October 24, 2007

Ecky Thump

Ecky thump

The summer before he began eleventh grade, Boy in Black showed me his class schedule. He'd signed up for the usual academic classes, but what startled me was that he had registered for Band.

"You signed up for Band?" I asked. "But uh ... you don't play a band instrument." He did play piano, but as far as I knew, there was no piano in the concert band.

Boy in Black shrugged. "Oh, I'm going to learn to play the drums."

The whole thing seemed odd to me. He was going to join a concert band even though he didn't play any of the instruments? Seriously, what the hell was this kid thinking? What was the band director going to say on the first day when this kid showed up with no instrument?

But as usual, I was wrong, and Boy in Black was right. What the band director said was: "Okay, cool." Boy in Black started taking drum lessons and playing percussion in the concert band. When he started taking guitar lessons, he joined the jazz band. Apparently one week of lessons is all you need to become a member of the band.

When Shaggy Hair Boy started high school, he too jumped into the band, playing percussion even though he had little prior experience. And last year when With-a-Why began sixth grade at the junior high, he told me he wanted to sign up for Band rather than Chorus. Even though I should have seen this coming, I was still bewildered. "Uh .... you play the piano. There isn't a piano in the band."

With-a-Why is a boy of few words. He said simply, "I want to take Band."

So I wrote a note to the junior high band director: "With-a-Why wants to take Band. He doesn't play a band instrument. He plays the piano, though, so he can read music and knows something about music theory."

I could just picture the band teacher reading the note and then looking at the kid in front of him, a painfully shy kid who most likely stood there with his long hair in his face, not saying a single word. I guarantee that With-a-Why just handed the note to the teacher and said nothing at all. And what the band director said was, "No problem. Tell your Mom to buy you some mallets, and you can play the bells."

That's been my experience with school band directors. They will take any kid who wants to join. Knowing how to play an instrument is not a prerequisite. On the stage at a concert the other night, I counted over a hundred kids, all with whatever instrument they happened to choose. When Lisa Simpson made the saxophone popular for girls a few years back, the band director simply welcomed all the new saxophone players. If twenty kids want to play percussion, he shrugs and says, "okay."

When Boy in Black decided he wanted to learn more about music theory, the band director let him do an independent study, making time to give him one-on-one attention. When Boy in Black graduated from high school, he chose to play the guitar and sing a song as his valedictory speech, a Bob Dylan song to which he had written his own lyrics. When administrators gave him a hard time, trying to get him to change the lyrics because they didn't approve of his message, the band director showed up of his own accord to support Boy in Black.

As a teacher, I too know how to be supportive and inclusive, and how to encourage students to follow things they are passionate about. So I guess I am not completely surprised that these music teachers know how to support my kids' love for music. But here's what amazes me: I go to concerts at the high school, I sit in the dark auditorium, and I look up at the huge group of students who have taken over the whole stage, an odd assortment of students from all different backgrounds, who walk in lugging their instruments and music stands. And then, through the dim air of the auditorium, from the borrowed and rented instruments held by these high school kids, comes beautiful music — melodies that tug at memories, rhythms that change my mood. Incredible, lovely, stirring music.

And that's the part that stuns me.


Cecil B. said...

It's been a while since I've been back here, and I've probably had too much to drink. But everytime I come back here to kill drunk-time, I find myself completley enthused. Tonight for example, by the end of this piece I was eating gold fish out of the bag like pop corn at a movie theater. Bravo jo(e_. Bravo.

YourFireAnt said...

Ain't it great being stunned!


Yankee T said...

One of the highlights of Family Weekend at Excellent Womens College last weekend was the all-campus music concert Saturday night. It was the chorus, the Glee Club, the acapella groups (5!), the wind ensemble,the hand bell choir, the jazz band, and the orchestra. I sat, totally absorbed, for 2 hours marveling at these young women and their talent and drive.

kathy a. said...

what a wonderful post! that's terrific that with-a-why's teacher put him to work on the bells. it is a miracle how music teachers and band directors can take a random collection of students and create something gorgeous.

when my daughter went off to college recently, i wrote notes to the main music teachers she had over the years -- remembering that magic from the auditoriums of concerts past. music turned out to be so important to her, and she was really lucky to have such great instruction and motivation from them.

her university marching band did not even have auditions. they just took everyone who said they could play an instrument, ran them through a solid week of band camp, and ended up with a group producing glorious sound AND marching formations. there are 17 alto saxophones [rather a lot], because that's how many wanted to join.

Teri said...

this is so interesting because, in my experience, high school is when kids leave band because it is so uncool.

I think it's great that your kids are into it and that the music teachers have been so willing, helpful, and wonderful!

timna said...

I got a call last night from ben t.'s orchestra teacher and she said that, after some thought, she wasn't going to delay next week's concert even though two of the boys will probably have a playoff football game that night at 6pm. I said I thought that was fine, certainly with me, and as far as I could tell, with ben t. too. He said he was going to play in the concert. His friend is, too.

I think they're probably right (only one concert per semester, and 20 football games). But I thought it was neat that the two boys decided that on their own. Not sure who told the teacher that there even was a game!

Kelly said...

I think band is wonderful. And so are band directors. Long live band!

BeachMama said...

I played a cello in high school and was automatically in orchestra. Oh how I loved the concerts, it was amazing to hear the music come together.

As for band. I was 'excused' from band when I wasn't quite as good as the other flute players (I taught myself). Needless to say I quit the flute and continued with the cello.

Kudos to your teachers.

Rana said...

Ah, the bells. We had a handbell choir in 5th grade and they were just about the coolest instruments ever.

Gord said...

You have described a wonderfully wise person--a band teacher who truly understands what teaching fine arts is really about. It aint the mastery or the "proper" people, it's about fostering the love of music and the joy of learning more.

Lilian said...

what a beautiful, moving post!! That band teacher is WONDERFUL, I wish all high schools had one like him. I'd also be completely stunned by the good quality of the music performed by them since I know from experience (from being in choirs, bands, even an orchestra for a little while, for most of my life and from leading a small singing group right now) how HARD it is to make a group sound good, or at least harmonious.

Cloudscome said...

I had a band teacher like that, who welcomed me into marching band even though I didn't play very well. I still remember the way he smiled at me and the sparkle in his eye.

You have some amazing kids, don't you?

MommyProf said...

Music teachers are special people. They have even worse hours than most teachers, often make less, and are skilled at something that they teach to beginners, whose efforts could curdle milk, sometimes!

kate5kiwis said...

it was your title that caught my eye jo(e), oh how we *love* The Goodies...

and what a gorgeous person your kiddos' music teacher is, what fabulous confidence that inspires in the students.

my R14 has had a marvellous experience at her School Choir this year, she just mooched past me and said how much she's gonna miss the seniors when they go off on study leave for end of year exams in a couple of weeks. which is fabulous that her music teacher is so skilled at creating a Music Family... just like yours X