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Beat the Band

Lessons learned, and unlearned, while trying to stay in tune.


Lessons learned, and unlearned, while trying to stay in tune

I used to tell folks that the reason I sent my kids to school was band. We didn't have a band at home, and the experience of creating something beautiful within a group of other musicians appealed to my aesthetic sense and democratic ideals. Heck, being in the band even raises test scores. School music kept me sane throughout my public school years and enriched my life more than nearly any other experience.

Arts education of all kinds has been the favorite target of budget cutters and AP-crazed guidance counselors since the beginning of time, but this column is not a tale of arts funding. Alas, it is the tale of what band is doing to itself.

No lessons

When I was in school, elementary and middle school band members received weekly small group lessons on how to play their instruments. My kids' district is fortunate to have a band, but there are no lessons provided. The result is an ensemble that never seems to improve. I cannot imagine conducting a group of kids who don't know how to play their instruments. Without an occasional performance of a great classic and a lesson on music history and theory, kids are cheated of the joy that comes from making something beautiful. Being in the band is less a spiritual experience and more about collective button pushing.

Band is War!

The goal of my kids' school bands seem to be to crush other bands at competitions. In fact, nearly every musical performance occurs in a gym or on a football field. The band director and proud administrator can boast that the band "earned" an "exemplary" for the 74th straight year in a festival they paid to attend. Can't the arts be free from needless competition?

While I suppose it's terrific that other students attend band and choral concerts, I cannot tolerate the adolescent whooping, hollering and occasional screaming that occurs when a friend stands to take a four-bar choral solo during a sacred piece by Bach. This happens at nearly every concert, even when the school administrators are in attendance. Not a single adult in authority ever takes the initiative to tell the children not to behave like that during a performance. At a recent outdoor concert, I grabbed the sticks from a child playing an impromptu drum solo on the handlebars of his scooter so that the performance would not continue to be ruined by his quest for attention.

It's All About Me!

The most educative experiences that might be salvaged from band competitions and festivals are the lessons learned by listening to other bands. You can learn about decorum, stage presence, be introduced to new music and gauge your own performance based on a first-hand comparison. My kids seem deprived of all of these experiences since they either arrive at the competition minutes before they perform and leave minutes later, or they are sequestered at the other end of the campus warming-up.

Not only is it polite to quietly listen to other performers, but that is how you learn. Popular essayist David Sedaris recently said that the most important lesson he learned in art school was how to be a good audience. Once again, kids are being deprived of this.

Many schools have a spring concert featuring performances by several local school ensembles. Our middle and high schools are no exception. We have chastised our daughter on several occasions for talking with friends while other bands were performing. This year her band director told the kids that they could bring a Walkman to listen to or go outside during the other performances. This is the worst sort of capitulation and reinforces the misguided notion that parents attend school concerts because they love the sound of seventh graders playing their instruments.

The Audience As Guinea Pigs

The scariest part of the concert is when the band director says, "We just started practicing this piece and we're not very good at playing it yet. But we thought you would like to hear it anyway." A variation on this theme is: "We don't really play this composition as well as I'd like, but here it goes anyway."

Disney On Ice

If I hear one more peppy medley of Disney themes, I'm liable to take a dwarf hostage!

Gary Stager,, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.