I arrived early at Lumen Field for rehearsal carrying a borrowed alto saxophone. I'd spent a few days before reacquainting myself with music; squeaking out ugly sounds, pausing mid-measure to YouTube how to play certain notes, and parsing through sheet music as if I were studying a half-forgotten foreign language.

I hadn't played the saxophone in 13 years. This rehearsal wasn’t going to go well, I thought. I couldn’t even think about Saturday.

For my latest Play Date, I joined the Reign City Riot, the pep band for the OL Reign, Seattle’s women’s soccer team, for their Pride Match. The Riot, an LGBTQ+ majority band housed under the umbrella of the very gay Rainbow City Performing Arts (RCPA), was going all out with performances before and after Saturday’s match, plus an on-field half-time show.

This was the only match of the year where the Riot played on the actual field. And, despite my fear of inadequacy, I played alongside them. The Riot is comprised of people who, like me, found their way back to music later in life. They welcomed me into their community with open arms. For them, the community and the music are more important than perfection.

All band rooms smell the same. NG

At Rehearsal

The band room, a musty dungeon in the bowels of Lumen Field, smelled the same way every band room I’d ever been in smelled. All around me, people chatted over their open instrument cases, wetting reeds between their lips, attaching mouthpieces to trumpets and trombones and mellophones. It was so familiar. I made my best friends in adolescence in a room like this. 

Lisa Dockendorff, the saxophone section leader, welcomed me with a huge smile, a saxophone slung around her neck. “I’m so excited you’re joining us,” she said. She introduced me to the rest of the alto sax section as I set up my instrument.

“I’m sorry in advance,” I said to everyone, airing my bad-at-saxophone dirty laundry.

“Oh, don’t worry at all,” Dockendorff said. “Just play the notes you can. You’re going to be great.” 

Rehearsal took place on Lumen Field's north steps. The place sat empty. Our only audience for these two hours was the gradually reddening sky as day gave way to dusk and the sun sank beneath Elliot Bay. 

The band warmed up together playing a series of ascending whole notes in unison. My sax vibrated beneath my fingers as I breathed through it. I could discern my sound for a half second before it melted in with the rest of the band. Together, we made one indistinguishable note—rich, full, and brassy. Emotion swelled in my chest. I forgot the euphoria of playing in a band, together. 

We flipped through our music to an arrangement of Lizzo’s “About Damn Time.” I only played about half the notes, but I kept smiling around my mouthpiece. This music was fun. I fumbled through a fast, sixteenth-note-riddled rendition of Britney Spears's “Toxic” (“We’ve been playing it for months and I still don’t get all the notes,” said Curt, the alto next to me whose last name I forgot to write down). We needed multiple takes of the “Time Warp” to nail it. (“So, what I’m hearing is we need to do the Time Warp again?” Curt quipped after the conductor said it needed more work.)

During a break, the altos invited me into the fold as if I were truly a part of their section. Karen Greytak, an elementary school teacher from Bellevue, sidled up next to me and said, “Hey, I heard you! You’re doing really well.” With a group like this, I didn’t have anything to worry about. I relaxed and started looking forward to Saturday’s match.

The Riot is the only non-audition sports band in Seattle. They’re one of only two soccer bands in the U.S. When people in the band say “just play what you can,” they mean it. The band is made up of people from all backgrounds and identities—people in wheelchairs, people with guide dogs, cymbal players in their 70s, teen drummers accompanied by parent chaperones. 

“We are open to everyone,” said John Arrowsmith, an elementary school teacher in Seattle and the Riot’s drum line leader. Arrowsmith founded Reign City Riot in 2016. He went to a Reign game back when they still played at a gradually crumbling Memorial Stadium and heard the quiet in the stands, so he asked management if he could start a drum line. The Reign jumped at the offer. 

The Riot (originally called Queen City Corps) grew to a full band over the years. Membership waned after the team’s two-year stint at a converted baseball stadium in Tacoma complicated commutes, and then a pandemic made gathering impossible. Now, in their second season at Lumen Field, the Riot’s membership is growing.

Playing in a big bowl made me feel so small—until we all hit the same note. NG

A Big, Gay Family

While many band members are allies, the majority are gay, lesbian, nonbinary, and transgender. Most of the gay members found their way to the Riot from their memberships in other RCPA bands. In most cases, they found those bands from watching them in the Pride parade.

“I grew up in Montana, where being gay wasn’t okay,” Greytak said. “I saw the band in the Pride parade every year and I would watch them and cry.”

For Arrowsmith, who, at 42, is over going to bars, the Riot is his primary way to meet other queer people.

“A lot of folks may not have a safe space to be fully themselves outside of this band,” Arrowsmith said. “We have people who are using the names and pronouns they want here but may not feel they can do that in their regular life.”

Riley McCormack, a care nurse and tenor saxophonist, moved here from Michigan in part to solidify his transition as trans masculine. 

“To find a group and be who I am and not have to explain it and have a fresh start was really awesome,” McCormack said.

Shelley Siegfried, a 67-year-old trumpet player, joined RCPA back in 2001. She also hadn’t played in 20 years. Right around when she joined up, her family wasn’t speaking to her because she was gay. 

“Coming to play trumpet with fellow trumpeters—and they were so loving and embracing and encouraging—it was like a whole new family that I felt like I was missing,” Siegfried said.

Her wife, Pamela Bezona, a 72-year-old percussionist, joined the Riot when Arrowsmith first started the drum line. Siegfried joined after the Reign asked the Riot to create a full band. (Bezona says she and Siegfried “are bisectional,” because they play different instruments.)

Playing at Reign games opens up the Riot to a bigger, more diverse, and more straight audience. (That said, women's soccer fandom is still pretty gay—one fan's sign at Saturday's game read: "After party at Wildrose?") Allies are welcome to join, but part of what makes the Riot so special is this queer community.

