Monday October 29, 2012

Do you know what it is like to stand in front of about 30 trombones as they play at full volume? To hear 390 marching bands soar? To watch groups as varied as only marimbas and drums to acapella singing to baton twirlers?

I was privileged - truly - to chaperone the Brattleboro sixth grade band musicians on their field trip to hear the U-Mass-Amherst’s "multi-band" concert. It was one of those field trips that every parent likes to hear about: Learning and fun all rolled into one great day.

Imagine an auditorium full of kids ranging from 6th grade to high schoolers (some of them were surely aspiring to be on stage with these groups next year). Grabbing the attention of every single one of those in attendance was not easy - and yet it was definitely accomplished.

Instrumental music starts in our area in 4th grade (except for violins, which you can also start learning in 3rd grade - another exceptional testament to this area’s commitment to music).

Quite honestly, as a parental observer at my own children’s first concerts, I cringed a lot as the squeaks and squawks sometimes won out over "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star." I usually left mumbling to my husband that these are definitely concerts for parents and others who truly love the children more than the music produced.

Brattleboro elementary instrumental music is taught by Jim Kurty - an accomplished professional musician in his own rite - whose ears can still find the right note in the midst of kids’ various attempts as they start out.

Mr. Kurty has an interesting thought: He’ll teach any adult in the town any band instrument, right along with the kids. "It’s a great role model in the classroom," he says. "It’s so good for the children to see adults learning - and struggling to learn, just like them."

I played the saxophone in school - and very much enjoyed it. There was no question in my mind that my kids would play an instrument too. I’ve seen (and believe) the research that shows all the benefits that these skills bring. But that’s not why I was so determined that it was important.

For me, it’s the challenge of doing something - which, frankly, is HARD - and finally mastering it. It’s the enormous pleasure of taking parts and putting them together into a whole that is ever-so-much-more than it would be alone. Those are life lessons. Those are skills that serve anyone - for all their life.

So after watching adults in some concerts with our first son, I decided to take Mr. Kurty up on his offer, and learn the flute. I started two years ago.

I’d love to say that I’m an excellent flute player. It would, unfortunately, not be true. I am still a far better (exceedingly far better) saxophone player. (For the record, flute is a lot harder than I expected!)

It comes back to the same thing that these sixth-graders learned on this field trip: Practice something for a while and you eventually get better. Practice a lot, and you can be really, really good.

The concert at U-Mass was exactly what their teacher had said it would be: "If you don’t like a particular piece that they are playing, just wait 3-5 minutes, and you’ll hear something completely different."

This was more true at this special presentation than any other concert I’ve ever attended. The sixth-graders (and their happy chaperones) heard trumpet sextet, orchestra, trombone ensemble, French horn ensemble, jazz band, string groups, marimbas and drums, percussion specialists, saxophone groups ...

The U-Mass groups included vocal pieces, too: Spiritual vocal music, jazz singing, both goofy and touching renditions of old pop songs (Michael Jackson sung with a strong Massachusetts accent particularly struck me funny). U-Mass twirlers and modern dancers also jumped in for a few pieces.

The finale brought it all home: A 390-member strong marching band that held nothing back because they were playing inside an auditorium. 

The marching band even surprised us all by coming out into the audience to play their last Sinatra song of "I Did It My Way." It was great to be in front of some 30 trombones playing their hearts out!

I hope that the sixth-graders saw at U-Mass the individual solo voices that shone with the back up of their peers ... the unique, individual instruments that blend into some unexpected, gorgeous sounds ... the work that the groups all did together, the practice that paid off ...

More than anything, I hope that the sixth-graders felt the sheer joy music gave to everyone in that auditorium.

Here’s to field trips!

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools. She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment and the Brattleboro Town School Board (elementary schools).