Kissy Lips on Friday Afternoon

I joined the Scouts after failing to make the debate team. In Scouting I saw a chance to learn teamwork and survival skills, and importantly, a community that was open to all. Compared with Track & Field, Judo, or Canoeing – sporting clubs known as ‘elite CCAs’ in an era before elitism became a dirty word – the Scouts traded prestige for homeliness, exclusivity for warmth.

We met on Saturday mornings for knot-tying, outdoor cooking, first-aid lessons, physical training – the things that come to mind when you think of Scouting. What fewer people know about Scouts in my school is that we also participate in lion dance and the bugle band. A few weeks into my Scouting journey, I had to choose one of those two activities to specialise in. It was not much of a dilemma. Too scrawny to be the hind legs of the lion and too gangly to be its front legs,  the bugle band was a better fit for me.

On Friday afternoons thereafter, the bugle band and I stole away in a dank corner of the school. It was a corner nestled on the top floor of a spire overlooking the canteen and basketball courts. At about 3pm the band, about 30 people strong, would gather and pick away at the splinters on the wooden tables until our instructor arrived. Bugles are shared between band members, and once our instructor opened the store room we would rush to pick out the least rusty bugle for ourselves.

A bugle is a brass wind instrument. It is like a mini hand-held trumpet, except there are no valves or buttons, so it may be more accurate to say that it is like a curved tube that flares on one end. Because of its simplicity, the bugle can only play 5 notes (C, G, high C, E, and high G), which the player controls by varying the pressure of air through his lips. Think of playing the bugle as a cross between whistling and making farting noises; the closer you are to whistling, the higher the note you’re sounding.

If this explanation of how to play the bugle is dubious or outright wrong, I do apologise, for I could never really play the bugle myself. It was a hard instrument to learn, especially for a group of listless teenagers on a Friday afternoon, and even the better among us could only sound the first 3 or 4 notes – I don’t think I ever saw anyone who could hit the high G with fluid consistency. As for me, I think it’s safe to say I only truly mastered the first note.

No matter how tightly I pursed my lips or how much force I used to expel air through my lips, I just could not hit the higher notes on the bugle. Seeing me struggle, well-meaning seniors would pull me aside and coach me. We practiced just puckering our lips and blowing out air, feeling faintly ridiculous. In rare moments of intense concentration I would surprise myself by managing to play the high C (the third note), but then fail to reproduce it in a musical phrase.

I was absolutely mortified whenever we had to take turns performing in front of the class. My face reddening from both the exertion and embarrassment, I would stumble through a monotone staccato before being gruffly dismissed by the instructor. It wasn’t long before I started vaguely dreading going to practice every Friday.

Across practice sessions, the goal that we work towards – the reason we practice – is an annual performance during World Scout Day. On World Scout Day, we dress up in our Scout uniform and put on a performance during school assembly. We arrive at school an hour earlier to gather our instruments and warm-up, and in the dim light of dawn our instructor would give us a pep talk. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember how he ended his speech.

“If you can’t play the instrument, never mind! Just sing the melody! Just make some noise! The most important thing is to be loud.”

If anyone looked too closely, they would have noticed that during certain parts of the performance, the person in the last row, third column held his bugle just a few centimetres away from his mouth, singing instead of blowing through the bugle. And while we weren’t as resonant as the official school band, we were exuberant, raucous. As I marched past the school assembly, caught up in the sweeping melody and in the fervour of belonging, of being a Scout, a feeling I can only describe as pride washed over me.

That’s when I realised that sometimes we take ourselves too seriously. That our fear of people watching and waiting for us to slip up is often unfounded, and so maybe instead of worrying about how others see us, we should seek what joy we can, and build communities we are proud to belong to.

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