Friday, October 9, 2015

Year 6: Week 6 – “There’s a special place for you heaven"

The day before our first day of beginning 6th grade band, I was sitting at a table with a representative from our rental company helping parents get their children instruments for the first day of band class. One of the parents after finishing up told me that there was a special place in heaven for what I do. It didn’t really occur to me why she was saying this until the next day, the first day of 6th grade band with instruments.

We’ve spent the first couple weeks of school helping the sixth graders decide between band and choir. We firmly believe that choosing between band and choir as the 6th graders curricular music class is an important decision and should a valuable experience by itself. Instead of having kids elect whether they want to try a band instrument, we have every sixth grader learn how to play every band instrument for about twenty minutes. This is kind of a crazy experience and it’s difficult to organize. It also means that we don’t start band and choir until about a month into the school year but we believe it’s worth it.

When students learn these instruments, we focus on giving them the basics of how to make a sound and hold the instruments. Most kids within the twenty minute lesson can get a pretty good sound and play a couple notes. It’s noisy and a little chaotic, but it’s actually not that bad, because you are getting students directly to the magic of making music.

The first band class with instruments is completely different. It’s an “beginning of the year” kind of lesson, in October. The kids have moved passed these kind of set-up lessons in every other class so its jarring for them to have me teach them about where their music folder is located in the cabinet. Combine this with what we need to teach in that lesson and you have one of the most challenging classes I teach all year.

I’m not joking when I say that I need to teach the kids which side of the instrument case is up and how to lay it on the ground before opening it. I need to go over how to breathe, how to place this little wooden, incredibly fragile reed on a mouthpiece, and help kids understand what side of the mouthpiece to blow into. You’d think that this intuitive, but its not.

The kids are so excited to play but you got to hold them back because if you don’t go over these basics they will probably break their instruments within the first five minutes of trying to play. The first sounds that come out of these instruments have rough edges and like a sculptor you need to find the beautiful tone inside that block of sound and help them find them. It’s confusing, it’s loud and it’s exhausting.

I'll be honest, after last Wednesday's  band classes, the first with instruments, I was done.  The day went well, but I had absolutely nothing left and I was glad to be to done for the day.

Thursday we had our second day of band.  The kids remembered a lot from the previous day.  It was still chaotic but the kids had a better idea of what to do so it wasn't as crazy.  Everyone wanted to play but I had to work them in groups and as individuals so I had to spend a lot of energy stopping people from playing.  And then towards the end of the lesson, something amazing started happening, kids started playing with a great tone.  It wasn't consistent but it was happening.  The awkwardness of holding the instrument started to melt away.  My kids were really doing it.  The improvement over the first two days of band class is truly remarkable.

At the end of class, I had each kid play one great note.  I got to Mary and she played and squeaked.  I told her to make sure that she wasn't pressing any of the palm keys on her saxophone and to go through the embouchure formation process.  Again, she squeaked.  I told her to slow down and focus, I demoed the note on my saxophone and asked her to try again.  Then she hit a really nice warm note on her instrument.  I told her that, I loved the dark wooden sound she made.  Mary replied, "really?"  "Yes, I'm proud of the improvements you made and you should be proud of that sound," I affirmed.  She walked out of that band room, walking a little bit taller and I couldn't help but smile.

I'm not going to lie, band teachers have to withstand some of the most horrendous sounds created by human beings, and listen closely to these sounds as opposed to shutting these sounds out.  But these sounds get better, every single day and with that improvement, comes a feeling of pride and satisfaction, that's a little slice of heaven.

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