Being a middle school band teacher probably ranks somewhere between telemarketer and cat food taster as most desirable job. Here you are a talented young musician and instrumentalist, you’re passionate about your craft, and have been a member of successful orchestra and band ensembles. Maybe you even have a Master’s degree in composition or music theory or performance. Then you’re thrown into a hornet’s nest of hormone-ravaged 12-year-olds, at least half of whose primary musical interests lie in who can produce the coolest arm farts or who can induce the loudest squeal from a girl by threatening to clear out their spit valves in her vicinity.
Our story is a familiar one. Much of it I’ve already lived from the opposite side of the spectrum. In fifth grade, David was gung-ho about playing the trumpet. We invested in a $700 horn, private music lessons, the whole nine yards. At first he practiced a lot, improving every day. By the end of the year he’d gone from sounding like a wounded moose to actually producing something akin to what one would call music. Then sixth grade happened. And clashes with his band teacher, who he doesn’t like. And he stopped practicing. In fact, I haven’t seen the trumpet in our house for months. Hassling him about practicing became exhausting, and with three other kids to force march into homework, bedtime, and chores, it was no longer worth the energy.
I was that kid once. In all fairness though, I gave it two solid years before I completely tossing my attitude into the trash. I played the flute, enjoyed it a lot at first, then we went through a string of band teachers after the first one was fired, rumored to have acted inappropriately with a student. In seventh grade I developed possibly an unfounded abhorrence for my band teacher. He creeped me out. Most of my class thought he was gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that, in fact now I would just assume going in that a significant percentage of male music teachers are. Even when he later married a girl, we still moved forward with that assumption. And to my mom’s complete surprise, her straight-A, never-get-in-trouble, quiet as a mouse daughter pulled a D in Band for the third quarter of seventh grade. Mostly because I always missed my weekly one-on-one lessons. As I recall I was relegated to dishwashing duty for months on end, and a hefty grounding. It still didn’t make me like Band any more. Or go to my flute lessons. Even after my instrument had an unfortunate accident I couldn’t get out of them though, and when my teacher sent it in for repair, he let me use a loaner one of his, which was a thousand times worse because I couldn’t stomach putting my lips on an instrument that he’d once blown into (insert your own dirty joke here). Thankfully the school board declined to renew his contract for the next year. I believe he started selling computers after that. For all I know he bought some Apple shares and retired early. So I harbor no guilt for rooting for him to get fired.
So I’ve kind of taken a laissez-faire approach with David and his music career. Last night they had a band concert. There is a special PRMS band tee-shirt that he was supposed to have purchased back in the fall. Everyone wears them for concerts. Yesterday he still didn’t have one. He said he didn’t want to “waste” $10.00 on a shirt he’d never wear. It’s fine to beg me for $10.00 to go spend on hot dogs and Gatorade at Kwik Trip, though. That’s not at all frivolous. So fine. I asked him a couple of times yesterday what he’d planned on wearing. He just shrugged. I didn’t get mad. Until he told Barry to “chill out” when he vocalized his distaste for band, his teacher, and how “stupid” it all was. Then, without warning, I did an Incredible Hulk transformation into my parents, excoriating him for having us spend money on a trumpet and then disregarding it without so much as an afterthought.
But I didn’t care what he wore. So when he wore a bright turquoise polo, and marched in with his band mates, who were all wearing black shirts, I didn’t bat an eye. It’s his problem, not mine. He didn’t want to take Band next year. Tough shit. He’s taking it. I can only hope the attitude softens, right now he thinks Band is for losers who won’t ever play sports in high school. I’m confident that maturity has a way of toning down some of the attitude, we’ll see.
I was made to carry on with Band into eighth grade. We had a new band teacher. He was kind of a character, to put it mildly. My friend Kris and I spent a lot of our time during class working his unique mannerisms and language into a specialized dictionary, and drawing pictures of his odd hairline that had an island of hair in the front amidst a sea of baldness. Kris, however, is a naturally gifted musician and artist, and could goof off, and still be at the top of the flute section, and win a competitive award for a flute solo, while I eventually sunk down to last chair. Last night David’s band performed a piece called Prehistoric Suite. So many things reminded me of the Northwest Suite that we played that year. I killed that number because the opening movement, Space Needle, featured only a staccato phrasing of a series of 8th and 16th notes, all high D. You give me one note, I can rock the shit out of it. Seriously, watch it here. (Disclaimer: Not our school. Or me.)
My parents made me stick it out through the ninth grade. New school. New teacher. Talented. Nice. Not much control of the class, but it was kind of fun that way. And honestly, I started enjoying playing again, once marching band season was over. I hated marching band with every fiber of my being. But I actually played in the pep band during basketball games, and really loved seeing a piece of music come together for a concert band performance. I was kind of bummed that I missed out on playing Pomp and Circumstance at graduation because I was attending my cousin’s wedding the same weekend. If the prospect of marching band season (we weren’t a big enough school for a separate marching band and orchestra) didn’t loom on the horizon, I might have considered Band for another year, but I’d found my niche in vocal music and singing performance, so I didn’t give a second thought to quitting.
So we’ll see how things play out for David. I hope he keeps playing. I wish I had kept it up. I love music, can read it, and have a good ear, plus how awesome would it be to bust out some jazz flute ala Ron Burgundy? I just never had the natural ability to make my fingers do what my brain was telling them to. Probably practice would have helped. David is more talented at the trumpet than I was at the flute, though. And he has a pitch-perfect singing voice. He comes from a family with some musical roots. My dad played clarinet, tenor and alto sax in a big band for many years. I think David could do great things if he’d stick with it, and ride out the teacher conflicts and the idea that band is only for nerds.
© Jennifer Alys Windholz, 2012