Twirling Rifles and Playing Clarinet

I began playing the clarinet in 1965 while I was in 5th grade. I really wasn’t very good at playing the boring stuff assigned to us to learn.

For some obscure reason that I now do not remember, I refused to ever learn how to read music. But I was really good at hearing a song or a tune for the first time and then be able to quickly figure out how to play it correctly on my clarinet.

I remember a few months after I had begun playing the clarinet I was in my bedroom pretending to be practicing the assigned music. My mother had the radio on in the kitchen. A really cool song had just ended and I began to eagerly figure out the tune on my clarinet.

After a few stops and starts, I quickly had the whole thing going from start to finish and then I began to play around with the tune, making up other melodic lines to go along with it.

My mother rushed into my bedroom and excitedly asked me if that song had been assigned to me to learn. I hung my head and mumbled, “No.”

She then asked me, “Then how did you learn to play it so well?”

I replied, “I dunno. I just figured out the right notes on my clarinet and I began playing it and it sounded just like the song on the radio.”

She was so amazed and happy! She kept saying, “Jeneane, you have a wonderful talent, you must be a genius!” I quickly realized the dangers in being considered a genius, that that would probably mean a constant pressure to always be good. That was not something I wanted to be a part of.

So I told my mom, “Nah, everybody can do that, I’m not a genius! Really, mom, everybody can do that!”

But the next day while I was at school, my mom called and made an after-school appointment with my band instructor. I got the note from the school office that my mother would meet me in the music room and I thought, “Oh, crap, how am I going to get out of this? Now I’ve got to admit that I haven’t been practicing and maybe I will have to also admit that I can’t read the music. Sigh!”

So I met my mom and my band instructor, Mr. Paul Minert, in the music room. My mom immediately embarrassed me by raving on and on about how I had quickly learned a brand new song that had just played on the radio and so that meant I must be a musical genius, etc.

Thank goodness my band instructor gently calmed my mother down. He told her that I had a very good ear, that that meant that I could listen to new songs and then be able to replay them. He explained that it wasn’t unusual but it was a good indication that I did have some musical ability.

But then my band instructor frowned at me and told me that if only I applied that same diligence to my assigned songs, I would become an even better clarinet player.

I replied to him, “But I don’t like those songs! They’re boring and they remind me of funeral music! That’s why I like figuring out the more fun songs that I hear on the radio.”

But my mother then angrily told me, “Fun or not, you will practice your assigned songs a lot more from now on! We didn’t buy you that clarinet for you to fool around on! Here all this time I had thought you were practicing but you were really just playing what you wanted to play so that’s going to change and change quick, do you understand?”

With heavy sighs, I promised my mother and my band instructor to practice more of the assigned songs and only then would I be allowed to practice the music I really wanted to play.

It’s too bad that there was not a jazz band established then in my school because I think I would have done great in that kind of musical training. But I had too much of a rebel in me for the orchestral music that I found so boring.

I was able to fool several of my music and band instructors for many years with that ability to hear a song and then replay it on my clarinet. It wasn’t until I was in high school before I was caught and I had to then admit that I could not read music.

Every couple of months each section in the band would have try-outs for chair positions by playing a new piece of music cold. Having the first chair position was supposed to be considered a great honor. I, however, always thought it was just a great opportunity for the goody-goody two shoes and the suck-ups to show off.

When it was the clarinet section’s turn for chair position try-outs, most of the time I would get very, very lucky.

If I was in last chair, and the first chair was told to play the new music cold, then when it came time for me to play the new song, I already had it figured out.

Just by listening to the new music, I could figure it out and then replay it pretty well. Then I would be assigned the second or sometimes even the first chair.

Once again, I would go “whew!” with relief that I had not been found out that I could not read music.

Sometimes at the next try-out, the band instructor would try to shake things up and have the person sitting in the last chair go first. So once again when it came time for me to play, I would be able to re-play the new song very well.

However there were the times when I was told to go first, no matter what chair I was sitting in. Then I would goof around and grin and laugh as I attempted to play something, play anything.

