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Alex Ham the Orchestra Man

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Alexander Hamilton sped through the school’s dingy hallways, holding on to a cello strap with one hand and muttering to himself as he went: “Orchestra room, go straight down and turn right, past the stairs. Orchestra room, go straight and turn right, past the stairs. Hurry up, Alex, can’t be late for the audition.” He made the required turn and was met with a closed, wooden door with the room number 215 . He racked his memory. This was - probably - the orchestra room.

The door opened and a tall African-American girl appeared, rolling a cello case behind her. She looked at him.

“Waiting to go in? He’s ready for the next one.”

He nodded thinly. She held the door open for him with her fingertips.

“Thanks,” he said, barely audibly.

He headed in. The conductor had told him to call him just Washington, and he was sitting in one of the student chairs with a desk pulled in front of him, hand hovering over a sheet of paper with a pencil. He’d met Washington yesterday, when he came in with his uncle earlier to make sure his extra-packed schedule would be fine. Though he had gotten the audition music beforehand, for the seating arrangements in the orchestra. He wanted first chair. First chair got all the solos.

“Hello, Alexander isn’t it?” - he nodded, “why don’t you unpack and tune up?” He complied nervously, running up and down a couple of scales to warm up. He looked up when he was done, Washington smiling kindly at him.

“Start whenever you’re ready.”

He nodded a beat out, tapped it on the floor with his foot - he saw Washington’s eyes flick towards it with no change in expression, and he chastised himself - it was a bad habit of his.

Halfway through his audition, he completely botched a rhythm and reverted to playing the section half as slowly, which was how he’d originally learned it, only realizing his mistake several bars after he switched to half time. Slightly shaken up, he stumbled through the rest of the piece, packing up as fast as he could and ignoring Washington’s attempts to talk to him, calm him down. He made it outside and shut the door quietly - apparently he was the last to audition - before sitting down on the floor, pissed at himself and everything around him. He played his audition so badly, he’d be lucky to get fifth chair of the six available at this rate. He groaned.

A shadow fell over him, then bent over.

“Are you alright?” He craned his neck up. Standing in front of him was a tall African American boy, not smiling at him but not frowning either. His hand was stuck out in front of him. Hamilton took the boy’s hand and used it to pull himself up, then shook it.

“I’m Alexander Hamilton.”

“I gathered,” the boy said, nodding at the tag on his cloth cello case. “I’m Aaron Burr, I play violin. Were you trying out?”

“Yeah, I messed it up. I played half time at that one part in the middle, you know? That part where there’s the awkward sixteenths with all the string crossings? And that kind of shook me up for the rest of the audition, and I kind of just threw my bow at the strings with unnecessary energy and lost all my phrasing and -” He cut himself when he realized the boy - Burr - was looking at him strangely. “Sorry. I’ve been told I talk too much. I have to work on that, actually, I always got in trouble for talk - you know what, I’ll shut up now. What?”

Burr waited a moment before saying, “Washington’ll go easy if it’s your first year.” He paused. “It is your first year, right? I don’t remember seeing you.”

“Yeah, I moved here two months ago because my mom and I caught this flu that was going around, and we hadn’t been vaccinated so we got pretty sick and then my mom died while she was holding me, just like that. That was two months ago and -” He stopped abruptly. Perhaps he shouldn’t hit a person he just met with that. “- Never mind. Anyway, I live with my uncle now.”

Burr looked at him with something akin to pity. “If it means anything to you, my parents are dead too. I’m emancipated, I live by myself now.”

Alex stared at him. “You can do that?” The gears in his brain started moving, working out ways to get out of the house he lived in. Not that his uncle was bad, per se, but he was very ignored. If he wanted that he might as well just move into his own house. There were less rules to manage then.

“Well, yeah, my parents had some money and I’m living off of that until I can graduate,” he said. Alex felt his shoulders distinctly slump when he heard the word money: Brains he had, music he had, a tolerance for pain and a sense of honor that had gotten him through the first fourteen years of his life, but not money. He and his mother had always been poor, and they’d had the occasional empty night from when she ran out between paydays at the small job with the landlord she had. He’d taken on her job after she died, for a short while, but then the legal papers had been worked out and his uncle had to fly down to the Caribbean where he’d lived to get him. He didn’t have a job anymore. He missed it, missed the easy monotony of keeping track of the money for his landlord’s trades, but he was going to be pretty busy at school, he supposed. At least he had more time for cello. Where he’d lived before, in St. Croix, there wasn’t much time nor tolerance for music.

