell that you don’t play that one part because he actually can’t stick his ear inside every instrument in the entire orchestra.(If only he had Warcraft Logs but for listening, right?)


One might wonder how a group of school children goes from a song about a beloved, adorable lamb one year to blood in the water the next. 


I’m not certain why we picked certain things to test one another one on, but I think it was to help our band director find out what we knew. As I’ve said before, the people who push us the best are the people we lean on the most. My co-Warlock in my raid team is someone who I wanted to see succeed as much as me all last expansion, despite my complete urge to win and brag constantly. (I just like winning.) Somehow, if he is winning, even if I fail completely, I am winning. I suspect, with the two new additional Warlocks, I’ll feel the same about them as well once we all bond.  


In a way, the chair system is brilliant: If the person in leading all of you is missing one of your flaws, the selfish person next to you will gladly volunteer them for a chance to shine, and by doing so, they will put a target upon their own back for others to point out their own flaws. Not to say that every guild or group is this way, but the chance to look good is really tempting.


Suffice to say, in whatever the piece was that week; some bits of music were so easy, that it was assumed that everyone knew them,  Others were so hard only a few carried us at concerts. Even the best of friends would throw someone under the bus on accident while being gently encouraged to try playing. I could think the teacher was an evil mastermind, but mostly I think he just wanted to solve the problems in his job area without the kids realizing it. 


Most of these musical battles came down to a few simple things; who was the best practiced, who was the best equipped, and who had the best muscle memory. In early band and orchestra, no one’s starter instruments are going to be on their best in slot lists. The entire point is to learn muscle memory, for their futures with expensive instruments, amazing opportunities, or at the very least; high school band and orchestra. In the end, it became a case teaching the best possible best muscle memory to children in hopes they’d become musicians.


I think sometimes about how I unseated the first chair clarinet player simply by being more confident in my ability with a simple phrase of music. I also think about the fact that I walked away from clarinet entirely for another instrument after that year only to play with a much smaller crowd than the fourteen clarinets. (Honestly, it felt more like a postal code than a section.)


With the patch here, I could wax poetic how even the fights that everyone felt inside and out practiced perfect on, now feel different again.  Mostly, however, I think the most about the muscle memory we are all learning again, and the ways that we can help one another rapidly improve. I don’t want blood in the water, but there’s something strangely lovely about people’s brains relearning things in a very large group together. Besides, there’s not much to do but to cement that exact mental dance until Legion is out.


It’s scary, frustrating, exciting, fascinating, and an adventure all at once, but I promise not to number any chairs.  Yet.



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