Words by Lemuel Butler of Black & White Coffee Roasters
I was actually thinking of my childhood while in the hospital for a week. I was wondering when I lost that sense of freedom and started chaining myself to stress. For years I have been battling kidney disease and with the stress that I put on myself to compete in barista competitions, the stress of maintaining happy customers, the stress of family and then the stress of leaving a coffee company I have been with for 10 years to start my own roasting company; my health slowly declined and I started losing my battle with kidney disease and landed in the emergency room with a softball-size cyst that ruptured on my kidney, collapsing my lung and causing heart failure.
Where did all this stress begin? Was it necessary? Did I truly learn how to deal with stress or did I just compartmentalise for years until it compiled into disaster?
I had a magnificent childhood. My family did not have much money, as a matter of fact we lived well below the poverty line in the US, which according to my parents was better off than other places in the world. Later in life, through traveling the world for coffee, I completely understood first hand what my mother was talking about. Most importantly I grew up with both parents in a neighbourhood where that was a rarity. My mother always pushed me to do my best and she always wanted more for me.
When I was 10 years old our school was visited by two music teachers of two possible schools I would attend the next year. They were recruiting young musicians. They brought flutes, trumpets, drums and clarinets for us to see, to hold and to play. I knew it would be a financial stretch for my parents so I decided to be strategic in my selection. I really wanted to play an instrument. I was drawn to music at an early age with my father's love of all music and this was an opportunity for me to learn how to play myself! I knew the drums would never fly with my parents because it would be way too noisy. The trumpet would also be a touch loud in our three bedroom apartment, so it came down to the flute or clarinet and I chose the clarinet. It was a long shot, but I thought I could present a good argument for my parents to spend a considerable amount of money on a clarinet because it would make me a better person. My father told me absolutely not, but my mother saw value in my musical education. She managed to figure out financing options if she was to get a second job. She did, and I received my first ever musical instrument; a clarinet.
We purchased the clarinet from a local music store and along with the clarinet came six free lessons. It was at Burt's Music School that I discovered what stress was all about. I had never felt the pressure of stress. I had to learn to play the clarinet well in six lessons or my father would pull the plug. Where other students in my class were able to add private lessons to these free classes to improve, I had to take the basics given to me for free and work harder on my own to get better at the instrument. I only had a summer to do it and my father did not make it easy. We only had one car and he needed it for work, so my mother would leave my older sister in charge of my younger siblings and she and I would take the bus to practice. It was always a stressful bus ride, because I could hear my classmates getting better with their private tutoring while I struggled to keep up. Learning embouchure and remembering notes and scales; I did my best and through all my squeaks and squawks on the clarinet, I didn't notice any improvements until the summer was over.
I started in my new school and music class was surprisingly easier than I imagined. The majority of the music students had just received their instruments and did no private classes over the summer; many of them hadn't even touched their instruments all summer. All my hard work and the encouragement from my mother propelled me to the head of the clarinet section of my class.
I'm pretty sure my music teacher, Ms. Nelson, was a racist; she never offered any encouragement and she never offered any praise at how well I played. One thing she could not deny however was that I was the best clarinet in her symphony. Every time we had to try out for First Chair, I outplayed my classmates. It was a stressful year. My First Chair seat could be challenged by any clarinetist at any time, but no one beat me out of my seat and I believed that angered Ms. Nelson. She always encouraged the white students to continue to challenge me and I never complained; I never showed how stressed I was; I never displayed how happy I was winning the challenge; I just did my best and later celebrated with my mother. My mother would tell me it would only be a year with this music teacher and my next school I would have a new beginning with a new teacher who cared equally about all the music students. My mother is rarely wrong, but even she could have never predicted what happened next.
Our public school system went through a major overhaul where the liberal politicians wanted more of the arts and sciences implemented in the system so they came up with a Magnet School Program to emphasise just that. I was bussed to one of these Magnet schools. Unfortunately, Ms. Nelson was bussed there as well. I would have her as my music teacher for another two years. I struggled musically. Ms. Nelson did not make it easy. There was another clarinetist who was really talented and she and I would constantly challenge each other. Sometimes she would be First Chair and sometimes I would. We were the only black clarinetists in the whole school and that really angered Ms. Nelson. I could sense it. One day she decided to put me on bass clarinet. I was angry but did not complain.
The school provided the bass clarinet so that actually came at an opportune time for my family because we were having financial problems and my father had pawned my clarinet so he could fix his car. Just like that, my first instrument that I had loved so dearly was gone. It was a depressing year. Ms. Nelson did not offer much assistance with the bass clarinet and I struggled. One of the students in the symphony who was a year older, took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about the bass clarinet. We would show up to class early so he could tutor me before class started. I improved; my attitude improved; and I started having fun again. Thanks Chris! Wherever you are. Having a positive attitude towards a new instrument helped me later in High School.
Once in High School I had more options and a better music teacher who cared equally about all his students. I excelled at clarinet and when Mr. Blalock asked if anyone would switch over to Baritone horn and Euphonium, I immediately volunteered. I was tasked with learning Bass Clef, a new instrument and learning how to march in a marching band all in one summer! By the time I reached High School, stress was coming at me from all different aspects of my life: school, family, music, life; so I learned how to compartmentalise it and power through.
Later in life I used this same technique in coffee competitions and business. Lying in my hospital bed, I reminisced on where all this stress began. An eleven year old with a clarinet. Was it worth it?
You can read the other three parts by this legend at the links below.