He realized Burr was staring at him. “What? Oh, yeah, cool.” He checked his phone - that was new, too - and added, “Sorry, Burr, I gotta go. My uncle needs me at home for dinner.” He was still getting used to life in New York. Everything was so much easier.

“Goodbye, Alexander, see you tomorrow?”

“You bet. And call me Alex,” he tossed over his shoulder as he grabbed his cello by the handle on the case and swung it onto his back, heading out the front doors. He had so much to think about.

***

The next day, Alex walked into room 215 nervously clutching his cello straps to be greeted with a cheerful hubbub as people unpacked their instruments and found their seats, designated with green index cards with each person’s name and seat number written in neat handwriting on it. He scanned the cello section eagerly, eyes landing first on the first chair - god dangit , he wasn’t first, of course he wasn’t, he’d messed up the audition, but he’d had a small bit of hope - but then he saw the chair beside it, with the name Alexander Hamilton, 2nd chair written on its index card.

Second chair wasn’t necessarily bad, but it wasn’t good either. He hated being second to anyone.

He shucked the case off of his cello, took a moment to run his hands over it and ensure that nothing had happened in the few hours since he’d seen it - no scratches, good, he needed a hard case as soon as he could afford one - and pulled out the bow too, tightening it with a few practiced twists. He didn’t have music yet, assumed that no one did. He squeezed through the tight rows of chairs and sat down with a grunt in the second chair. His standpartner hadn’t sat down yet, so he took the moment to look at his their card: Angelica Schuyler, 1st chair. Okay, then.

He jerked back slightly guiltily as a person plopped down into the chair beside him, wearing black jeans and a loose peach blouse. “Hi, new standpartner, I’m Angelica and I use she/her pronouns - wait, I know you, aren’t you that kid from yesterday?” She looked him up and down with a critical eye. “Yep, you are. What’s your name?”

“Hi, um… I’m Alex Hamilton.” He watched her as she cast her glance over the cello section, lips pursed. “You don’t look satisfied.”

She turned back towards him, laughed a little. “Yeah, no, the cello section has been… rather lacking. Let’s hope it’s better this year.” She sighed. “Congrats on the second chair by the way, G-Wash doesn’t usually put newbies in the front. You must be pretty good.”

He tried for a smile, didn’t know whether he succeeded in that or not. “Honestly? I completely failed my audition, played that part in the middle in half time and basically floundered around for the last half of the thing. Ugh.”

She did laugh outright at that, eyes twinkling. “I hate that part, almost messed it up too.” She turned back towards the music stand, set up a folder for music, and started warming up, sweeping her long black hair over her shoulder in one practiced motion. The conversation was over, then, he supposed, and he ran through a couple of scales before giving up and staring blankly at the ground.

He felt a sharp poke in his side. “Yo, who are you, new kid?” The boy sitting on his right had a faceful of freckles, an easy smile, and a shining viola in his hands, and he automatically smiled back before replying “I’m Alexander Hamilton,” pausing before taking a leaf out of Angelica’s book, “and I use he/him pronouns.” Just in case.

“I’m John Laurens, and this is the place to be. Glad to have you here, Ham - can I call you Ham?” He faked horror and nodded at the same time, enjoying that Laurens was already comfortable enough with him to abbreviate his name.

Another person thumped into the chair beside Laurens with a viola as well, picking up on their conversation and exuberantly proclaiming, “I’m Peggy, and I use them/theirs pronouns.” They smiled at him, slightly viciously in a warning sort of way, and he unconsciously shrunk away as he felt Angelica shift by his side, saying, “Respect their pronouns or I kill you.”

He swung back to look at her, surprised by the fierce protectiveness. She saw his confusion and added, “They’re my sibling. Adopted.”

He relaxed in his seat as he understood. “Duly noted.”

He and Laurens talked a bit more before Washington - G-Wash, Angelica had called him, but he wasn’t sure about that - called the orchestra to order. He learned that Laurens enjoyed sketching and carried a small art book with him everywhere, and that he had a pet turtle named Frances at home. Watching Laurens’ face as he described the turtle, Alex could tell that he really loved it, and it was kind of endearing.

Wait, no - stop that, Hamilton, you don’t even know if he’s into men. Ugh, he sighed mentally, and continued listening to Laurens’ expressive style of talking - he had an adorable Southern accent that slipped out every once in awhile without him noticing, and he waved his hands around as he talked and almost hit Peggy in the face with his bow, hastily apologizing. He laughed.