I gave the impression that I was deliberately screwing it up on purpose for the laughs. And of course I would get yelled at and then I was told to take the last chair position.

It didn’t matter to me where I sat, unlike the majority of my fellow clarinet players who, in my opinion, took these things way, way too seriously.

But the new high school marching band director, Mr. Winston Blackford, soon caught on to me and my cheating.

After the very first chair position try-outs for the clarinet section under him, he told me to come to his office after school that day. Mr. Blackford sat me down, put a fresh piece of music in front of me and told me to start playing. I tried but after a minute or two, I put my clarinet down and admitted that I could not read one note.

He sat there shaking his head, and then he asked me, “How were you able to fool everybody all of these years and get away with nobody knowing that you could not read music?”

And then I told him everything I had done, how I usually had the song figured out before it became my turn to play and then I usually got most of it right.

He said, more to himself, that he had never heard of such a thing before, that he was amazed that nobody had ever caught on in the many years before now.

Then he asked me if I wanted to stay after school to learn how to read music and I thanked him but I said that with me being on the track team and in Junior Achievement, I wouldn’t have the time. But that if he was patient with me and let me learn the required music my own way, I would do okay in band since I had done all right up to this point.

I could tell that he was a bit angry and disappointed that I didn’t want to make that deep of a commitment to the band but I also didn’t want to tell him that I was only there because my parents were making me.

But he agreed to let me continue as I had been doing, as long as I was able to play reasonably well during the concert season.

The first time I saw the movie, “Drumline”, starring Nick Cannon, I very quickly caught on that his character could not read music either! I recognized only too well the bullshit and the arrogance that he used to hide that fact!

However when I started marching band, a new difficulty came up that I could not easily hide.

I have two left feet. And I’m short so it was more difficult for me to march in step and play the clarinet at the same time. I could do one or I could do the other but not both. I was too much of a klutz! I literally cannot walk and chew gum at the same time!

It probably also didn’t help that I had “forgotten” to bring home the permission slip for my parents to sign that would allow me to attend the band camp in August before my year in the marching band began.

I had never heard of band camp before and it was not required but attending band camp was most definitely strongly urged. So I reasoned that since I didn’t want to be in marching band, then I probably wouldn’t want to go to a band camp either.

Maybe if I had gone to band camp, I could have learned how to march in step better than I did. I didn’t realize how noticeable I would be when I goofed up in front of the big crowds at the football games and parades.

So my first year in marching band was a time of great humiliation. Mr. Blackford was really upset with me most of the time then.

I tried to just pretend to play the music so that I could concentrate on just trying to get the routines done correctly but that didn’t work either because of my vast klutziness and short legs.

Since the majority of the band members had gone to the band camp, the band instructor had no patience for the few who had not been able to attend and for those who had not had a chance to learn the routines during the summer.

So I frequently marched out of place and out of step and just generally made a huge fool out of myself as I banged into people every which way.

I really hated band now and I begged and I pleaded with my parents to please, please, please let me drop band because I was so horrible at it but they refused.

Maybe if they had ever attended any of the football games one time to see how bad I was, to hear the many people laughing at me careering around the field like a drunk tripping over his own feet, maybe that might have made a difference.

So at the end of that first year in marching band when I was approached by Barb Cooper, another clarinetist who was in the grade ahead of me, to see if I was interested in becoming a rifle twirler in a rifle and flag squad she wanted to start, I was more than happy to try this new activity.

The Flushing High School Marching Band was just beginning to earn a lot of recognition for its radically improved performances, in spite of my horrible participation.

Our new band director, Mr. Winston Blackford, had completely overhauled the entire band, its routines, and its choices of marching band music. He kicked butt and got increased funds from the school board and was able to purchase new instruments, equipment and uniforms.

He was a harsh task-master but he got results. The marching band became a much more tightly-focused, well-disciplined group of kids. Mr. Blackford demanded perfection and pretty soon the band began winning first place ribbons and awards in the several band competitions held around the local area and in the state of Michigan.

