Thursday, February 14, 2008

Hearts, Smiles, & the Blues

I may moonlight as a composer, but my secret identity is that of a part-time public elementary school music teacher. I teach Kindergarten general music, third grade recorders, a 4th grade beginner concert band, a 5th and 6th grade advanced concert band, and a by-audition only Jazz Band.

Every year on Valentine’s Day, my principal expects the music and dance teachers to put together a “Brotherhood” Concert. This concert is intended to be a celebration of heritage, community, and brotherly love. In reality, it is an exercise in stress, cramming, and the fine skill of organizing a concert with children 6 weeks after our last big (Holiday) concert. With the poor timing of standardized tests that occur in January keeping kids out of rehearsals, the Brotherhood Concert is usually very short with one performance (instead of the usual three) from each group.

With the stress this concert brings, coupled with the organizational problems and clash between teachers and administrators at my school, the concept of “brotherhood” feels like a stabbing, hypocritical joke. And yet, today my heart glowed as all hearts should on a day dedicated to love.

As a composer, I spend quite a lot of time trying to perfect the music I write. I agonize over each chord, motif, and voicing so as to most accurately express whatever feeling or emotion I am trying to portray. I strive to tell stories, and communicate certain ideas through the perfection of the music. This is one reason my current commission is taking so long.

As a teacher, I am constantly reminded, as I was today, that the magic from music comes not entirely from the perfection of the writing, but from the intentions of the musicians.

My jazz band performed a simple 5 note, three chord, medium swing blues that I wrote for them last year. They work hard to get the swing feel, but overall my bass player and left hand pianist (also playing the bass line) keep a pretty steady tempo. My sax players still have not figured out how to use their tongue or remember to keep their bottom lip rolled under, and my trumpet players still miss partials. Tuning is not a word they’ve heard me use, except for with the guitarists.

And yet, to be completely generic, they rock! What makes their music so enjoyable is the kids’ excitement. They are SO into it! I have to instate 5 minute breaks of no playing so they don’t wear their chops out. This morning I walked out of the music room onto the stage to find a tenor and a trumpet player standing next to the drummer, the three of them “jamming.” My heart swelled with pride!

They work so hard at it- before the concert started, my alto player played me the first strain of the tune and asked, “is THAT the right feel?” He’s almost got it. The majority of them want a solo, asking for one, then changing their mind, then changing their mind again.

I’m not one to call out or hoot and holler when I hear something I like. When I’m into the music, I find myself smiling.

Listening to my shy right hand pianist manipulate her F blues scale with confidence as the drummer and bass get super soft to accommodate, I can’t help but smile. When the drummer crescendos his 1 bar fill into the showy tenor solo, who has figured out the trick of the trill, I can’t help but laugh. THIS is music. The audience applauds loudly after I myself applaud, letting them know its okay to clap after each solo. The coda offers a Basie piano wink, followed by the only non-unison part of the song- the typical loud, dominant 7 chord finale. One of my trumpet players aims for the super high D in the staff, but misses. Its okay- the audience roars, and I smile.

Later, the chorus performs and I can’t stop smiling. Their faces are so intent as they start off softly, “Some… times in our lives, we all have pain, we all have sorrow.” They over enunciate the “t” in “but” and I smile. They go all forte on the chorus- “LEAN ON ME!”… and I smile. They even manage to clap on the 2 and 4! They performed a second song, a two-part rather cheesy song entitled “Gonna Rise Up Singing.” This one featured two soloists- a 6th grade veteran, and a newbie third grader who is reminiscent of a young George Strait (or so I imagine!) Seriously, this song literally brought tears to my eyes. Not because of how well it was written, but rather from the passion and honesty with which it was sung.

Perhaps I feel this contrast so sharply because I am struggling to finish up this sax quintet. And I’m certainly not saying music should have no intelligence in its composition. I just appreciate the reminder that music does not have to be complicated to be wonderful. It just has to be heartfelt.

Valentine’s Day brings the blues to many, but today, my kids gave me something much better that a heart shaped box of chocolates (especially since it’s Lent again, so no sweets for me!).

They gave me the Blues. They brought magic to music. And that makes me smile.

Happy Valentine’s Day.


Gregory Dudzienski said...

This is a beautiful story. Thanks for sharing it...I needed it today...


D0nnaTr0y said...

Hey, GD. I saw your post about the NIU shootings... What a terrible, terrible tragedy and a selfish mockery of Valentine's Day.

Glenn said...

Nice post. My wife works in education at a private school here in NYC (Birch Wathen Lenox) and I always lend a hand with the Holiday concert and various other events through the year. Its very rewarding to give the children the experience and exposure to performance in these concerts and see them shine. I think there is something special about the sound of school children singing. Simplicity is great.

Glenn Firester

Andrew Durkin... said...

"And I’m certainly not saying music should have no intelligence in its composition. I just appreciate the reminder that music does not have to be complicated to be wonderful. It just has to be heartfelt."

Thanks for reminding me of this too! I'd be willing to bet that your ability to listen on all these different levels -- from the technical to the intellectual to the emotional -- is making all the difference in these kids' early experience of music. Kudos!