Strike up the band

I never thought we had a very musical family, but apparently we do.

Last weekend, our oldest son performed in Ripon Middle School’s “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” a musical about musical opening numbers, ranging from “On the Town” to “The Lion King.”

On Monday, Michael played trumpet and sang in the RMS band and chorus as part of the school district’s Music in Our Schools Month concert.

Michael is either sitting in the band toward the back of the floor, or in the upper left bleachers.

He’s just the most recent performer in the family. Earlier this month, Shaena performed in a Barlow Park concert, and Dylan sang in a Murray Park/Quest concert. (Apparently the Ripon Area School District takes Music in Our Schools Month seriously.)

I guess I’m the musician, if you want to call me that, of longest standing in the house. I had five years in the University of Wisconsin Marching Band, and for the past few years I’ve played trumpet for various Masses at our church. (Including Palm Sunday and the Easter Vigil next Saturday. I’m supposed to lead the procession into the church, but it’s possible the rest of the congregation could head in the opposite direction if my play is particularly bad. I also play at what I call the It’s-Midnight-Somewhere Mass, which one year meant that the first thing I heard on Christmas morning was myself on the radio from the night before.)

I play a retired UW Marching Band trumpet, and I still have the trumpet I played in high school, which was originally my father’s, or more accurately my father’s high school band director. Jannan played baritone in high school and at Ripon College, and sang in the San Juan City Choir during her pre-Peace Corps days in Puerto Rico. We do not have a baritone (at least not the musical instrument) in the house. Jannan does sing in church; as far as I was concerned, playing an instrument prevented me from having to sing.

Perhaps it’s genetics. Readers know that my father was the piano player on southern Wisconsin’s first rock and roll band. My mother sang as part of the talent competition for the 1960 Miss Wisconsin USA pageant. They met because Mom was looking for someone to arrange piano for her competition. (The rest of the story of how they met involves a dentist, chicken soup, fish sticks and tires, but I digress …) My parents made me take several years of piano; I can’t play it anymore, but either I got perfect pitch from that, or I just have perfect pitch. I’m also a much better player-by-ear than a music-reader.

Jannan and I had different, but similarly fulfilling, high school band experiences. The Lancaster High School band has marched for years in parade competitions. One of her fondest memories is of winning a parade in Belmont over their usual archrivals, Cuba City. (The irony is that we later lived in Cuba City.) The fact that early ’80s UW Marching Bands had members from Madison La Follette and Lancaster meant that, I believe, she and I once attended the same UW Band Day football game. (Neither of us remembers seeing the other, which happens when you have a couple thousand band members in a stadium with 60,000 or so people in it.)

After three years in middle school band, I had one unremarkable year in freshman band. And then the new band director pushed me up into the top band at La Follette, the Wind Ensemble, instead of the middle-level band I was expecting. That ended my run of being a first-chair player, because the players in front of me were better than me. Wind Ensemble, though, was a revelation,  musically speaking. We played challenging pieces, including Gustav Holst’s suites in E flat …

… and F …

… Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Folk Song Suite” …

… and two pieces from this guy named Leckrone, “Permutations” and “Intrusions” (which he wrote for us):

High school band was a more cool experience than I could describe. We were playing every day, and while practice is important (or so I’m told, not that I’m an example), there’s a difference between practicing by yourself and practicing with the entire group. Being at high school of 2,000 can be an isolating experience, but I had something in common with 150 at the school, particularly the 50 in Wind Ensemble. (Probably not surprisingly, three of my ex-girlfriends were in band.) Our director gave us a sheet about Holst’s Suite in E Flat that showed that the melody at the beginning was mirrored by a later melody that was upside down from the main melody.

Not only did we have concerts to perform, including a cabaret-type evening in our Commons, but we got to go on tour — the Twin Cities one year, including the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” (along with staying in a hotel with dreadful Hawaiian music and a roommate who fancied himself a rapper), and Chicago the next year, including “Fiddler on the Roof.” (Which was part of Michael’s musical. So was the opening of “West Side Story,” a La Follette and UW Marching Band show, and “A Chorus Line,” which I played senior year at La Follette.) “Fiddler” was at the Marriott Lincolnshire Resort, an evening that followed an afternoon in the hotel pool with a guy who turned out to be Tevye.

I could never have been described as an athlete in high school (which hasn’t changed in the nearly 30 years since then), and even when I was on athletic teams the attributes of athletic teams never sunk in sitting on the bench. I learned those in band — the necessity of preparation, practicing over and over and over again until you get it right, teamwork, the team being more important than you, and most importantly, the importance of performing well whether or not you get recognition for it.

That’s why when I hear people talk about how the only important thing in school is the stereotypical academic subjects — math, English, science, etc. — I start looking for the old trumpet (which weighs more than a baseball bat after several layers of lacquer) to swing at their skulls. Extracurricular activities. including athletics and music, take up 1 to 2 percent of a school’s budget. In addition to the academic benefits, music builds self-esteem not by dubious self-psychology, but by accomplishment and public performance.

Music is an exacting academic field. As the Children’s Music Workshop puts it, “In music, a mistake is a mistake; the instrument is in tune or not, the notes are well played or not, the entrance is made or not.” Performing well whether anyone’s watching was a staple of the UW Band in the bad old days of the ’70s, most of the ’80s and the early ’90s,  and I got good preparation for that marching pregames and halftimes of a football team that won nine games in four years. But beyond that, it was good preparation for a professional field that doesn’t include a lot of feedback, a field in which (like any other field of endeavor) it’s important to do good work whether or not anyone recognizes it.

At some point after my UW Band days ended, I came to the realization that I preferred playing in concerts to watching them. I’ve only gone to a few UW Band concerts, and most of them have been outside of Madison, in smaller locations with less grandiose shows. I have not had the Walter Mitty moment of being called out of the crowed at a Chicago concert (I’ve been to three of them, the first with about half of the UW Band) to play.

I had, however, a really neat experience at our church at the end of the All Saints Day Mass Nov. 6. Our priest asked me to play “When the Saints Come Marching In” for the recessional. I asked him how he wanted me to play it, and he only suggested I play as the spirit, or Spirit, moved me. So the first verse was straightforward, and then I swung into New Orleans jazz funeral mode as well as my limited playing and really limited improvisational skills could do. The reaction I got afterward demonstrated I succeeded.

4 thoughts on “Strike up the band

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