Unfortunately, Mr. Blackford also had his group of “favorites” and sometimes he pitted the “favorites” against the non-favorites in the band. The marching band soon became a great place if you were one of the favored but a hell if you were not. Guess what group I was in.

A lot of the other area high school marching bands were beginning to use a drum and bugle corps marching band style, with squads of flag-twirlers and squads of rifle-twirlers and honor guards.

When Barb first asked Mr. Blackford about forming a rifle and flag squad that would precede the marching band, especially in parades, he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic.

He first complained that the squad would detract attention away from “his” band but Barb countered that the squad would enhance the band and could quite possibly earn it more points in the band competitions, especially since so many of the other area bands were also forming rifle squads.

Then Mr. Blackford told Barb that he could not go to the school board to ask for the extra money that the rifles and uniforms would cost so that we would have to provide those ourselves if we were indeed serious about forming a squad.

Barb told him that we would somehow find a way to outfit ourselves and he told her, well, when you do, come back and I will think about it some more.

I think he believed that because we would find it so difficult to find the money to purchase all of the equipment and uniforms, that this would be the end of the story. But he didn’t know Barb and her fearsome determination.

Barb asked me, Barb Nixon, and Robin Smith to be a part of the squad. I was the youngest and the other three girls were all in the grade ahead of me.

Barb had a friend, LeeAnn, who was a rifle-twirling member of the Guardsmen Drum and Bugle Corps based in Flint, MI. This friend had taught Barb the basics of a rifle squad, how to present arms, how to twirl a rifle in both hands, how to do a parade rest, etc.

The four of us would practice for hours during the weekends while school was in session in an old, dilapidated barn across from Barb’s house on Carpenter Road. After school was over for the year, we practiced more often during the summer.

The older girls either had part-time jobs or generous allowances and they were able to very quickly buy the necessary practice rifles for themselves.

I had to resort to asking my parents for the money to buy my practice rifle by telling them a little white lie. I told them that the rifle squad was going to be a permanent part of the marching band but that the school board did not have the funds to buy the rifles. So they gave me the money to buy my practice rifle.

Barb also got in contact with some company that had a variety of cleaning products. We all sold those products door-to-door to raise the money to buy the rest of our equipment: the United States and State of Michigan flags and their hand-held poles, the special harnesses that held the poles down the fronts of our bodies, the white parade boots, and the white parade rifles.

Our school colors were orange and black and Mr. Blackford let us use four of the older marching band hats that had just been replaced. Those hats, in the school colors, were very military looking with a jaunty orange and black feathery plume that stood straight up in the front.

The uniforms we had checked out in several different catalogs were so expensive though that we finally had to come up with another way to look like a snappy, well-dressed rifle squad.

Barb Nixon’s mother was a really good seamstress so she sewed orange culotte skirts for all four of us as well as a black waist sash that we tied at our sides that hung down with a stylish flair. We then bought matching white oxford shirts and these outfits with the band hats made us look really good.

Learning how to twirl and throw a rifle was an interesting, and occasionally dangerous, activity. I was lucky in that I am ambidextrous so that twirling a rifle with either hand was relatively easy for me. The other girls could twirl great with their right hands but not quite as well when they had to switch to their left hands.

Throwing the rifle up in the air with one hand in a rapid spin and then catching it in the same hand was a bit more difficult to learn. We all frequently bonked our heads or smashed our hands trying to catch our rifles before we became proficient and confident enough to do it right, time after time.

Then there was learning how to do the parade rest. That was a special way to snap the rifle around and bring it stock down with a distinct thunk on the ground, straight up, next to our feet, without looking down to see that we missed our toes.

We also had to learn how to twirl our rifle and do our rifle throws while marching forward. And there was a little trick to those kinds of rifle throws.