Washington stepped up to the podium and silenced everyone with a wave of his hand. Alex turned back towards the front, facing Washington, and was immediately impressed by the confidence exuding from the conductor, like he knew exactly what he was doing and expected everyone to follow him. Then his eyes dropped to the first violin, and his jaw dropped slightly - Aaron Burr was the concertmaster? He suddenly regretted how casual he had been yesterday; being on good terms with the concertmaster had to help get a person ahead if they wanted to rise through the orchestra ranks. Namely, from second place to first place.

“Hello, students. As you probably know, I’m your conductor, George Washington. Call me Washington, though some students do use G-Wash-” he looked towards Angelica, who smiled at him innocently - “and I do see some new members here, glad to see you all.

“I’ll be passing out this term’s music now, take one part and pass it back.” He rifled through his bulging bag, decorated with music notes and symbols, and pulled out a gigantic sheaf of paper. Sorting it into separate stacks, he handed a stack to Burr, another person in the 2nd violin with a headful of hair exploding out of its ponytail, one to Laurens, and one to Angelica. She flipped through through the pages and took the top two, handing them to him.

“What? Oh, thanks, Angelica.” He took the proffered pages and slipped them into the homework pocket in his binder, mentally reminding himself to get a folder for school music. Angelica took another two sheets and smoothly handed the pile back behind her without looking. She arranged them out on the music stand - the song they were playing was called Simple Symphony by Benjamin Britten; it didn’t look too difficult to sight read, though there were some sections that would probably need some slow working through at home. He started experimenting with some of the harder-looking sections, which weren’t actually so bad. There were a couple of parts with divisi, though, so he asked Angelica if she’d take the melody, since she was on the outside, and she nodded.

Washington waited for everyone to finish sorting out their music before waving his baton again and saying, “Let’s try it now, okay? Just the first movement. I’ll be conducting in four-four even though it’s in cut-time, so that we can sight read better.” He flicked his baton in the one, two, three, four motions and they started tentatively.

All in all, it wasn’t so bad, especially considering that it was their first time reading it. Washington cut them off with a flourish and smiled. “That wasn’t horrible for a first try. Let’s run it through again one more time and then we’ll focus on some of the smaller parts.” He liked how Washington jumped into working on the pieces immediately. It was really efficient. And the auditions had made it so the front rowers were quite good, so he felt like he was enveloped by actually in tune people playing. He liked this feeling, of weaving music together, even if they weren’t all together. United through music.

The rest of the class period passed quickly, Alex so focused on his music that he was unaware of time passing. Washington finally waved his hand for them to stop and the orchestra cut off jaggedly as they stopped playing in confusion. “There’s three minutes left, I always give you that much time to pack up.” Cheerful banter filled the room as he tried to fight his way the four feet over to talk to Burr - his number one rule in life was to impress the number one. They were the ones that got you places. Burr left before he had a chance to, though, and he continued packing up awkwardly alone.

Laurens poked him again in the side. “New kid, you gotta meet my friends Mulligan and Laf, come on!” He grabbed his hand, Alex pulling back slightly as he grabbed his cello first but then hoisted it up and said “Okay” happily. John Laurens was holding his hand! He pulled Alex over to the back of the room, where the sole bassist was heaving a case over his instrument.

“Mulligan, we got a newbie! His name is Hammy!” Laurens jubilantly said as Alex protested “No, I’m Alex Hamilton” with a smile on his face to show that he wasn’t actually upset.

“Hello, New Kid Alex,” Mulligan said solemnly. He had a low, gruff voice that matched his bass. Then he cracked a smile and his whole face lit up at the same time as Laurens’, and they both laughed. Alex just smiled weakly, feeling a little out of place in their group, when the bushy-haired second violinist walked up to them.

Mes amis, who is this small new cellist?” The person draped an arm over Laurens’ shoulder casually as they spoke with a thick French accent.

“I’m Alexander Hamilton. And I’m not small. Who are you?”

“I,” they said, “am Lafayette. I use they/them pronouns.” All three of them glared at him fiercely, daring him to question it.

“Cool. Can I call you Laf?”

They were apparently delighted by this. “Certainly, mon ami!  And you are small. Compared to me. What is your next class?”

He pulled out his binder and rifled through the pages spilling out of it. He’d have to clean that up when he got home. Finding his schedule with a small aha! , he picked out the next class… “Science. I think.”

“Wonderful! I have that as well. We shall walk together.” Alex nodded and gently put his cello into the rack so he could pick it up at the end of the day, following his three new friends out the door.

“Anyway, Laf, I’m not small, you’re just excessively tall…”