Live & Learn

Students strike up band; strike pride in parents' hearts


Band music may be the ultimate proof that humans are a unique species. Chimpanzees can create abstract paintings to rival Kandinsky. Dolphins can wow the crowds at Marine Land with their syncopated leaps. Whales can "sing" to each other. Parrots can talk. But I'll bet money that no other creature on Earth can play a clarinet without making it squeak.

I was reminded recently of the remarkable ability humans have for creating the sounds we call music when I went to the Spring Band Concert at the school my granddaughters attend. It was a gala affair. Boys dressed in their spiffiest suits and girls wearing frothy long dresses filed sedately into the gymnasium bearing their brightly polished trumpets, flutes, clarinets, trombones and saxophones. Their eyes swept the bleachers searching for their parents, grandparents and siblings, and they smiled broadly when they spotted them. A few wiggled their fingers self-consciously in a half-wave as they found their chairs.

Video cameras whirred and still cameras flashed as the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders assembled in their separate groups. Percussionists took their stations behind their drums.

The young musicians straightened their backs, positioned their instruments in the appropriate fashion, adjusted their music stands and waited. No giggling nor whispering to his or her neighbor an amazing feat for children that age. Could that be our Brenda, usually a blur of energy racing through life, as dignified as a statue holding her trumpet on her knee like a pro?

The band director moved to the center of the three ensembles where the microphone was set up. A young woman, she was the model of composure as she introduced her students and welcomed the audience.

The fourth grade played first. Thirty-six strong, some so small I wondered how they could hold their instruments. Their first number was "Apache Warrior." The director raised her baton. The horns rose as one to their lips. Incredibly, those little mouths and fingers produced a rhythmical, harmonious sound.

Fifteen clarinets all managed to hit the same notes at the same time except one girl whose clarinet squeaked so loudly, she jumped off her chair. She quickly recovered her composure, smiled, and didn't miss a beat. "Bingo Variations" you know the song "And Bingo was his name-o" was a bit less successful. The percussion section was a little actually, a lot off the beat, which got the others all muddled. The director valiantly waved her baton, perhaps a little more vigorously, and the band played on. Proud parents tried not to wince and clapped all the harder as their offspring took their bows, and the unruffled director moved to the fifth grade.

And so the evening passed. The 36 fifth-graders had to start over several times on their first number before they finally got it going. The next one, "Kum Ba Yah," was a little shaky, but recognizable. Not one fifth-grade face revealed any dismay, fluster or wavering of purpose as they struggled through their pieces. The audience loved them anyway. So what if it wasn't "76 Trombones?"

The sixth grade, 27 in number, ended the program with some fancy percussion and more obvious mastery of their instruments. We were clapping in sync and tapping our toes to their rousing "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Band Ole." My eyes grew moist as I listened and watched my mildly autistic granddaughter flawlessly play her trumpet.

Most kids in school bands will drop out before they graduate. But the experience of playing in a band, even for a year or two, will help shape their character for the better no matter what road they take. I wonder how many parents and grandparents in that audience were reliving with nostalgia their own brief fling as band students years ago.

We take music for granted. But think for a moment about what's involved to produce it, the years of practice and discipline it takes to master an instrument, the hours of rehearsals required as each player sacrifices his or her individuality to become one voice. And for what? To make the music that sooths the savage beast and makes us human.

Contact Vivian Taylor at 474-1386 or online at

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