A Very Special Orchestra

Right now more than a few graduates of a local high school are dusting off long-unused instruments. They’re checking for broken violin strings or dried out cakes of rosin. Brass instruments are being oiled and woodwind reeds purchased. Are those cello pegs going to move and if they do, will the strings stay in tune for longer than a few minutes? And, most importantly, can they remember how to play this thing that was such a huge part of their life so many years ago? I suspect there’s going to be a lot of practicing  in the next month or two, including in my own home. My once respectable flute playing has been dormant for too long, and I’m paying the price now to whip it back into shape.

In early June, all of us will gather together with that high school’s current orchestra and celebrate the life of our teacher, colleague, and friend who left us way too soon. We will play him home to Jesus in the warmth of a June morning the way we couldn’t during a dark pandemic November. Our grief may not be as raw as in those first terrible days, but it still clamors to be expressed, perhaps even more so now that months have passed.

We will sit in front of the young conductor who has taken his place and glance around at those who shared our musical lives. Who got in trouble on the orchestra trip. Who always cut class to hang out in the band room. Whose parents called the principal to complain about how mean this teacher was, and who now understands how that mean-ness changed his or her life for the better. Who played a solo they’ll remember forever because this teacher believed they could. Who started this individual on his musical career by handing him a cello to learn to play because there were no openings for a piano  accompanist in his high school orchestra. Who remembers the frustrations and the laughter and the satisfaction of working with someone whose strengths complemented your weaknesses and vice versa.

Some are traveling a great distance to play in this orchestra again, and there will be joyful reunions and sharing of memories. Several local music educators who were inspired and trained by this man are making it all happen—from organizing Facebook groups, to scanning pages of music to managing the logistics of the event.

The members of this very special orchestra may be a little grayer, a little wiser, and perhaps, a bit more jaded than when they were sixteen. But the music is still there. Muscle memory will bring it all back as fingers wrap around a bow, as a violin is tucked under a chin, as trumpet bells are raised. When we look up for a cue, someone different will be on the podium. But we will see our beloved maestro and play our best for him, one last time.

Still Teaching

On a warm June morning four years ago, I locked my classroom door for the last time, tearfully hugged my colleague, turned in my laptop and keys, and called it a day on 34 years of teaching strings in an affluent suburban school district. I thought I was done. I thought I had conducted my last concert, answered my last parent email, and helped little fingers encircle a half-size violin bow for the last time.

Yesterday, I came home exhausted after watching 22 beginning string students come together for their first orchestra rehearsal. We plucked Merrily We Roll Along and D scale patterns and each section took turns plucking a line of Jingle Bells. They were so excited at the end of the rehearsal.  “Do we get to do this every week?” “This is so cool.” “I can’t wait ‘til the concert.” “I love this.”

So do I. I’m back at it in an urban charter school, working as an outside contractor for a local music company, so the state doesn’t get bent out of shape about my pension. It’s hard work, even for just one day a week.

I walk into this school on Tuesdays, inhaling the smell of baked chicken fingers, overheated laminator and pre-adolescent sweat, and know that a part of me is home. It is where I am comfortable. School and everything that goes with it are what I know.

I teach in a small gym where I have to haul chairs and stands, and a keyboard balanced on floor scooters, out of a closet loaded with playground toys, extension ladders and other paraphernalia the school has no other place to store. Starry-eyed music education majors should be told they will spend a great deal of their careers schlepping stuff—stands and chairs on and off the stage, instruments on and off the bus, timpani down hallways and across parking lots and that they will need a special certification to correctly load a rack of music stands. (Top folded down, load the center leg in first, all facing the same direction.)

I hear the same words coming out of my mouth. “Righty-tighty when you’re ready to play, lefty-loosey when you put it away,” to tighten and loosen bow hair. “No banana thumbs on the bow” “Keep those pinky fingers curved.” “Practicing is part of your homework. Did you tell your teacher you were too busy with soccer to do your math homework?” “Whose job is it to bring your instrument?” “We need more man or woman in that sound. Dig in.” “Low 2, guys, there are no sharps.” “Violin up, wrist down.” Ad infinitum. Same song, different school.

violin bow hold

The student population here is diverse, and many of these students are as jaded as I am. I love ‘em, and I can get away with saying things to them that I would probably not have said to students in my former school. They get it. Some live in situations where they must shoulder adult responsibilities or are exposed to adult problems at way too young an age. If I refer to parents, I will often include the phrase, “grown-ups at home” because they may not live with their natural parents.

I have brilliant students and troubled students and oddly enough, two students who have the same back problems that I do, so we have our own little support group. (Yes, I know you can’t reach down to tie your shoe when you’re wearing a back brace.) I have a beginning student who is autistic and excels at note-reading, although I am careful about touching him to fix his bow hold. I have a group of 7 (yes, 7!) beginning violas. I have a beginning bass player barely tall enough for the instrument who has flawless rhythm. Snaps his fingers exactly on the beat when other students are playing. I have four advanced violinists who can play independently as a quartet. I have a second-year player who pushed my buttons so far one week that I told him he was one of the rudest and most obnoxious students I ever taught. Fortunately, his parents were supportive when I contacted them, and there were no lawsuits involved.

But they’re all playing orchestral instruments. They’re making music and they’re learning and for the most part, having a good time. Some never practice and a few practice a lot and most fall somewhere in between. They rarely miss a lesson even with a convoluted rotating schedule that I tear my hair out trying to put together every Sunday afternoon.

Right now, we’re playing Chester and Wipe Out and a beautiful Copland-esque piece called Appalachian Hymn. Still lower grade stuff, but we’re slowly, slowly developing into an orchestra instead of a motley crew of beginners supported by the piano. We can now actually talk about dynamics and tempo changes instead of just trying to get through the piece without a crash and burn. My advanced students never complain that the music’s too easy and my weakest students never complain that it’s too hard. I try to choose material that’s accessible to all, but I don’t cut corners. They must learn to read and count and do the heavy lifting that’s required of a musician.

Next year, this school will open a high school across the street from the beautifully restored old building that houses the current K-8 grades. I suspect that will mean a second day of teaching for me, and I’m not sure I want to do that. Theoretically, I am retired and I kind of like this writing thing and am not sure I want to be tied down two days a week. My husband works with the band students at the same school, and our hope was that if we got this program started, some dynamic young music teacher would be hired to take over and really build a viable band and orchestra program. I am not sure that’s going to happen, and I may be faced with a hard decision.

When that day comes, I know I will miss the drip-drop sound of little fingers plucking for the first time. I will miss the squeals of those early bowing attempts. I will miss watching a young lady whose family can barely afford her instrument rental playing with the most beautiful position and bow hold I’ve ever seen in a beginner. I will miss watching the kids team up to help the bass player carry his instrument down the hall, two at the neck and two at the endpin. I will miss a nine-year-old’s radiant smile when she looks up at me and says, “This was so much fun. Do we really have to go back to class?”

I will miss the magic of “Merrily We Roll Along.”

lesson book page