Sunday, August 2, 2009

High School Years

Author's note: The following picks up a topic begun in my Music Notes column in the Asbury Park Press, Sunday, Aug. 2

Some of us have great associations with high school band. Others, not so great.

On a good day, band builds social skills, cooperation and confidence in the student players and gives them an introduction to what it means to be part of a successful team. They make exciting, pulsing music and serve as the motor behind the magic of school spirit at games and ceremonies.

On a bad day, band is a bunch of loser nerds made to endure regular humiliations at the hands of a Chief Loser Nerd of a teacher. To add insult to injury, sooner or later you don a silly hat and march around with your instrument on football field, anonymous comic relief parading around for the sport of a couple dozen much more manly and popular jocks and their doting parents.

Obviously, a lot depends on the teacher and the subtle and not-so-subtle signals a administration sends to the band members and the community. More depends on them, in fact, than on the students themselves. The worst group of players can have the most positive experience if given the right support.

Myself, I chose choir to get out of band. I'm not entirely sure my high school band experience would have been as terrible as I thought at the time. But for me it was both a professional and a social choice.

I was a piano player and a guitar player in the days when guitar wasn't really considered a "serious" instrument. I was a rock 'n' roll fan and a Beethoven fan (that rock 'n' roll titan of the Classcial era) in an age when those seemed contradictory pursuits. I slammed the piano keys, even in the most gentle of Beethoven country dances, as if I were Jerry Lee Lewis. I dressed to offend. I was a rebel.
With its odd uniforms, its Sousa marches and fraternity-style camaraderie, my high school band looked really hokey to me. Band was all about fitting in and I didn't want to fit in. Choir, by contrast, looked easy and maybe even compelling. The music was more arcane and exotic. The blend of voices had an almost magical appeal. I didn't have to take lessons on another instrument and I could wear a robe instead of a uniform (this was the height of Tolkein-mania and robes were pretty cool). Plus, I never had to march at football games.

I went on to sing in choirs during my entire college training. Ironically, I became more and more fascinated with exactly those aspects that I had initially sought to reject--the work of cooperation and discipline, the slightly forced camaraderie and the social stew of rehearsals, performances and tours.

Such choices are the stuff that professional careers and lives are made of. While I left off choral singing when I left college, my understanding of music from every respect is definitely colored by the experience.

My choice of the piano as an instrument fits into this story. I knew I was defining who I was and who I wanted to be. But much of my choice was born out of compromise. I wanted to be a rock star and I couldn't afford to buy a bass like the one Paul McCartney played in the early Beatles records. We had a piano in the house. Plus, Beethoven was pretty cool and you couldn't really play that stuff on a bass.
So I learned a handful of acoustic guitar techniques, to impress girls. And when the party was over, I would go back to the family piano for more private time with Beethoven, improvising long piano compositions in imitation of the great composer's sonatas.

Could I have pursued the same tack while a member of the band? For many years I thought the answer was no. I assumed band was too stifling, too rigid, too much superficial ceremony and not enough opportunity for personal expression.
But as an adult, it suddenly dawned on me that discipline was exactly what I needed. Plus, I see now that my rather undisciplined high school choir experience was more the product of a sleepy, disinterested choir director and not at all germane to the choir experience.

Perhaps my choice of choir was entirely arbitrary. Perhaps it was born out of personal laziness. But in the end, I think it was the right one. Even now I am more compelled to find beauty in the flowing counterpoint and the characteristic colors of the massing of many voices, professional or amateur, than in the honking and stomping of even the best band.

A personal prejudice that lingers to this day.

The moral of this story: In the end, I was who I was and the music ensemble class I took in high school wasn't going to change that significantly. I had only to follow where my talents would make more most successful and make the best of any situation in which I found myself.

But kids don't know that. They often choose for reasons that have nothing to do with what's best for them. They often make the wrong choice. And they often despair in situations that are not ideal, rather than plow ahead, demanding the education they need.

For these jobs, they need adults--to encourage them to make the choice that honors who they are and at the same time challenges them to do better, and to guide them to rise above adverse or less-than-perfect circumstances.


1 comment:

  1. If you’re in a school band - marching band, concert band, jazz band or even rock band, you have to check out the new Rhett & Link School Band Rap video.