Roughly twenty minutes before, and everyone is gathered. Ceremony, tradition, a superstition for good luck. A prayer, said together. The band is ready to play.
Walk to the stage, put the folder on the stand, wait for the nod from the director to sit. Rearrange the dress and the chair and the stand. Wipe off palms gone clammy with sweat. Play the Star Spangled Banner. Feel slightly calmer, as you know the ins and outs and the flick of the conductor's baton by heart. Carry out the wave of the last symbol crash, and sit, and breathe as the director turns to introduce the songs.
Wipe off hands again, wonder if sweaty palms are bad for the satin dress. Lick anxiously at the reed and tighten the ligature to make sure it's perfect-- a nervous habit. Raise the clarinet in sync with the baton, and everything fades away except the notes on the page and the anticipation of the upbeat telling you to go.
When the song starts, you become it-- the push, the pull, the slide of fingers over keys, by muscle memory now. You do not become a mistake that causes your physical body to flinch, even as your mind and heart and hands are living the next note. You do not become a sneeze in the audience or the creak of a chair. You become the song and the song becomes you. The pattern of the baton sliding through the air, the proud bray of the trumpets, the warmth of the trombones, the pulse and punctuation of percussion, the soft flutter of the flutes, the hum of the saxophones behind you. And then your own notes, sifting, playing, building between in the the spaces the composer left just for you. In that place between first and last breath, drawn through the clarinet by the conductor's hand, is the music, and therefore you. Each piece has its own nooks and crannies, its edges and gentle waves, familiar through practice but bright and crystalline now. One eye follows the ink on the page and the other the director. Lungs expand and contract by his hand. Fingers guide the sounds shaped by your clarinet and the song itself propels them out to wrap around the audience sitting at the edge of your consciousness. Each song feels different, moves differently through you, and the self you become is never quite the same. You are the song as it should be.
Some are intense, engaging the mind so completely nothing exists outside the collective vibrations of air at any given time. Some are gentle, some are sad, or happy of playful or fierce. Some shout a victory, demanding the audience hears the melody and counterpoint. Some sing a sighing breeze the pulls mournful ocean waves from the shore. Some direct themselves toward one person, some to the whole crowd, the building, the world.
The last note holds the charge in the air longer the it can physically be heard. The baton lowers and the band collectively exhales as the audience applauds, reorienting your consciousness and awareness in your body and not somewhere just above it. There are breaks through the night, announcements, acknowledgments, explanations, shuffling of music and seats. And at the end, the last chord of the last song, finally released into air and memory, you hear the clapping and you don't let go. Like a child clutching a jewel to their chest, you don't quite leave that state of being where you conscious self hovers an inch or two above you head even as instinct takes hold and you stand and bow and exit to pack up and put away before finding family and friend. Voices ring in your ears and the lights bleed through your eyes because in your head, you are still the song.