Last night was Kellen and Kendrie’s first piano recital. The students played in order, from newest student to longest (?) student. So, it goes without saying, since Kellen started playing in February, and Kendrie started in April, that the Escoe portion of the recital was over in the first five minutes.
Kendrie is so new that she didn’t even play a song --- she played SCALES, for goodness sake. But still, they did well, and we took the requisite photos and video, and I was feeling quite proud of my kids. I’m not one of those obnoxious sports parents, reliving my glory days through my children, because when it comes to athletics, I don’t HAVE any glory days. My background, if I even have one to claim, would probably be in music.
When I was in the 5th grade, I decided to join the band. That was the first year in school that we were allowed to learn an instrument, and I mainly did it because my mom played the flute when she was in high school and I thought the stories she told about band sounded like fun. Plus, some of the cute fifth grade boys were trying out, so it only made sense that I should try out too, right? Because our school was so small, the elementary, junior high, and high school all had the same band director, a man named Mr. Moore.
After the first few weeks of basic music instruction on the recorder (which, for the record, I can *still* play the Marine Corps theme song, thank you very much) he pulled my parents aside and suggested the instrument I should learn was the French horn. Not exactly the dainty little flute like I had envisioned, but I was willing to give it a go. Already, only a few weeks into the program, I loved my new band director and whatever he said was golden, in my opinion. If he wanted me to play the French horn, then the French horn it was. I guess I should just be glad he didn’t suggest the tuba.
So in fifth and sixth grade, I learned to play the French horn. And despite the fact the instrument was almost bigger than I was, I enjoyed it. I learned with one of my dearest friends, who also played the French horn, who I am still friends with to this day. And I practiced, and took private lessons, and had a lot of fun in band.
When we got up into junior high band, those of us that were good enough were invited to play with the senior high band (again, one of the perks of being in a small school). So for seventh and eighth grade, I played junior high band, and senior high band, and marched in the marching band. We were actually pretty good, and got to compete and advance in district and state competitions, both individually, and as a group. At that point, you could probably say I was a certified band geek, because of how much I loved it. It wasn’t like band was ALL I did; I was involved in other school activities as well, but band was definitely my favorite.
It helped that I adored the director. He was a magnificent teacher --- patient, encouraging, helpful, strict, funny --- because of him, it wasn’t even un-cool to be in our high school band. We had lots of athletes, brainiacs, etc, also in the band. It was just a fun, satisfying thing to do, and because we were relatively good, we could all be proud of belonging. Everyone loved the director, but I thought he walked on water. Even on the days I didn’t feel like practicing, or would feel frustrated over a difficult piece of music, it never crossed my mind to quit, because he made it so wonderful and I loved it so much.
I got even more involved when, on Mr. Moore’s suggestion, I took private saxophone lessons for a summer, then joined the jazz band my freshman year, playing the tenor sax. It became my dream to grow up and play lead tenor sax for Maynard Ferguson. (Seriously, Birdland, anyone? Does it get any better than that? I don’t think so.)
What can I say? Band totally rocked. We marched in parades; marched at football games, played pep band at basketball games. We took trips to Missouri, Florida, and Kansas, for band contests. We attended concerts as a group, and we got to miss school for competitions (and when you are in high school, that is a HUGE perk!) Our stage band even went into a recording studio and made a recording once, which was awesome.
I loved band. Loved it. Loved Mr. Moore, loved everything about it. And not to toot my own horn (ha! Get it??? Toot my own horn?? Whoo-boy, I crack myself up) but I didn’t completely suck at it. I mean, Harvard School of Music wasn’t beating a path to my door, but the sounds that came out of my instruments were NOT total crap.
Then, the end of my freshman year, Mr. Moore announced that he was changing jobs -- he would be a professor of music at a nearby university. I was devastated. Happy for him, wonderful career opportunity, yeah, blah blah, but my ego-centric 14-year old world was crushed. Because of him, band was this wonderful, amazing, fulfilling, huge component of my life, and how would things go when he was out of it?
Terrible, as it turned out.
Our school made the mistake of hiring our new director fresh out of college. Not that *that* was a problem, particularly, but he had just completed his semester of student teaching at our very school. Maybe the school board thought that familiarity would make the transition go smoothly, but all it did was set up an environment of resent and disrespect. We had just spent an entire semester calling him by his first name, treating him as little more than a peer, and making fun of him behind his back because he was SO the complete polar opposite of the director we loved and missed …. And now, suddenly, he wanted to lead us. He had no experience, and was only a few years older than most of us. He didn’t have an ounce of authority figure in his entire body, or the ability to inspire or encourage any of us, yet he wanted – demanded -- our respect.
I’m ashamed, as an adult, to say that I totally, 100%, unequivocally, did NOT give it to him. Neither did anyone else. The shoes that this new band director had to fill were SO freaking huge, there was no way he could do it. He really never had a chance. We ripped that poor guy to shreds, and our band program went right down the toilet. On rapid-flush.***
I stuck it out the first year, and stayed in all three bands (marching, orchestra, and jazz.) Band membership dropped by about 30% that year alone, just on the announcement that he was the new director. My sister, who played the clarinet, had taken private lessons from him when he was a college student, and she quit the day they announced he got the job. Suddenly, it was no longer “cool” to be in our band.
After the first year I dropped out of stage band; we had gone from being one of the best in the state, to, well, horrible. It was embarrassing. The skill level of the members just plummeted and we couldn’t play songs even half as difficult as we had played before.
