As a music student learning to be a conductor, I envisioned myself leading my ensemble with grand, sweeping gestures, sincere and clearly communicated emotions, warmth, knowledge, and a lot of sweat.
What I often experienced as a middle-school band director was the inevitable pounding on the podium with my baton because apparently middle school students don’t know how to count to four, frustrated emotions, exasperation, sinking feelings, and a lot of sweat.
The joys of introducing young people to play beautiful music are truly never-ending. (The situations introducing this old person to drink quantities of alcohol were also never-ending.) If you enjoy listening to yourself utter your greatest hits ad nauseam, you can’t go wrong with a career as an instrumental music teacher. You won’t even go on auto-pilot because every student is different and even though the problems are the same (and believe me, they ARE the same. Every. Stinking. Year.) the many ways of correcting them spring up like weeds.
Let’s take a typical morning band rehearsal which, since it’s such an important subject, has been relegated to forty-five minutes before school actually starts and ends ten minutes before school actually starts because it is vital that students are not late for homeroom. Do they learn anything in homeroom? No. Do they learn in band? Yes. That is why you are a before-school program and homeroom is the Holy Grail. You have drummed into their charming little brains that rehearsal begins at one particular time. Therefore, in order to begin rehearsal on time students should arrive five minutes before in order to assemble instruments and warm up. No, Kelly, warming up does not mean parking your butt on the only radiator in the classroom, it means blowing warm air into your instrument and playing some long tones, now get down and let the rest of us have some warmth please. One or two students are there even before I get there, but I don’t fool myself into thinking it’s because they’re so dedicated. Dylan’s mom likes to get to work early to get the good parking spot and have a decent cup of coffee before her co-workers screw it up, so Dylan gets dropped off over an hour before school starts. Dylan’s mom is reminded that there is no supervision before school and if there is a fire or an intruder the school is not responsible. Dylan’s mom cracks her gum and blandly looks at the crumbling school before sniffing that he’ll be fine. Monica’s dad needs to get to the gym so he’s sure his little girl will be AOK, and hey, Dylan’s here so what could happen? I’m surprised these kids aren’t in their pajamas.
The majority of students enter right as the stick is supposed to be coming down (translation for non-music teachers: my conductor’s baton, held in my hand, should begin conducting right at the beginning of rehearsal. This rarely happens.) and most are yawning or grumpy. After all, they had to get up sooooo early. I remind those special snowflaykes that I’ve been awake since 5:30 and I’m ready to go so let’s get those instruments out and let’s play! We finally get a quorum and I yell at the percussion kids to stop playing the theme from The Simpsons and take out their music. Among the assorted squeaks and trumpet blares and scales and booms of low brass, I invariably have a student with a hand raised. This never fails to amuse me. First of all, how does this student think I can hear over the sound of 45 instruments playing (did I say playing, I mean noise-making) and second, student isn’t making eye contact and doesn’t know I’m ready to answer a question. I quiet the crowd down by holding up two hands and staring at the percussion section. Everybody thinks the percussion section is going to get in trouble again so they quiet down to listen.
“Good morning, everyone, it’s a beautiful day in the band room.” Grunts and groans about what’s so beautiful about it which I religiously ignore. “We have to work on Super Spectacular Show-Stopping Piece today, especially the trumpet entrances.” This causes the trumpet section to look at each other and point fingers and tilt back in their chairs. Why is it only trumpet players who tilt back in their chairs? I’ve never seen a sax player or a French horn player do that. “We also have a question.” Student whose hand has been raised suddenly snaps to life and says “Can I leave early?” I raise my eyebrows. This is the universal signal that I can’t believe this request is being made and anybody else I would dismiss but because it’s you, I’ll give you half a minute to explain yourself. “It’s just — I have a — I mean — I need to decorate a locker.”
This is the bane of my existence. Students are allowed to come in early (with a pass) to decorate a fellow student’s locker for their birthday. I guess this is just as important as homeroom. I don’t know why they don’t do this after school on the previous day, but hey, I’m just a music teacher who can’t appreciate the nuances of middle school locker-decorating. And you would think after all these years that somebody would have figured out to measure the locker first and cut the wrapping paper at home instead of the students bringing in giant rolls of paper that they don’t know how to cut straight and wondering how much is enough and invariable taping two sagging pieces together that don’t quite meet. But I digress.
