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Apr 26 2007

Thursday Thirteen: lessons learned in band


I am a life-long band geek. I started playing the flute in 4th grade, which will be, um…carry the 1…25 years ago this fall. Yikes. My neighbor down the street was the band director, so I always knew I’d be in band, I just had no idea how much I’d love it. That very first rehearsal, with all the 4th and 5th graders mushed in a very loud gymnasium, and I.was.hooked. It just filled a need in me that I didn’t know was there.

In the last 25 years (yikes! where has the time gone?), I have been a band student, drum major/student conductor, student teacher, band director, and band director’s wife. I have been involved in every segment of school band life in one way or another. And there are some things I have learned that those outside of intimate band life wouldn’t know. So today I bring you

Thirteen things I learned as a band geek/band director/band director’s wife. You’ll never be the same. ; )

1. You can’t force kids to play a musical instrument. They either will or won’t. If your kid hasn’t practiced in months, “forgets” to tell you about concerts, and you finally figured out that that ungodly smell in their room is coming from the instrument case under the bed, well, let the kid drop. You’ll be happier, the kid’ll be happier, and oh trust me, the band director will be happier. Unless the kid plays french horn, at which point the director will probably crawl under his/her desk, curl into the fetal position, and sob.

2. “…and one time, at band camp…” Ok, if you’ve seen American Pie, you know this line and know what it refers to. I’ve gone to band camp. I went to the Bands of America Summer Symposium for a couple of years, and was a SWAG (counselor) for several more. Even met Tom there. (Oh, and as an aside…and I loooove this, him not so much…I have a picture I took (as a camper) of the band director concert band and just guess who is in there playing clarinet? Yup, my dear, darling hubby. Yes, there is a 7 year age difference and he could have been my band director and yes, he has once or twice referred to me as “jail bait.” LOL). But I have never, ever, had a band camp experience as described in the American Pie movies. Most band kids are total geeks (in a good way) and haven’t either. And no, I’ve never gotten off on my flute, just for the record. Tom and I went to see that movie in the theater, not knowing the punch line; I was wearing a t-shirt that said “flute” in 25 different languages. I almost left the theater topless.

3. More about band camp. If your kid has the opportunity to go to band camp, especially the Bands of America Summer Symposium, find the money and send the kid. BOA is amazing. It’s held in Illinois, at my alma mater of Illinois State University, in June. Despite it being hot and humid and generally crappy in central Illinois in June, the camp is worth every single cent.

4. Bands go on band trips. Accept it. In high school I went to Orlando twice and Washington D.C. once, for the inauguration of George Bush 1. The director wants the best for his/her kids. The best educational experience, the best trip, the best deals. So, when the director says the trip is going to cost $xxxx.xx, trust me, there’s a reason. Don’t go online and say you’ve found $25 airfare and hotel rooms at $39/night. Generally, there’s exactly one $25 airline seat, and trust me, you really don’t want your kids staying at $39/night hotel. There’s a reason the hotel is $39/night; they’re trying to fill up the hotel with bodies other than the ones who rent by the hour.

5. More on band trips. If you’re a chaperone, and bless you if you are, and you suspect a room of having booze, check the toilet tank. Seriously. It’s cold, very well hidden, and fits small bottles or a six pack perfectly. The kind of kids who would hide booze aren’t going to care if the bottles have been hidden in the crapper.

6. Most band directors are good people. They work very very VERY hard and get very very VERY little in return. It truly is a labor of love. They fell in love with music and want to share that love, and teach that love, with others. Band directors do not get the summers off. They may not have to report to a school to teach the darling cherubs, but trust me, they are working. And some districts don’t pay their teachers for the summer, so the band director is working free (some even wait tables in the summer to pay bills; what other profession can you think of that this happens?). They write drill for marching band, arrange music, go to summer classes to stay current, take kids to band camp, file music, plan music for the upcoming year, catalogue uniforms, get instruments repaired…they do a lot.

