Julie is a natural. Give her a garden hose, an eggbeater, and an aardvark, and she’ll make music. She played French horn in the band this year but also excels on piano, accordion, auto harp, baritone, and sinks free throws in the clutch.
Emma, with a wit sharper than a grafting knife, covered the oboe parts on her violin. Colin’s father committed suicide. Braces made playing music as painful as the hole in his heart. When not traveling the state as a rodeo queen and breaking horses, Janey played flute.
Rick is petrified of large crowds. He plays the drum set, a possible pro. He had trouble with an African rhythm once. I put him on the computer to watch a master. When he returned to the drum set, he nailed it.
This is what middle school bands are—a collection of the most exasperatingly beautiful and interesting young people imaginable. Each day is filled with tears (“Please sit up, Christopher,” for the umpteenth time), but the laughter is infectious, the joys profound. These youth are my future, your future, the ones who will carry the torch forward. I do my best to make sure the light shines bright.
I’m retiring from teaching. For four decades I’ve taught all ages, kindergarten to university graduate. I’ve conducted at the Kennedy Center and composed the score for an IMAX documentary. My students have reached professional levels I could only dream of when they sat with me.
They inspired me then and do so now that they are colleagues, no longer students. My once-slim body now bulges in places I did not know possible. My hair, once brown, is receding too far back for my taste, but I do have to admit, it is a lovely shade of silver.
But in my 40 years of teaching, this is my best middle school band I’ve ever had. Well, at least it was.
The COVID-19 pandemic stopped our Spring Concert like a chained nose ring on a Jersey bull. We put our instruments away in March and went our separate ways, quarantined, some more conscientious than others. We’re lucky. Knock on wood, we have, so far, escaped the disease that has knocked down some of my friends in the musical community and taken from us more than a few, many far too soon.
As I cleaned and inventoried the instruments for the last time and filed music for the incoming teacher, I smiled at old photos and reminisced with a heavy heart. This band, the best young band in my entire career, would have knocked the socks off the audience.
But, in many ways they already have.
They swept blue ribbons for chamber music and piano at the festival in February. They played a magnificent Christmas concert. They have uplifted Sunday services and Veterans Day celebrations. They have, in their short lives, done what musicians do: inspire and entertain.
I close my eyes. In my mind I walk into the Sanctuary of this Lutheran school. I see the room filled with over two hundred family and friends.
The musicians, more than 50 of them, stand as I enter. I offer a small bow to the congregants. I turn and have the musicians sit. I take a moment to look each and every one in the eye: the percussionist with the cleft palate who has trouble keeping the beat, the quiet-as-a-church-mouse clarinet player who makes music like an angel, the trumpet player who has as much talent as her older sister but doesn’t know it yet, the saxophone player who looks clueless but isn’t.
I look at each one, and we smile, remembering the times I insisted on better, but they didn’t want to, at least not on that day. In that flicker of connection we reminisce about the joys, the laughter, the camaraderie that comes from a gathering of widely disparate people unified in single pursuit.
Life should always be that way but, perhaps only for a brief moment, these wildly different young people walking wildly different paths on the way to being incredible adults—we all come together, in harmony.
I do this every concert, spend a moment with each one. But this one is different. This is our last. Unlike the many fleeting moments of life that arrive unexpected and are gone in a flash, we know this will moment will never come again. We know.
My eyes still closed and, in my mind, I step onto the podium. I raise my arms and give a preparatory beat. We all breathe together. I linger a moment and, as my arms descend, the hall is filled with the most glorious of all sounds, a silent symphony of the heart, the sound of angel wings fluttering toward heaven. I join with the march of these young spirits on their unique paths toward destiny but, for now, we all soar together as one. ISI