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A Beginner’s Journey

Dan Blaufuss | February 2016

    Working with David Dunham and Wendy Hart Higdon for this issue reminded me of my experiences starting band. My elementary school was K-5, with band beginning in fifth grade, but I didn’t know band existed until fourth grade. The fifth grade band rehearsed in the room next to my fourth grade general music class. (Naturally, these were the two basement classrooms.) In fourth grade we played tonettes and would occasionally trade renditions of Mary Had a Little Lamb through the wall with the band. The fifth graders played James D. Ployhar’s Pirates Parade at the talent show that year, and it was the most amazing thing I had ever heard. I could not wait to be in band.
    When fifth grade started and the time came for us to take musical aptitude tests, I immediately fell in love with the trombone. It was also the instrument on which I also made the best sound. (Clarinet was my worst instrument.) I took the paperwork home to my parents, who told me that I would not be joining the band any time soon. They did not think that I was responsible enough. In fairness, I probably wasn’t, but try telling that to an excited fifth grader.
    By some miracle, I convinced them to at least go to instrument selection night where the director pulled my parents aside and told them that I had missed a perfect score on the musical aptitude test by two points. That was enough to convince them to let me try band. Unfortunately, I would not be joining band as a trombonist. The school had none available to rent, and my parents were not convinced enough about my seriousness to invest in an instrument.
    My second choice, percussion, was also shot down quickly by my mother who had no interest in listening to me beat on things all day. Given that in college, some friends once had to take drumsticks away from me for exactly this reason, it was probably a wise choice. The director rejected my third choice – the bassoon – telling me I was too small for it.
    Out of frustration at not being able to play what I wanted, I finally said, “Just give me something.” The director offered me a choice between an extremely beat-up baritone and a horn. I picked the latter solely because it was lighter. Although I was the only hornist, I quickly proved to be a good fit for fourth horn; I could play the entire F scale below the staff and not a note higher.
    In sixth grade I moved to junior high where my struggles to extend my range into the treble clef staff continued. Behind the band room was an enormous storage room with a sousaphone and sousaphone chair. A mouthpiece was attached to the instrument, so when I went into that room for the first time, I did what any sixth grade boy would do and immediately blew into the sousaphone. I got a beautiful – compared to my horn playing, at least – F in the correct octave and had no trouble going lower All thoughts of continuing on horn vanished. I switched instruments that day, and the rest was history.
    I suspect my rocky start in band is what caused me to be so eager to learn to play other instruments. However, there is a much more important takeaway from my story: The only reason I went on to major in music and am at The Instrumentalist to write this column is because my fifth grade band director convinced my parents to let me join band. That one conversation shaped the course of my entire life.
    David Dunham points out that students might not remember much of what you teach them, but they remember how you make them feel. I agree wholeheartedly and would add to this that they remember when you advocate for them as well. It can make a world of difference. It did for me.