After my junior year, I dropped out of the orchestra as well. My parents had recently bought me a brand new French horn, which was a pretty hefty investment back in the day, and I just bailed. Words can’t describe how much I disliked the new director --- how my whole attitude towards band had nose-dived and it became a chore I hated, and was frustrated and embarrassed to be involved in. Oh my gosh, we SUCKED, and I wanted out. I can only imagine the frustration my parents must have felt as well, after making that expensive purchase and then seeing the instrument collect dust in my closet. Seven YEARS of music lessons and classes and competitions, and I pulled the drain.
My senior year, Mr. Moore invited me to play in his college orchestra, and I tried it for a few weeks, but the damage was done. My music skills hadn’t improved since my freshman year, and I had purposely gotten involved in other school activities instead. I was working full time as well, and quite frankly, couldn’t hack it at the university level.
My freshman year of college, I sold the French horn for spending money, and have never played a musical instrument since.
It is one of my biggest regrets.
I don’t regret dropping out of band --- it had genuinely become a miserable experience and I’ll never be sorry I quit. But I’m sorry I didn’t find other ways to continue my music; private lessons, community bands, anything. Perhaps if I had continued to play and learn and improve, I could have tried out for band at the college level and made myself a whole new set of wonderful memories.
I’ll never know, because I quit. Because I hated the new director, and he had ruined it for me.
I did keep in touch with Mr. Moore – he lived two doors down from my grandparents, so I saw him on occasion. In fact, he sang at my and Blaine's wedding, and my memories of him as my high school band director are still some of my most cherished.
Tonight, at the piano recital, one of the more advanced students was playing a very difficult piece and stumbled in the middle. She paused, thought about it for a moment, and started again. It reminded me of the exact moment in my past when I knew I was done with band.
It was my junior year, and I was at the district competition with my band-mates. I was competing in a French horn duet, a French horn trio, a brass ensemble, a saxophone quartet, and a French horn solo. You are scored at these competitions -- either a 1, 2, or 3, with minuses and pluses. Anyone, or group, getting a 1 on their performance advances to the state competition, something I had done every single year up to that point.
Maybe I had over-extended myself that year, playing so many groups, but I don’t think so. With Mr. Moore’s encouragement, I had competed in that many events in years past and done fine. I think my heart simply wasn’t in it anymore. Playing in a group, it was easy to fake it. But the solo was another story. My good friend, the other French horn player, was my accompanist, and we hadn’t practiced together much at all. You have to care about something to practice it, and I didn’t. Solo pieces, however, must be played from memorization ….. something which *does* require practice. Which I hadn’t done.
(Yeah, you can pretty much see where this is going.)
I got about half way through my French horn solo, and completely went blank. I had no clue what came next in my song, and tried to fake my way through it. I kept messing up, and my poor friend was trying desperately to accompany me as I slogged my way deeper and deeper into a musical mess. Finally, the head judge told me to stop, and get up and go look at the music to find my place. Problem was, I didn’t know how to read piano music. My girlfriend was discreetly pointing to the proper location in the music, and I had no idea how to read it.
It might have been one of the most embarrassing moments of my young life, up to that point. If I had had any poise at all, I should have simply apologized for wasting the three judges’ time and excused myself. But instead, I sat back down, and kept blundering through, making mistake after mistake, until finally I just quit playing in shame and disgust.
At that moment, I knew I was through with band.
It had gone from being one of my most proud accomplishments, and favorite activities, to an embarrassment -- something I couldn’t even be bothered with learning for a competition.
Tonight, when that young girl was able to finish her piece with skill and talent and self-assurance, I re-lived all those memories.
Now, (this is where it gets weird and you have to live in a small town to understand,) the reason Kellen wanted to take piano lessons in the first place is because a class mate of his played the piano in music class one day shortly after we moved here, and he thought it was cool. So I called that classmate's mother (who I used to babysit when I was a teenager -- more small town weirdness!) and got the name of their piano instructor, and signed Kellen up for lessons. Kendrie followed soon after.
Tonight, being a student of the same teacher, that classmate was also at the recital.
She is Mr. Moore’s great-niece, and he was there as well.
I hadn’t seen him in probably fifteen or twenty years, and I greatly enjoyed getting to chat, even for just a moment, with him and his wife. After the program, he came up and complimented my children on how they had done playing the piano. I made a joke about them being so new, and Kendrie only playing scales, and how hopefully next year they’ll be at a slightly higher skill level.
And Mr. Moore looked me right in the eye, and said, “Well, they’ve certainly got the genes for it, so I know they’ll do great.”
It has been 27 years since the man was my band director, and I still felt the most amazing sense of pride and happiness when he said that. Is that SICK?!?!?!?!
And honestly, I still feel sadness that I never explored any potential I might have had, but just gave up in the face of adversity. I’ve tried to remind myself over the years that when you are fifteen or sixteen years old, you don’t have the same skills or resources you have as an adult when it comes to handling difficult situations or difficult people. But still, the adult-me wants to look back at the frustrated-teenage-me and say, “Don’t quit! You’ll regret it!!”
Which is why instead of being an obnoxious sports parent, I’m fairly certain I’m going to become an obnoxious music parent, and never let my kids quit piano. EVER.
***PS. For what it’s worth, the new band director continued the downward spiral at our school for a few more years, until the entire band program was basically face-down in the sewer, no pulse, no respiration. Then he left our school and took the director position at another local high school, much larger; no-one there knew him and he wasn’t constantly having to try to measure up to his predecessor. Sort of a “no-baggage” situation for him. From everything I’ve heard, that band program was a huge success and he was very well liked. And while I’m glad for him, I must say that I’m still very sad about my own experience. And maybe a little bitter. And hmmmmm, perhaps I need therapy that it still bothers me even 27 years later.