Friday, August 5, 2011

Band Nightmare in the 5th Grade

Back to school shopping is in full swing folks.  Unless you’re like me and you haven’t even started yet.  No stress…  Really.  Ok, not really.

Shopping is my least favorite thing to do (my son and I share this).  We were cruising through our local Wally World with my son’s 5th grade supply list.  We quickly gathered the basics.  Number two pencils, glue sticks, Rose Art markers (why so specific?) – you know the drill.  We had finally moved on to the fun stuff; backpacks, shoes, jeans, and whatever else a hip and happening 10 year old needs when my wife spoke up.

“He’ll be starting band this year,” my wife says to me.  “We both were in band, did you know that,” she asked our son.

“Cool, what instrument did you play?”


“What about you dad?”

“Clarinet.  What do you want to play,” I asked.

“I don’t know.  Tuba, flute.  Something like that.”

“I can see how the choice could be hard.”  I cocked an eyebrow at my wife and she just shook her head.

Enter my flashback.  It’s a warm September afternoon, cafeteria lunch still hot on our breath, and the band teacher calls each student over one at a time.  Amid the cacophony of children talking amongst themselves he asks each student to offer him his or her hands for inspection.  Mentally he measures them against various instruments.  He scrutinizes each facial structure for compatibility.  And before he’s finished he instructs each student to make the “ok” sign with his or her hand and place it against their lips – then motor-boat.

We all took our turn blowing duck-like sounds through our hands.  And none of us really suspected that this provided a measurement adequate to determine our musical destiny.  For many of us it not only led to an imperfect match, but an impermanent one too.  I wanted to play Saxophone, but I was given a trumpet.  It came in a scarred black case with “Volker Elementary” spray painted across the outside.  The fake velvet lining reeked of some bizarre combination of Brasso and garlic.

Trumpet eventually proved impossible for me.  After a few weeks of lousy playing the teacher decided to try me on woodwinds.  Alas my hands were still too small for the sax.  But the clarinet was just the ticket.  Or so I thought.

Music is not what you would call what it is I produced.  I had trouble from the get go.  The instrument fit together poorly.  The wrappings at the unions were old and half rotted.  One key didn’t function smoothly.  I did more squeaking than playing.

Let me tell ya, I feel sorry for the pain I caused my three-story walk up.  And I hope I have the patience to survive that time with my son.  But I know something my mother didn’t.

Instruments of poor quality or condition can hamper a student’s progress, diminish the experience, and turn a child away from the joys of music forever.  Who knows, maybe my son is the next Mozart, but I hesitate to buy him a high-end instrument when he may be like me and decide by the end of the 5th grade that he’s really more of a listener than a player.  I just don’t want the instrument to decide for him.

That’s why we’re going to rent one until we know.  What’s your band experience like?

by J. True Anderson
follow me on Twitter @Justinwrites
and check out my blog at

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