My ears are ringing. My lips, tongue and – bizarrely – teeth are throbbing. I reek of second hand cigarette and cigar smoke, so much so that I have been ordered to take a quarantining shower and leave the offending clothing in isolation until it is washed. I am slightly fuzzy due to a couple of hearty glasses of red wine. I am training for Fasnacht.
You might recall a few years ago Tim joined a band for Luzern’s largest and most chaotic street party. It’s an epic part of Luzern culture – a week in February where the city shakes off the shackles of winter and parties like…well, I’ve not really ever seen partying like it. Close to one hundred bands of varying quality and historical significance don their battle dress: grotesquely exaggerated masks, themed costumes, a wide range instruments (but an undeniable focus on horns and drums) to wander the alleys playing the gaudy Guggenmusik typical of the carnival. The people – visitors and locals alike – also dress up and take to the streets, holding a spot with a home made bar, or following their favourite bands around, or just wandering to see what Fasnacht brings them. Our German teacher is a member of a theatrical Fasnacht group that does performance art during the festival. When we recently lamented the transition into colder weather he almost rubbed his hands together in excitement as he gleefully said, ‘Winter is wonderful because it means the start of Fasnacht season!’.
I’m not exactly sure how it happened, but somehow I, too, am now a member of Fritschi and Bucheli Musig. In an even more bizarre twist of fate, I am allegedly playing an instrument that I (or, arguably, anybody) have no business to be involved with: the soprano saxophone.
Let’s backtrack a tiny bit to, say, the early to mid 1990s. It will surprise precisely nobody to learn that I was a colossal band nerd. I played in both the school and local town band, as well as going to the annual band camp for our region. I was every bit as ignorantly and happily geeky as band kids are. But I did not play saxophone. I did not even play an instrument with a reed (the little wooden thing attached to an instrument on which you blow, which also happens to be responsible for my current mouth irritation). I played the flute. And past is the only correct tense for this statement: it’s been over 20 years since I regularly touched the thing.
I was keen to take my turn in the band, however I’d been hoping to play something I could actually, well, play. But on the night we all got together to decide this year’s theme (Schlagermusik, which is kind of pop meets 60s meets German oom-pah-pah. At least, I think it is) it was also decided that a flute would be too cumbersome as we marched through the tiny cobbled alleys of Luzern, and what was really needed was another saxophone. My protestations were numerous. I’d never played one before. Ever. I didn’t even own one. Also, did I mention I can’t play one? Apparently these went unheeded as a few days later one of the band members arrived at our door, where she handed over a soprano saxophone and promptly left. My fate was apparently decided.
Rehearsals are every Tuesday night. I spend the preceding hours getting increasingly nervous. There’s my rubbish playing, but there’s also the fact that the common language is Lözarner Swiss German. I can muddle through a basic bit of high Deutsch, but this dialect is as confusing as the notes I produce from the sax. But Tim usually makes me a nerve-stiffening drink, and I grab my backpack with the sax case sticking awkwardly out of the top, rug up against the icy winter night, and jump on my bike.
It’s not even a ten minute cycle away but from the second I start moving, pushing the bike as fast as I can against the shocking cold in an effort to warm up, I feel liberated, free. It’s partly because I’m stepping firmly out of the role of hausfrau. Partly because of the challenge that lies ahead, the thrill of doing something completely new. And I suspect partly because on some level I remember the same freedom of slapping on my P-plates and driving the family Nissan van off to band practice all those years ago.
We rehearse in a bunker underneath a school, which the band has occupied since the 1970s. I arrive red cheeked and out of breath, neither of which dissipates throughout the evening. The bunker is long and narrow. One end holds a large communal table, the other a bar and kitchen. The middle is where we sit to play. I’m sandwiched between Pia (who plays alto sax) and Rita (clarinet). I’m fairly sure there have been some friendly jokes made about the three of us but I have not understood them. Everyone grabs a drink, and the melodic bouncy lilt of the Schweizerdeutsch is replaced by the melodic bouncy lilt of trumpets, trombones, clarinets and one very bad soprano sax warming up.
Our conductor, Urs, announces the name of the song we’re about to play. Some are familiar: a When The Saints medley, Ke Sera Sera, Mary Lou, The Entertainer. Most are traditional Swiss tunes, and seeing my blank face when he names them, Urs has taken to humming a few starting notes for my ignorant benefit. There’s no music – they all play by ear – and when I asked what key the tunes were played in I was met with shrugs and laughter. To be fair, knowing wouldn’t have helped me much anyway as I don’t actually know the key of the instrument I’m learning to play.
There’s a positive psychology term: the flow. It’s also known more casually as being ‘in the zone’ and refers to when you’re so engrossed in an activity that you’re not distracted by your everyday thought patterns. Time moves quickly as you step outside yourself and do something other. Some consider it one of the key factors to happiness; at the very least it adds complexity and interest to life. The two hours we rehearse in that bunker fly by. I concentrate on the music, on the not-quite-musical sounds I’m making, on recognising tunes and rhythms and language. Every now and then something clicks and it works. I’m jolted back to the present, and look around myself. I can’t quite believe where I am. Nerdy 40 year old Wendy grins happily back across the years to nerdy teenage Wendy.
When he visited last summer, my father-in-law – himself an avid musician – commented on a book he was currently reading, Sapiens. I’m about half way through the book myself. It’s an epic and fairly slow going tome that surveys the history of human kind and postulates about our future. Mike had enjoyed many parts of it but expressed a sense of flabbergasted disbelief about something he thought was blatantly absent from the book. What business, he claimed, had a book discussing the history of our race without mentioning music?
I don’t share the same passion, but I think I understand where he’s coming from. I love the sense of making something – even if, in my case it’s fairly rubbish – bigger than myself. Something purely for enjoyment with very little practical purpose. Something that’s intellectually but also emotionally challenging, and that brings with it many distant memories of my long gone youth. The camaraderie within the room, where a bunch of strangers from a different culture with a different language can share something so effortlessly, and with such generosity. I also love being part of the biggest party that this town has to offer, seeing it from a completely different angle. I even love getting back on my bike, my hands numbing during the freezing ride home on icy roads through a sleeping wintery city. Because, after all, the cold is is wonderful. It means it’s Fasnacht season.