M/S Band's Newest Member
Bob replied “Don’t bother. This way you will be in the same place as the kids. We haven’t touched our instruments yet.” And during this first lesson, we don’t touch our horns. We work on fundamentals. How to sit. Breathe. Hold the instrument. Pick it up and put it down correctly. How to buzz into our mouthpieces the right way. There is an orthodoxy to being a musician. A set of best practices that ensures success. And one of the great things about teaching music to young people, is that, unlike more academic subjects, the orthodoxy pays off so clearly: do it right, and a pretty sound comes out of the horn.
A week later, we are back on the stage in the Kurtz. Brad tells the boys that they can pick up their trumpets for the first time, and they cry “Yes!” Despite their excitement, this first lesson is far from comfortable. At first, some pretty funny sounds come out of the horn. Every student plays one after the other in front of his peers. Think of the moments in adult life when you have to speak publicly in front of people you don’t know, or take a yoga or dance class for the first time (especially if you don’t want to. Band is a required subject for 6th graders.) It is hard to try something new out loud in front of people. But human beings are natural musicians. Its amazing how quickly the students’ brains pick up the idea of pitch and start adjusting to make the correct sound , even on an instrument that they’ve never held before in their lives. By the end of this session they are making helpful suggestions to each other.
My band experience makes me think differently as I attend the 325th anniversary celebration, where PC music seems to be everywhere. A faculty member plays in the West Philadelphia Orchestra. The Quaker’s Dozen sings a beautiful piece, as they do to mark almost every significant moment in the life of the school. Michael Casimir, OPC provides the centerpiece to the entire daytime portion. The largest jazz band in recent PC history serenades guests throughout the evening festivities.
Monday morning on October 27 makes me feel like I work at a school for the performing arts. The eighth grade music class, accompanied by me (on keyboard this time) and faculty members Josh Oberfield and Charlie Brown, plays Warren Zevon’s Werewolves of London at Monday assembly. As soon as assembly ends, I hurry over to the Kurtz center to join the sixth grade band which is playing altogether on the stage of the Kurtz center for the first time. The winter concert is six weeks away, and the three pieces that we will play are starting to come together.
I have also joined the Middle School jazz band, a group of musicians from grades six to eight who volunteer to give up advisory and recess time to learn and play even more music. This group rehearses only once a week, and it is amazing how quickly they improve their ability to play complicated jazz pieces (jazz phrasing is tough). Several students in the jazz band are learning their second musical instrument and at the winter concert will play one instrument with the symphonic band and another with the jazz band. Isabel, a seventh grader who is a strong student and talented athlete, tells me how relaxing she finds jazz band as a departure from all of her other pursuits across the institution. Students who miss jazz band because they have to meet with a teacher often take it upon themselves to go over to the Kurtz center in their spare time and work on pieces for the concert.
Jazz band meets Wednesdays from 9:45 to 10:15 in the Kurtz Center. During yellow week, I teach classes immediately before and after this time. Though I don’t dawdle, I am always a minute late to jazz band and am always the last person to arrive to my subsequent class. Unlike teachers, who sometimes have free periods between their obligations, the students in jazz band always have a class before and after their rehearsal. They are the only members of our community who do not have the opportunity to have a snack at 10 AM on Wednesday. These students hurry to rehearsal and to class afterwards and sacrifice the comfort of a snack to work on their craft. They have the honor of leading off the Winter Concert, and their musicianship is always among the best in the show.
Early December. The Kurtz Center stage. The entire sixth grade band gathers for their final rehearsal before the winter concert. The day before, I watched the Upper School symphonic band run through their concert lineup and saw many former members of our Middle School who have grown into polished musicians of any age. One young lady who had a flute solo in the Upper School concert played in the semi-professional pit orchestra for the Middle School play. So much good music is played by students of our school. Because of this, so much personal growth and teamwork and consistent effort happens. Penn Charter is such a dynamic and busy place that, other than concert season, not everyone takes notice of the vibrant world of the Kurtz Center. But as much sweat and learning happen there as anywhere else at this place.