Friday, May 10, 2013

Because I Said So: I want a second chance to be a band geek

I like that geeks have taken that word - geek - and empowered it. It has come to be synonymous with "aficionado" or "expert" or "enthusiast." It's become a term spoken with pride. Middle and high school students who put all they have into practicing their instruments and honing their skills have everything to be proud of, from the time spent alone in their rooms with a folder of sheet music to the rousing concerts they put on for friends and family.

I didn't realize this when I was a student at Kirby High School. I had friends who were in the band - Chris, Carl, Rich, Jo Lynne, among others - but I thought of it as just another class they took; a foreign language I could never hope to test well in. It wasn't until my oldest son picked up the alto saxophone, later making the switch to baritone sax, and his brother took up the clarinet, that I understood what goes into being in the band. There is class during the day, then practice after school, then practice here at home. There are shows to prepare for, All-West to obsess over, and smaller ensembles playing around town. I was impressed.

At a concert at White Station High School last year, the jazz ensemble played and it was amazing. I'm a jazz fan and it's rare that you get to hear it played live. Even at such a novice level, the music sounded full and the players were having fun. It gave me the idea for a story I pitched to Memphis Magazine on jazz in Memphis which should be in the June 2013 issue.

While researching that story, I came across the story of Manassas High School and its rich tradition. It's where so many artists - Jimmie Lunceford, George Coleman, Charles Lloyd - got their start in music, and middle and high school is where many musicians first pick up an instrument. It's just that important. The school band room, marching field and auditorium are where students find their confidence and their voice, their passions and, for some, a career. They learn teamwork and responsibility, the importance of practice and the rewards of effort.

This week's Because I Said So column champions the geek. I only wish I'd understood more of their language when I was in school.

Wanted: a second chance to be a band geek 
The story was all over my social media feeds last week. The principal of a low-performing school in Roxbury, Mass., let his security staff go to help pay for more arts teachers. It was another of those stories I ignored at the time, knowing that if I found I was interested in reading it later, then it would be there; stories have a way of circling around and coming back to us. And this one did just that as I sat in the audience twice in the past week for my sons’ band concerts at White Station Middle and High Schools. It’s the type of setting where a story on the importance of funding arts programs in schools might be set to the music of Gershwin. 
If you’ve never been to a concert at that level, it is nothing less than extraordinary. I wasn’t in the band in high school. Band geeks, that’s who was in the band. It turns out there is no shame in that. Just the opposite: It’s a moniker worn with pride. There may be no other instance of students working so closely together with their teachers than in a school auditorium as they give a performance everything they’ve got. They all have a stake in it. They’re all trying to make this thing — this arrangement — sound as whole and as perfect as possible. To do such a thing takes more than mere talent: It takes teamwork. 
Many of the professional musicians I know all came to their instruments through their secondary schools’ band programs. How many adults today do you know who can show a direct line from middle school to their careers? The conductors on stage this past week — Mr. Wright, Mr. Guinn and Mr. Scott — are the Pied Pipers of our children, leading them into something that, even if they don’t make a job of it, they will use in some way or other their entire lives. 
In a recent conversation, Dru Davison, performing arts coordinator with Memphis City Schools, hit on the ability of music to facilitate all learning when he spoke of the many jazz ensembles in the schools and the art of improvisation. 
“You can recite someone else’s piece of music, or you can take everything you know about music and create your own, and that kind of creativity and innovation is really what employers are looking for,” Davison told me. “It’s about being college- and career-ready, and if you have kids in a jazz band, you know that they’re showing up on time for every rehearsal or else they can’t perform.” 
That school in Roxbury, Orchard Gardens Elementary, has shown a vast improvement in its test scores, in its morale and in its security issues even without the aid of a police force. They’re working as a team now — students, teachers, administration — to make their arrangement the best that it can be. 
If I had it all to do over again, would I be a band geek? You bet I would. I would be awful, mind you, but I would try my hand at the saxophone or the clarinet or maybe even the tuba. In lieu of talent, I sit in the audience as a music lover. 
I’m a proud parent of public schoolchildren, and I’m with the band.