You had to throw the rifle up and out ahead of you a bit at the same time and you had to fine-tune how much further out ahead of you to throw the rifle. If you didn’t time it right, the rifle might end up on your head or worse, behind you. Or else it might end up so far ahead of you that you would have to run a bit to catch it and that looked horrible. What was worse is when you couldn’t catch it and the rifle would loudly bonk on the ground, calling attention to your ineptitude.

But the frequent head-bonks and toe-smashes began to occur less and less often as we practiced hard during the summer. We were all determined to be as precise and military-looking as if we had been doing this for a long, long time. We all wanted to prove that we could add a new and exciting dimension to the marching band.

When the school year began, the four of us brought all of our equipment and our uniforms to school to demonstrate to Mr. Blackford how good we had become. We put on our uniforms, did our marching routines, the flag and rifle twirls and the parade rests with snappy precision.

Mr. Blackford grudgingly gave us permission to precede the marching band in the football game half-time shows and in the many parades that the band already been invited to throughout the school year. He said he wanted to see how those went before giving permission for us to perform with the band during the several competitions.

He also implied that perhaps later on the school board or the Band Boosters (a group composed of primarily marching band parents who helped fund special equipment and travel expenses) might reimburse us for the money we had raised ourselves for our uniforms and equipment.

This was great! We were all so happy that our many hours of hard work and practicing had paid off. We were sure that our rifle and flag squad would be an instant hit.

We got a lot of applause and positive comments from the crowds at the football games and during the parades in the next several months.

We weren’t really an integrated part of the marching band’s routines though. We preceded the band entering the field, did a few twirls and a parade rest, then stood ram-rod straight and motionless on the side line while the band did their choreographed routines. Then we did a few more snappy presentations and preceded the band as it left the field.

The little that we were allowed to do seemed to be very pleasing to the crowd and we all hoped that Mr. Blackford would soon start to use our squad in a more integrated fashion with the whole band.

But some of the other kids grumbled that we were taking attention and focus away from the marching band. We also had to still practice on our own and Barb Nixon, Robin and I took our lead and direction from Barb Cooper, and not from Mr. Blackford, who so obviously was merely tolerating our little squad’s presence. And that was also an apparent irritant to some of the other kids in the marching band. They were picking up on Mr. Blackford’s thinly disguised tolerance.

There were some funny and amusing things that happened during that school year with our rifle and flag squad.

Each spring the little town of Alma, MI has a very large and well-attended Highland Festival with a 5-mile long parade.

That was to be the longest parade our squad had ever participated in up to that point. Because other groups in the parade frequently threw out candy and tokens to the crowd, sometimes pieces of those items were left in the road along the parade route.

Before the parade began, Barb insisted that our squad had to constantly maintain its military precision. So no matter what was in our path, we could not side-step anything, we had to continue to march forward in our straight formation.

What she didn’t foresee was that our marching band was scheduled to parade immediately behind a very large group of horses and riders. Horses have a tendency to frequently leave very large clumps of steaming hot, pungent horse droppings.

So our rifle squad marched bravely in front of the band in our pristine white leather boots, with not one side-step or detour, through the many piles of fresh horse poop while all of the band members behind us were jumping around and avoiding them during this very long, long parade.

Our beautiful boots that we had worked so hard to purchase were soon not so white and they caused us later to become pariahs on the long ride home on the school buses. Nobody wanted to sit near us!

We later tried to salvage our boots but they were a lost cause. So for the rest of the school year we all wore white tennis shoes which were actually more comfortable to wear than the prettier boots.

Unfortunately for the Memorial Day parade through our hometown of Flushing, Robin could not find her white shoes and she was almost late for the start of the parade.

She came running up to our squad, out of breath, explaining that she had had no other choice but to wear her other tennis shoes that were a vibrant blue shade with white polka dots.

I have an old picture that a friend took of our squad from the sideline in downtown Flushing that showed us in precise step and formation but with Robin on the near side wearing her jarringly out-of-place blue shoes!

The Memorial Day parade was the last scheduled event that the marching band had to participate in before the end of the school year.