“Someone who identifies as straight can go and play in any band,” McCormick said. “For someone who’s trans, those spaces are very rare. That sense of belonging, that sense of safety, that’s what this band brings.”

Finding any space to play music was pivotal for these people because, above all, they fucking love music.

Sax in the stands. Shane Wahlund

Music as Lifeblood

So many Riot members took breaks from playing their instruments. All of them found their way back to music because they couldn’t live without it. 

Wes Walton, a product manager and the Riot’s band director, put down his trombone for about 15 years. During that period, he “went through some self-discovery” and realized he was gay. Soon after, he found RCPA and started playing trombone again. 

“Joining the band fed that part of my soul I didn’t know was empty until I found the ensemble,” Walton said.

Dockendorff, a legal assistant and the saxophone section leader, didn’t tickle any sax keys for seven years. 

Then, after she started playing again, she developed Bell’s palsy. Half of her face stopped working. That makes it pretty hard to play the saxophone. So, once again, she stopped playing. But not for good. 

“It became my personal mission to get back into music,” Dockendorff said. “I was like, ‘If I can play again then life is going to be okay.’”

After a year of physical therapy and a variety of other remedies, she picked the saxophone back up. 

“When I play I’m filled with happy,” Dockendorff said. “Music is home.” 

Victor Moses, a speech pathologist and mellophonist, started playing music when he was eight. Throughout his life, he’s played piano, trumpet, saxophone, french horn, and mellophone. He stopped playing for about 10 to 12 years because he couldn’t find an adult band that wasn’t for professionals. 

“Music has always been one of my best friends,” Moses said. “It’s where I go when I’m sad, it’s where I go when I'm happy, when I’m upset, when I need to think about things.”

There’s a physicality to playing music that grounds him.

“When I’m playing with a group like Riot, I can feel the wall of sound—the vibrations in my body—that feels like a connection to everything around me,” he said. “When I'm playing by myself or a smaller group it feels like quiet joy. And sometimes it feels like dancing—and I do dance.”

The Riot combines this love of music with a relaxed approach. The band encourages people to try out instruments they’ve never played. The practices aren’t grueling. You don’t have to be good, you just have to read music. The music is upbeat, catchy, and relatively easy. And, you can be yourself.

“It’s a musical community and a safe space to try things out,” Moses said. “It’s also my queer family. The Riot is one of the few places in the world I feel like I can show up and be seen as all of who I am."

Game Time 

Everyone crowded into the band room on Saturday decked out in their OL Reign shirts and scarves. They wore as much rainbow stuff as they could fit on their spare surface area. Dockendorff gave me multiple rainbow bracelets; two for me, one for the bell of my sax. Someone painted rainbows on my cheeks. The band room buzzed. 

“Why is your reed so long?” Curt asked me as I was putting my mouthpiece on. 

“I dunno,” I said. “This is just what was in the case when I borrowed it.” 

I dug around to show him my reeds and realized the saxophone on the box wasn’t an alto. 

“Oh my god,” I laughed to Curt. “I’ve been using tenor reeds.”

“Well, hopefully you can still play,” another sax player, Peter Stiepleman, chimed in. Stiepleman was the former superintendent of schools for Columbia, Missouri a year before he joined the Riot.  

There’s some debate in the online saxophone forums about whether or not using a tenor saxophone reed, which is bigger and has more surface area to make a sound, is actually easier to use on an alto saxophone. The debate swings the other way, too. Regardless, I panicked. I’d just gotten confident in my sound with the reed I’d been using. Changing it up now could lead to disaster. 

Curt gave me one of his alto reeds. Then, he gave me a bite pad for the top of my mouthpiece, and let me borrow a more simple ligature so my reed didn't slide all over the place. I thanked him profusely. 

Dockendorff supplied me with a flip folder of music and a lyre to attach the music to my sax. It was showtime. 

The saxes pushed me into the front row in our pre-game performance. Everything went well until I couldn’t find “YMCA” in my flip folder and I accidentally knocked it to the ground. Greytak angled her music toward me so I could look over her shoulder. 

After that first show, we walked up the steps to find our place in the stands. I tripped trying to catch up to my section. Stiepleman and Curt rushed back to help me; one unhooked my sax from my neck strap, the other grabbed my jacket. 

“Are you okay?” One of them asked. 

“Yes, yes,” I said, “just embarrassed.”

Throughout the day, they teased me about tripping whenever we encountered another set of stairs. We were starting to feel like genuine pals. Later, Stiepleman took my phone and subscribed me to his leadership podcast.

During the game, Arrowsmith let me bang on a bass drum. I did it for about seven minutes, each hit reverberating through my body, until I got a little stressed. Growing up, my saxophone teacher always said I had no rhythm and I should take swing dancing lessons to find some. I’ve still never swing danced, and rhythm still eludes me.

At half-time, we crowded into a service elevator down to the field. I surveyed the warped reflection of the entire band in the curve of a tuba player’s bell. We vibrated with pre-show energy.

Lining up at one of the tunnels before showtime, an elementary school girl shouted down at us that she played trombone, and next year she was going to play saxophone. We all lifted our saxophones and cheered. "Stay in band!" Someone said. I hope she takes that to heart. I wish I had.

When it was go-time, we walked onto the turf of Lumen Field, the bowl of the enormous stadium towering above us. I’ve never felt so small. But, seconds later, Walton lifted up his hands, whispered, “Industry Baby!” and cued us with, “A one, and a two, and a one, two, three, four.” And our set roared out of our instruments. 

Any ideas on which Seattle subculture I should explore next? Want me to tag along with you on your favorite hobby or pastime? Send me tips at playdate@thestranger.com