A real musician knows: An instrument is something special — as precious as a baby.
So when the flames shot high into the air and the smoke billowed, the Northwestern High School band members wanted to race back onto the burning bus and save their babies.
“I was so worried about it,” said Sylvia Garcia, 17. “I was like, ‘Where’s my saxophone?’ I asked everyone, ‘Did you see my saxophone?’ ”
The rest of her bandmates were also freaking out. They were on their way home to Hyattsville, Md., from a trip to New York. Three buses full of kids who had just gone to a music clinic and seen the musical “Wicked.”
The timing couldn’t have been worse. Their big musical assessment — the test they’d been training for all year — was the next day. But as they were riding on the New Jersey Turnpike April 22, hoping to make it home in time to do homework, to practice, to do chores, a tire popped.
The bus driver pulled over. The kids in the back saw the flames first.
Christopher Renberg, the music department chair, had dozed off. But as soon as the smoke smell filled the bus, he was wide-awake. He and Anthony Townes, the director of bands at Northwestern, saw the fire and made a quick agreement.
“We’re not getting off this bus until all the kids are off first,” Townes said. So they tag teamed, getting all the kids off safely. Many left behind cellphones, laptops, even the instruments.
This wasn’t the freshman band and their rented instruments. These musicians are some of the region’s most accomplished. A good number of them are going to some of the most prestigious music schools in the country when they graduate. Garcia, for instance, is heading to Berklee College of Music in Boston this fall.
“Some of them have instruments that have been in their families for generations,” Townes said. Or they have specialized, high-end instruments their parents saved for years to buy, like the nearly $6,000 Buffet R13 clarinet that was still on the bus, the flames closing in on it, as the kids were running off and their teachers were telling them to “Move! Move! Move!”
Garcia had been asleep when her friend nudged her awake. “She told me, ‘It smells like burned beans.’ And it did,” she said.
Her saxophone, a Yamaha Custom Z, cost $3,500. It wasn’t something her parents — a maintenance man and an office worker — could afford. But her whole church heard her wail on that sax. And they bought it for her.
As the kids jumped from the bus along a turnpike culvert, a familiar-looking man was standing on the side of the turnpike filming.
“I saw the guy and told him, ‘Here, take these,’ and I handed him a trombone and a trumpet,” Renberg said. The guy was Mehmet Oz, known at TV’s Dr. Oz, who happened to be driving by and stopped to help.
Oz took the instruments, assumed Townes was the bus driver and tried to help the kids get away from the flaming bus. (He later posted a video and said the kids were from Baltimore.)
After they grabbed all the instruments they could safely get, they watched the bus burn all the way to its skeletal, metal frame.
Dozens of instruments were charred, burned, melted, including cellos, violas, that $6,000 clarinet.
Let’s be clear. This isn’t a fancy part of Maryland; it’s not the kind of school where kids who are phenomenally gifted get the kind of equipment to match their talents with the swipe of a parental credit card. Around 70 percent of the Prince George’s County students at Northwestern qualify for subsidized lunches, which means they live at or below the poverty level.
So losses like this are devastating.
Last week, before their big assessments, three local music stores swooped in to loan the kids instruments. The teachers could tell their gifted kids weren’t playing like themselves. They still got the highest scores possible.
Then they had a big county honor band concert Friday night.
That’s where I met them. I was in the audience to see my son perform in a middle school honor band.
The high school honor jazz band, led by Townes, killed it. Free-flowing, funky perfection. Big pieces, improv, smooth. A couple boys took the stage for solos, hammed it up. Wow.
And then Garcia the saxophonist, in the front row with her cardigan, modest skirt and demure, flat shoes stood up.
“I didn’t want to get in front of the stands,” she said, trying to hang back. But Townes gave her a look, and she nudged past the stands, closer to the edge of the stage. And the crowd went wild as she played. Running the notes up and down, letting her mind and her fingers go. The audience whooped and cheered and screamed. She put her eyes down, nudged back past the stands and sat down.
“I never even heard jazz before I got here,” Garcia said. Her grandfather played saxophone in churches, but jazz was something she had never been exposed to until Townes played it for her.
“When you do classical, you’re judged by how you play what’s on the page,” she told me. “But in jazz, you can also play what’s in your mind.”
She’s the quiet, reserved one in class.
“And then you get her on stage,” Townes said, “and it’s like she has a cape! Sax Girl!”
She loves playing her grandpa’s sax. But what about her beloved Yamaha Custom Z?
“I saw your saxophone,” someone told her, running from the flames on the turnpike.
Yes, her baby made it. And this fall, it’s going to Boston with her.