Before Melanie Heggs was hooked on the clarinet, she told her mother she wanted to be a psychologist.
She wanted to help solve people’s problems and use her even-temperedness to calm mental anguish. But, about halfway through high school, Heggs, 22, changed her mind.
“When you realize you’re good at something you stick with it, I guess,” she says.
In other words, she decided playing the clarinet made more sense.
Heggs has played the clarinet for half her life. She joined Booker Middle School’s concert band when she was in sixth grade and hasn’t stopped playing since.
She chose the clarinet because she liked the way the keys felt under her fingertips. She remembered seeing a picture of her mother as a teen playing the flute in Riverview High School’s Kiltie Band and thinking the clarinet looked like more fun to play.
“It was mostly a random decision,” Heggs says. “I liked that it had a lot of shiny keys.”
By eighth grade she had moved up to first chair. And, unlike other parents, Vivian Heggs didn’t have to coax her daughter into practicing at night. The soft-spoken teen would simply come home from school with her clarinet in tow and play for hours in her bedroom.
“I was never that dedicated to the flute,” Vivian Heggs laughs.
At the urging of Booker High’s School’s former band director, Scott Forsythe, Heggs started taking private lessons with the principal clarinetist of then-Florida West Coast Symphony. She started playing with its Youth Symphony and joined Booker’s VPA music program. She joined Booker’s marching band, jazz band, concert band and pit orchestra. She made Florida’s All-State Band three years in a row, and by her senior year, she was traveling to Orlando and Naples for rigorous solo competitions and juried recitals.
“When Melanie was in ninth grade her band director came up to me at an open house and said, ‘Your daughter is really talented. She should be taking private lessons,’” Vivian Heggs says. “That’s when I knew she could make something of it.”
Heggs, an only child, rarely boasts about her accomplishments. Instead she sits with a musician’s posture on her living-room sofa and blushes whenever her mother, a teacher at Alta Vista Elementary School, pops up from correcting papers to fill in sentences with forgotten achievements.
Vivian Heggs, a single mother, smiles, sets her pen down and shakes her head.
“I just don’t know how you did it,” she says, turning to face her daughter. “Especially in college. You had marching band practice every day and you still managed to get on the dean’s list.”
“Being busy keeps you organized, I guess,” Heggs says. “It’s easier to stay focused when you have less free time.”
The two women go back and forth for a minute, recounting Heggs’ college schedule. A marching chief at Florida State University, Heggs spent four years traveling to and from Florida State football games and band competitions. She also played in the university’s symphonic and concert bands.
Between out-of-town performances, homework assignments and band practice, Heggs had little time to party, which was fine by her and especially her mother. Traveling is half the reason why she decided to pursue a career in music in the first place.
“Basically I got to take paid trips with my friends,” Heggs says.
This spring, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music performance from Florida State University.
After a series of grueling auditions, she received a full fellowship and teacher assistantship to Penn State University’s School of Music, where she’ll study music performance. The only clarinet player in the country to earn a fellowship to the prestigious music school, Heggs says her dream job is to play for The United States Marine Band.
“I enjoy military bands,” Heggs says. “But I’ll go wherever my career takes me.”
For someone with two months left before graduate school, Heggs is eerily composed. She spent the last few weeks hanging out with old friends, stocking up on sweaters for Pennsylvania winters and preparing for a recital with Sarasota pianist LaTerry Butler at St. James United Methodist Church.
The hard part is over. The fellowship is hers in exchange for a 10-hour-a-week stipend, which she’ll earn working in the university’s public relations office.
Her mother pipes up from the dining room table.
“Do you know what you’ll be doing in the public relations office?” she asks Heggs.
“I don’t know, and I don’t care,” Heggs replies. “Whatever it is, I’ll do it.”
If there’s one thing a prudent clarinetist knows, it’s that proper reed maintenance is crucial.
“The life of a reed is a few weeks maximum,” Melanie Heggs says. “That’s my biggest clarinet pet peeve.
You’ve got to change your reed. It affects your whole sound.”
You don’t just slap one on, either. There’s a priming process.
Heggs soaks her reeds in water and sets them out for a week before using them.
“You have to break them in before you play,” she says.
Reeds are cheaper in Sarasota than in Tallassee, where Heggs went to Florida State University, so, whenever she was home on break, she’d stock up at Sam Ash Music Store on North Tamiami Trail, where a box of 10 reeds costs $20.
“I never understood why they cost more at college,” Heggs says.
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