"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The value of lifetime musical instruments

Did you ever take piano lessons? You probably took them from a woman who loved sending press releases to the local paper about the accomplishments of her pupils. Many adults probably wished they had taken such lessons more seriously. I had trouble concentrating on playing more than two notes at the same time.
I'm wondering why such lessons have to be given outside of school. Parents pay a fee to a private teacher. Kids go to a private home. There are many arguments you can make for the value of piano lessons. The same arguments can be made for learning the guitar. These are lifetime instruments.
So why are parents left on their own to seek instruction for their kids on these instruments? Why can't our public schools help out? You might theorize that the instruction has to be one-on-one, therefore the process in school might be impractical. The school model has a teacher presiding over a classroom of kids.
If your child is inclined toward music, your choices are band and choir. I would argue that band and choir, band especially, have limitations. There are limitations to advancing in music solely as a member of a group.
Your choir background can help you someday sing in church choir. If you want to learn guitar and sing Woody Guthrie-type music, or in the style of Pete Seeger, you're on your own. It's harder for me to grasp the value of "band." Directors actually prefer terms like "symphonic winds." (I can't help but think of Spinal Tap's "Break Like the Wind" tour.)
Directors also gave us the term "stage band" in the early days of jazz band. I was in "stage band" in high school. Directors later determined that "jazz band" was an acceptable term. "Jazz" may have been deemed an edgy term at one time (by the Lawrence Welk generation).
Why can't schools facilitate learning on the lifetime instruments of guitar and piano? Why instead do we see the model where a mass of kids playing various instruments are assembled before a dictatorial type of "director."
John Woell was the dictatorial type at Morris High School. That's what the system wanted at that time. He was director during that transitional time in our society when kids were no longer expected to be totally subservient. We were the ones rising up against the Viet Nam war. Time painstakingly marched on as increasingly, our point of view on things was judged to be right. The older generation with its veiled racism and sexism, and receptiveness to war-mongering, was heading for the shadows.
The guitar and piano are instruments of individual expression. That, I would argue, is the reason why our public schools don't promote them. Individual expression can lead to contrariness. You might want to sing an anti-Viet Nam war song. You might want to sing about racial oppression.
Meanwhile in "band," the kids are like slaves with no option for expressing themselves.
There were gender expectations when I was in high school. Boys played trumpet and trombone. Girls played flute and clarinet. At the start I played French horn. (There was a time when Bill O'Reilly would have wanted to call it the "freedom horn.")
I was surprised to discover that French horn was a girls instrument. I see no reason why. A while back, Del Sarlette emailed me an old photo that showed a French horn choir of sorts, about 15 kids, and I was the only male. I recall feeling flabbergasted. The French horn is a brass instrument.
The gender divisions have come down through the years, as they have in all sorts of endeavors. I took up trumpet in order to play in marching band. French horn was impractical for that. On the day I tried out for all-state band, I grabbed the trumpet. I hadn't been told which one to use.
I made all-state and visited the Bemidji State campus in the summer of 1971 for that. One of the friends on my dorm floor was Dave Fedderly who would go on to reach the apex of his music craft. Dave has been the principal tubist (tuba player) for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra since 1983. Miles Johnson of St. Olaf directed us. He'd say "I sing for you" to demonstrate how a passage should come off. Without a doubt he got teased for that at St. Olaf.
We re-assembled in the winter for some type of performance in the Twin Cities, probably for some education group. Miles tapped me on the shoulder as the audience clapped for our final number. Was that because I had been the star performer? No, it was because I was at the end of the trumpet row, meaning I was last in the third chair section! I got knocked down for my trouble with sight-reading. Music on paper never really engaged me. Nashville musicians have little time for music on paper.
Am I glad I played in band? Not really. Choir would have had one advantage: I would not have had to lug an instrument around. In hindsight, I should have gotten my parents to get a pawn shop trumpet (cheap) just so I could tell ol' dictator Woell that I had a trumpet at home, thus I wouldn't have to take mine home.
Isn't it enough to be in school from 8 to 3:30 without having to do a whole lot more the rest of the day? Hasn't France outlawed homework? Outlaw it? The idea is that some kids can get their parents to do their homework for them, while others can't. I wanted to watch television when I got home from school.
I would have loved just being an average choir member - no special expectations. I would have loved to be a 'C' student just like George W. Bush. I admire 'C' students for their ability to walk that tightrope. Obviously they aren't mastering their subject matter, but they have an uncanny way of just "passing." I figure you either learn the stuff (get an 'A') or you don't.
Are we really pleased to have had a 'C' student as president? If you had a son in the National Guard, would you be comfortable with it? All that fuss we made about our National Guardsmen going to Iraq, and now there's a consensus that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake in the first place. That is not a minor error.
As a young person involved in music, I always got the message that "pop" music was lowbrow and cheap and not to be admired. What ridiculous propaganda. It was dispensed just to promote that school model of large groups beholden to that dictatorial director. Like John Woell, who actually got away with fining kids a quarter for allegedly minor misbehavior. He'd point at a kid and say "you. . .a quarter."
A director would be shot right out of the saddle, figuratively speaking, if he did that today.
Woell would seem to pick on certain students for reasons I couldn't see. One was Jay Stillwell. I think Jay should have just risen from his chair one day and given it back. I remember one student who did "give it back": Marilyn Strand. Her outburst caused Woell to immediately call off rehearsal. This was a scene just like Jack Nicholson in "Five Easy Pieces" (1970) at the restaurant. The scene was symbolic. People were no longer willing to behave like sheep.
Today I'm sure band directors try to make the experience enjoyable for the kids. But I'd still like to see the students get the opportunity to learn guitar and piano. The trumpet be damned. Make note of how "spit" needs to be emptied from those things.
I invite you to click on the permalink below to read about my 1972 experience with "America's Youth in Concert." This post is on my companion website, "Morris of Course." Thanks for reading. - B.W.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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