Our rifle and flag squad was very convinced, based on the many positive comments and feedback we had received from the crowds, parents and school kids, that we would be allowed to become a more integrated part of the marching band in the next school year.

So Barb Cooper and I were quite shocked when we were finally able to pin Mr. Blackford down for a definite answer on that question.

He had been pointedly evading Barb because he knew those questions would come up until the one day in early June just before school was going to end.

We finally cornered him in the gym after school where he had been chatting with some of the Band Booster parents and Barb and I patiently waited until he was done.

Then before he could leave, Barb swiftly asked him what was going to happen to the rifle and flag squad in the fall, had we not performed well enough to be a permanent part of the marching band?

He hemmed and hawed before he finally said that he had received a lot of complaints from some of the kids in the marching band that we were detracting attention away from the band, that we weren’t really a part of the band and that we didn’t belong with the band.

Barb countered with the indisputable fact that our squad had received many compliments and positive comments from everybody else, including the Band Boosters. And did the kids in the marching band make the decisions or did Mr. Blackford?

Mr. Blackford then roughly told us that in his opinion we did take attention and focus off the marching band and that making the band better was the whole reason why he was hired. Therefore, there would be no rifle and flag squad in the coming fall or during any time of his tenure.

Barb suddenly became very angry and told him that if he wanted to integrate us completely into the band and have control of the squad, he could do so, if that was indeed the unsaid problem.

But the fact that we did give the band another interesting element and the fact that the squad had been so positively received should make him happy to include us more in the band’s routines, instead of eliminating it completely, Barb continued to tell him.

Mr. Blackford then became quite red in the face and he yelled at Barb, “This is MY band and MY decision and I have decided that your squad has no place in MY band! Now drop it!” And he began to storm away.

Barb raised her fist like she was going to hit Mr. Blackford as she yelled after him, “You are being unfair! You gave us the impression that you would give us a try-out to see if we were any good and we were good! People liked us! What is wrong with you? Are you that jealous and insecure?”

Then as Mr. Blackford turned around to glare at her, Barb moved forward like she was really going to hit him and I quickly got in front of her, telling her, “Calm down, for God’s sake, Barb, don’t hit a teacher! Calm down!”

She finally turned around and stomped out of the gym with me running behind her and when we got out into the hallway, Barb exploded into another ranting tirade about Mr. Blackford.

She yelled that he was a tyrant who played favorites, that he was petty and insecure, that he was afraid that he would receive no credit for the popularity of our squad, and that he was mean and unfair. All of which I whole-heartedly agreed with.

But like I told Barb, what else could we do? We can’t go over his head to the Band Boosters or to the school board. He’s the band director and we’re just a bunch of kids. They will take his opinion as gospel. We’d had fun, but unless Mr. Blackford relents, which was never going to happen, our rifle and flag squad was now kaput.

So that was the end of our rifle and flag squad adventures. And it was a shame because we really did add another bit of pizzazz to the marching band.

It is ironic though that a few years after I graduated, Mr. Blackford finally did add a color guard because the Flushing High School Marching Band was just about the only one at that time who had not incorporated a drum and bugle corps style and the scores at the competitions apparently reflected that lack.

And another irony is that although I could not march and play my clarinet at the same time, for some inexplicable reason, marching and twirling my rifle at the same time came much easier to me. It seemed to me to be much harder to twirl and throw a rifle and march in step than just carrying and playing a clarinet. I didn’t understand that then and I still do not understand that now.

Our rifle and flag squad was a lot of fun while it lasted and I’m so glad that I got to experience it and be a part of it.

It’s also fun to amaze people even now when they refuse to believe that I used to twirl a rifle. Then I dig my old one out so I can prove that I can still half-assed do some of the old routines, including a parade rest.

And it’s also funny that even after 45 years, the baby toe on my right foot still instinctively curls up under its neighbor in fear of getting smashed yet again!

white rifle

Image is similar to our white parade rifles

Silent Drill Platoon

Marine Corps Silent Drill Rifle Spinning Team


Children playing clarinets


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