Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a grand tradition that has thankfully faded since its heyday prior to World War I. For one day only, I conducted a school band. There are a few things you might need to know about me before you realize the absurdity of that statement. First, I haven’t played in a band, school or otherwise, for more than twenty years. Second, to the best of my recollection, I have never conducted one. Until last week.
After World War I, the American school band movement, with roots in the mid-19th century, found its footing as a large number of military trained musicians returned to civilian life and brought with them a set of skills they could put to good use in public schools. Before that, school band was kind of an afterthought. If it existed at all, it was generally led by whatever teacher maybe had a little musical knowledge and wanted the extra cash.
But with an influx of actual talent and a hefty push from the instrument manufacturing industry, 1923 saw the first Schools Band Contest of America in Chicago. Small and poorly organized at first, the contest continued to improve and grow, encouraging the spread of school band programs and spawning the mostly state level contests of today.
More than 90% of American schools now have some form of band education, and it’s a great thing that they do because students who participate in music have improved logic and reasoning skills, increased coordination, higher levels of engagement in their education, better stress management ability, greater self-confidence, and better standardized test scores on average than their nonmusical peers.
I’m grateful that the schools my kiddos attend have strong band programs with talented teachers. Of course that does mean that sometimes those teachers travel with parts of the program for performances and competitions, and have to leave the rest of their students in the hands of whatever substitute teacher may have a little musical knowledge and wants the extra cash.
This brings me to my conducting gig last week. I’ve been trying to do some occasional substitute teaching in our district lately, which has turned out to be a great way to get to know the teachers and administrators in the schools my kids attend. It does also occasionally stretch me a little outside of my comfort zone.
Last week, two of our directors accompanied the high school band to a competition, and I stepped in to help back at home. I started my day in study hall with about twenty high schoolers that didn’t go on the trip. No problem there. I also got to enjoy listening to the rehearsal of some impressive middle schoolers who stayed on task while one of their own teacher-designated peers guest conducted.
But then there was the grade school, where I found myself in charge of a class of sixth graders just getting their musical bearings. Fortunately, the lesson plan was specific and thorough. I had access to the students’ musical exercises through an app so I could have them play along. That helped smooth over my shortcomings somewhat. Then we got to an exercise that could be played as a round and the students, who had been remarkably cooperative, really wanted to do it.
The app couldn’t help me with that. With trepidation, I assigned parts, counted off the time, and waved my hand in a 4/4 cross pattern like I almost knew what I was doing. I kind of even sort of gave cues when it was time for each new section to start. Then I provided them with a nice big cutoff at the end, which they played right through because they’re sixth graders and they weren’t watching me anyway. But much like my early American school band movement predecessors, I somehow muddled through.
Fortunately this week, the real band directors are back.