To me, music and writing have always been entwined. Both involve ritual, instruments, art, practice. I sit down at my computer; I open my saxophone case. If you love something, you work at it. You try to perfect it. This is not a writing lesson. This is not a music lesson. This is a lesson about yourself. And I was lucky enough to learn it from one of the world’s best teachers.
Frankie Ball, Jr., who was one of my favorite childhood teachers, passed away Friday night after a long battle with cancer. Mr. Ball taught band at T.W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda, Maryland, and he gave me my first saxophone lesson when I was in the sixth grade. He expected me to practice every day, and I never ever wanted to disappoint him. He was so cool. And the thing was, he saw no reason we couldn’t be cool too. So I learned to practice. I learned to listen. I learned that one always looks sharp in concert black.
Mr. Ball taught me for only three years, but those years were pivotal—and why music is still a large part of my life today. He found me my first saxophone instructor—another remarkable teacher. Mr. Ball even gave me my first CD, which I still have. I went on to join my high school’s jazz band, the county jazz band, and the state jazz band at various points. (I wasn’t unusual in this—quite a few of Mr. Ball’s other students went on to become professional or semi-professional musicians. For example…) I continue to play jazz tenor saxophone; even as the writer-in-residence at Phillips Exeter Academy in 2005-2006, I participated in the school jazz combo and kept taking lessons. Every time I stepped into the band room there, I couldn’t help but remember him. Throughout my life, I’ve seen many people act surprised to see a South Asian girl play jazz tenor saxophone well—but he never was. He saw no reason everyone shouldn’t love jazz. Because of him, I still love it.
About a year ago, along with more than a thousand others, I returned to my high school for a concert in honor of Mr. Ball’s retirement. We were all so happy to see him, and he had the same inimitable sense of humor he had always had. He was still so cool. He was a music teacher, but what he taught me about the value of discipline, persistence, and art has stuck with me as a writer. I will never hear John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” without thinking of him. He gave us music and we loved him.
In typical Mr. Ball fashion, even in his passing, he is giving back to young musicians. From the Pyle site: “Donations in lieu of flowers are requested for the Frankie Ball Scholarship Fund in which scholarships will be made available to young musicians. To donate to the fund, make checks payable to The People’s Community Baptist Church with ‘Frankie Ball Scholarship Fund’ in the memo line. Donations may be mailed to the church at 31 Norwood Road Silver Spring, MD 20905.”