On yesterday while visiting my high school Alma mater, I had an interesting experience that prompted me to write this post. I had had a conversation with one of the most musically talented individuals I know and who now serve as the band director for the marching band at my Alma mater. As a result of our conversation, I needed to stop by the school to deliver an instrument that I had in my possession. As I walked into the band room, many memories flooded my mind as I thought back to the countless hours I spent in that very same room when I was a student at the high school and a member of its jazz band. The band director was about to begin a music theory lesson for the band members when I walked in. While the band director was about to interrupt his lesson on my account, I asked him to continue with the lesson because as a musician myself, I would be happy to sit in and listen.
As I looked around the room, I noticed the lack luster looks as well as body language on the student’s faces as the band director attempted to teach music theory. He drew a staff on the whiteboard; he then proceeded to draw music notes. He explained the lines on the musical staff and even gave the mnemonic of Every Good Boy Does Fine to explain and to help them remember that the music notes that appeared on the lines were E, G, B, D, and F. He continued explaining how the mnemonic for the spaces on the musical staff was FACE for the notes F, A, C, and E, and all the while he was doing this, the reactions of the students did not change. He would ask a question and then say “Come on, talk to me!” as he was looking for responses to his questions. Some of the students would give a halfhearted response that could hardly be heard as a result of him or her being unsure of his or her ability to render the correct answer after having just heard what was said. As the students reluctantly participated in the lesson, the bandleader shared with them how he understood that they were excited about being able to go out and shake their tails, however he wanted them to be equally as excited about the music theory in the event that if they were performing in a neighboring community and was asked what did you learn about music when you were in the band room, the student would be able to respond in musical language. They would be able to explain what a music staff is. They would be able to explain what a scale is. They would be able to explain what musical key they were playing in. They would be able to explain the difference between a Middle C and a B-flat. He further shared with the students that he knew they knew how to shake their tails and so did the rest of the world, as the ability to shake our [African American] tails is a stereotype that is continuously perpetuated. In fact, many think that shaking our tails, is all that we can do. I shook my head in agreement, as I know having taught a diversity course some years ago that it is a very well known stereotype that African American youngsters can bounce a ball and shake their tails. I stood there and observed the interaction between the bandleader and the students and thought back to how different it was in that same room nearly 40 years (36 years to be exact) ago.
As I continued standing there observing the music theory lesson, a security guard knocked on the door and said he needed to speak with the band director. As the band director stopped his lesson to speak with the security guard, he asked me to say a few words to the students as a former band member and now a school principal. As I began speaking with the students, I noticed the same tired looking unenthusiastic body language and facial expressions they were giving the band director were now being given to me. In spite of this I went on to explain to them how in this very same room the passion that we students had for what was at that time the number one marching band in the state of New Jersey. I explained to them how this very same band who practiced in this very same room, gave halftime performances for the New Jersey Nets professional basketball team and New York Giants football teams at the Meadowlands. I further went on to explain that when that band was named the Marching 100, that we truly had 100 to 200 members in the band and that it was not 25 people being called the Marching 100. I went on to share with the students how we would be in that same room at 6:00 a.m. in the morning practicing with another practice to be held immediately after school. You could see the mumbling and grumbling and their facial expressions of how they couldn't believe that someone would actually be up at six o'clock in the morning and attending band practice.
As I spoke I shared with them about the pride we took in just being able to be a part of either the jazz band, marching band, concert choir, jazz ensemble, boys glee, or girls glee. I even shared with them how there were boys who quit the football team to become members of the marching band, as most people in the audience did not attend the football games to see the football team, but to see the marching band in action during halftime. I could see for some of the students the light bulb going on; however, for far too many, they were just sitting there and receiving the talk as either blah blah blah, or the sounds made by Charlie Brown's teacher. It really was a sad state of affairs; however, as the title suggests, we must still have hope.
I used the word “but” in the title of this post intentionally because the word “but” is used to introduce something contrasting with what has already been mentioned, so I titled the post indicating that it was a sad state of affairs, however to negate that sad state of affairs, we must have hope. We must have hope that these children will indeed one day get it. We must have hope that what we are seeing is not what or who they are going to be. We must have hope that one day they will come back to that band director and say thank you for teaching us music theory. We must have hope that the lessons and discipline learned in being a part of something such as a marching band will one day give the students the transferable skills needed to succeed.
As I concluded my remarks to the band members sitting there, I encouraged them to strive to be the best. There were former band members in that room as well who could attest to the fact that 36 years ago in that same band room, nothing but the best musicians in the state was produced and that these children could be that if not more. Yes as I spoke to them, the thought kept crossing my mind that we are indeed in a sad state of affairs but we must still have hope. I came home after that conversation with the students and pulled out my old jazz band and concert choir jackets and thought of how proud we were to not only wear the jackets, but to have earned a spot in what was at that time the best high school musical program in the state. Not just any old body could be in the band or choir doing things just any old kind of way. There was discipline and practice that was involved in being a part of this band which ultimately lead to us being recognized as the best. I am truly thankful that I came along during the time that I did. I would not trade my childhood and teenage years for these children’s years for all of the tea in China. In 2012, there is no reason for our children/students not to be the best.......... Yes, as I conclude, it does seem like a sad state of affairs, but in the end we must still have hope. Something to critically think about. I welcome your thoughts in the comment section of this blog. Feel free to follow The Critical Thinker on Twitter @thinkcritical01.