I nod curtly at the Locker Decorating Queen who audibly lets out the breath she’s been holding and I signify it’s time for warm-up scales. This is where I channel my inner demon and bring on some demanding work and release some pretty good remarks. Students think scales are straightforward up-and-down exercises, but they’re really a platform for watching and listening. I don’t ever do the same thing twice, and I drastically change dynamic levels, tempo, style, and balance (translation: volume level, speed, flowing versus military style, and more clarinets and less tuba). I’ll give a starting tempo (not counting, just conducting) and change it without warning. If they move on while I’m holding a note, my eyes grow huge and I look at my hand as if to say “What in the world are you doing?” and they realize their mistake and hurry to get with the rest of the band except what note of the scale are we on now? Then I’ll bring my hands in close to signify a quiet passage and they’re still blaring so I catch a few eyes that have followed me and make a face like “this is too unbelievable and when do you think they’ll notice?” and I start walking around the room (still conducting) until I’m right in front of the most guilty perp and conduct right in his face until he catches up and then I cut everyone off. I congratulate said student for his stunning grasp of nuance and his skill in effortlessly following my direction and what took him so long? (Mind you, this is always said with a reassuring hand on the head or shoulder and a genuine smile. I have a motto that my students know very well: I only tease the people I love.) This takes up five minutes of my dwindling practice time, during which the late students breathlessly arrive and try to unobtrusively slip into their seat which is not easy to do when you’re wielding a trombone. After warm-ups, we take out the Super Spectacular Show-Stopping Piece and there’s a palpable change in the room.
See, students really do enjoy learning. They especially enjoy something that is a challenge, achieving that challenge, then being challenged to make it better. So it is with our rehearsals. At first it’s all struggling to get the right notes and the right rhythms and the right entrances, and then it’s learning that you absolutely may NOT ask in my rehearsal “Tell me how this goes again?” because you need to figure it out and imprint it on your brain otherwise you’re just a karaoke machine and that’s not what we do. Then it’s experimenting with different approaches and at first they were flabbergasted when I asked them their opinions on how we should approach such-and-so section. “Don’t you know?” they asked, looking at each other like what kind of teacher is this? and realizing over time that they had power over this piece of music, and together they created something that nobody else had done. That’s of course, once we get past what should have been the basics, and let me tell you, my sarcasm juices were flowing in those morning rehearsals:
“Key signatures: they really do matter!”
“What do you mean, what’s a key signature? How many times have we gone over this? Tell me what a key signature is. You know it, come on. Okay, phone a friend,” which is the cue for fifty hands to go up and person on the spot now gets to pick someone to rescue them.
“What do you mean, you never learned that? You’ve been my student for three years! Somebody call the nurse, I think Sally Jo has an undiagnosed case of deafness and it must be cured!” Most kids chuckle and right on cue, Sally Jo says “What?”
“Did everybody see that we shifted time signatures?”
“Do you not know what three beats in a measure means?”
“HELLOOOO!!! Those railroad tracks mean stop!”
“Railroad tracks! Those two parallel lines tilted at an angle right after the hold!”
“Okay, fine, two keyboard slashes. Whatever! It still means stop.”
“What do you mean, what hold?”
“No, I can’t give you a reed right now. You’re supposed to have one in your case.”
“Everybody take out your pencils and mark this. Now everybody stop miming with fake pencils and go get a real one. Even you, Steven.”
“For the love of Mozart, how many times are we going to rehearse this section before you come in at the correct time!”
“I love you guys.”
Ninety-eight percent of rehearsals end with a sincere statement of how much I think of these kids. (There is the two percent which usually happens two weeks before the concert where they have no interest in anything music-related and they’ll even confess that wow, they sucked today and I’ll end the rehearsal very quietly, my disappointment palpable.) Not only are they decoding a foreign language (music notes) with part of the story missing (the other instrumental parts), they are remembering how to produce pleasing sounds from a piece of metal or wood jammed into their mouths and using their fine-motor skills to manipulate the correct fingerings, all while responding to non-verbal cues from a stick-waving woman who makes the most unbelievable facial expressions. And they do this voluntarily, before school, for no credit or grade. At the end of every rehearsal, each one would get a small pouch of fruit snacks from me, and they acted like it was first prize in a contest. Especially the ones who confessed they hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning to get to band on time.
Now THAT’S what I miss most about teaching music.
*Man, it’s getting dusty in here. Why else are my eyes smarting?*