7. That said, some band directors (a small minority, but they’re there, and tend to be in higher education) are complete and total pricks. I have one in mind and while I don’t have the mental and emotional scars from him that others do, he affected me in ways best left unsaid. There are very few people I truly despise, and this person is pretty much the entire list. Watch out for the pricks.

8. There is a reason audition results are usually posted on a Friday afternoon and the band director is nowhere to be found. He/she very likely bribed the school secretary to post the results 10 minutes after he/she left the school for the weekend. Audition results/chair placements tend to be a very personal thing. Students often think they should have been placed higher, or in a different band to be with their friends. Band directors just want to get the results up and get the hell out of Dodge. They don’t want to deal with Susie the overly emotional flute player on a Friday afternoon, after a long week of listening to all the kids massacre scales and sightreading. Emotions are a lot calmer after a weekend, preferably a long weekend like Thanksgiving break, and after the band director can unwind with other band director friends over very large margaritas.

9. This one is very important. Caller ID is a necessity, not a luxury for band directors. We used it. A LOT. We got Caller ID several years ago, when Tom was still a high school band director. It came in very handy after (say it with me!) audition results were posted. A certain mom called our house a minimum of 15 times in an hour and a half to “discuss” her daughter’s placement. On a Friday afternoon. No voicemail, just repeated calls. Not pleasant.

10. Fundraising is an unpleasant reality. It has seeped into all aspects of education, but has been in the band world forever. I get hives when I think about the band chocolate I sold in high school. And the citrus fruit. Loved the car washes, though. My high school was just off a major freeway and we got A LOT of cars on sunny days. But accept fundraising, it pays for instruments, uniforms, music, instrument specialists (someone to come
in and say the same things the band director says, but the kids listen this guy because he’s a different person), contest entry fees, buses, and band trips. If you have input to the director,
Butter Braid is the way to go (especially if they’re in before Thanksgiving and Easter); otherwise be creative and come up with something no one else is doing. Don’t bother with wrapping paper, citrus fruit, or anything that doesn’t bring you at least a 40% profit.

11. If you’re looking for gifts for a teacher (not just a band director), give up on coffee mugs or Christmas ornaments. Food. Give food or gift certificates to a fancy restaurant. Remember, these people don’t get paid a lot, but that doesn’t mean they love to eat ramen noodles every day. The best gift Tom ever got as a director was very large gift certificate to an awesome restaurant in Boulder. We were dirt poor at the time (yeah, I was a grad student and we were living on a teacher’s salary) and that fancy meal was such a treat. A couple of bucks from each kid and it was a night to remember.

12. Those hideous marching band uniforms? Yeah, they are as nasty as you’d imagine. We wear them in extreme heat and humidity, in rain, in horizontal sleet (I once had a 2 hour marching band rehearsal in college where we marched in horizontal sleet. I think I’m defrosted now, it’s only been 16 years). No matter how often you get them cleaned, they still smell like dead, wet dog. They’re usually wool, heavy, and fit like either a rubber glove or circus tent. I would get the longest pants I could find and staple up the hem to get them to fit. My sewing skills still haven’t evolved past that stage yet.

13. Dang, this got long. I didn’t save the best for last, but the, um, shortest. As in skirt length. Parents! If you have a daughter who is in band, and she sits in the front row of the band, her concert dress must go below the knee. I don’t care if it’s pants, a skirt, a dress, a ball gown, it must go below the knee. And teach that girl to sit with her ankles crossed. I can’t tell you how many nether regions have been flashed in my face in my many years of playing, teaching, and going to concerts. Holy cow. I don’t want to see that much leg, and certainly not that much area further north.

So there ya have it. Lessons learned in band. There’s more than listed here, such as how to change clothes in a roomful of people without getting arrested, how to break into the band room to get your instrument, and how to make a relationship flowchart…because the band world is an incestuous world and it’s impossible to keep track of who is with who. It’s a different world there, folks, and I love living there.

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