School Band, Disharmony of the Spheres

Domenichino, “Madonna and Child Musicians”

I am relieved that the Chicago teachers have settled their differences with the city and gone back to school. I think it necessary that teachers have the strike option—those who are service oriented can get run over by bullies like Mayor Rahm Emanuel—but they have to be careful about public perceptions. There are far too many unscrupulous politicians who will demonize teachers for failing to solve the nation’s deep problems. (See Eugene Robinson’s Washington Post column on this issue.)

For instance, there are limits to what a teacher can do in Chicago’s forty-children kindergarden classes. Even in rural Tennessee where I grew up and where I routinely was in 40-child classes, they at least had the sense to split up first grade into two 20-child classes.

I don’t have all the details of the contract but it sounds as though both sides got some of what they wanted, always a good sign. The mayor wanted more school time for children (Chicago was under the national average) and that has been accomplished. The teachers, meanwhile, will get a pay raise and a guarantee that standardized test scores will count for no more that 30 percent of their evaluation. As I understand the matter, the best teacher evaluation systems are those such as the one in Cincinnati (arrived at by collective bargaining), which “utilizes trained evaluators, a specified and research-based evaluation rubric, and includes multiple classroom observations of teachers during a year.” The worst systems are those where everything comes down to tests.

Anyway, with school back in session, we can move into a lighter mode, so here’s a wonderfully comic description of a junior high school band concert. The poem reminds us that education is invariably a messy process. The band conductor is probably praying that his job doesn’t depend on the performance of his musicians:

The Junior High Band Concert

By David Wagoner

When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed through our crossfire.

I played cornet, seventh chair,
Out of seven, my embouchure
A glorified Bronx cheer
Through that three-keyed keyhole stopper
And neighborhood window-slammer
Where mildew fought for air
At every exhausted corner,
My fingering still unsure
After scaling it for a year
Except on the spit-valve lever.

Each straight-faced mother and father
Retested his moral fiber
Against our traps and slurs
And the inadvertent whickers
Paradiddled by our snares,
And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua’s harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare. 

By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in his mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.

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  • http://www.letschoosejoy.com Sue

    As a bandie, I couldn’t help but laugh at this poem, although I must admit we were pretty good. Still, the image of parents desperately keeping straight faces is all so true. I loved the line about decomposing the composer – and the semi-conductor. Thanks for the smile – and the good news about the Chicago strike resolution.

  • http://www.petelit.com Pete

    Charming poem. I’d love to read one written from the perspective of a band parent in the audience, preferably someone with advanced musical training and high aesthetic standards.

  • Marilyn J. Hollman

    Wow – what fun to re-encounter this poem!


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