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.

Ordinary Music

 As concert season winds down, the power of music still amazes me, even after all these years. I don’t just mean what happens in wonderful performances like I experienced in the last few days, but what happens when music pokes its nose into our daily lives, and subtly works its magic outside of the concert halls. When it pounds the pavement right along with us. When it takes us away from the madness, even for a brief period of time.

 I see its power working in a troubled student at the school where I teach. Her grandmother and I are both struggling mightily to get this young lady to lessons and rehearsals. She’s teetering dangerously close to the precipice of serious trouble and right now, needs to hold on to her violin for dear life. When I asked her one day if she still wanted to play, she looked shocked and said, “You know I do.” She finally showed up for a lesson last week, despite the siren call of friends she should not be hanging out with and for now, that’s enough.

I’ve watched another student who used to be very insecure blossom into a fine young cellist this year. She’s still at basic level but is playing with more confidence and has become the de-facto mother hen of our little cello section. She scurries around marking fingerings and bowings in the other kids’ parts, (without any prompting from me) or yells at them for missing a rest. I just sit back and enjoy.  

 A woman who recently took over as the drum major in my husband’s drum and bugle corps is so excited to be in front of a performing ensemble again that it’s all she can talk about. She was a dynamic middle school band director who left the profession to stay home with her young children and now she’s once again studying scores and practicing conducting patterns. She has rediscovered the passion of her life, and her energy and enthusiasm have revitalized this group of drummers and horn players who range in age from 15 to 82. And for some of these folks, “the corps” is what gets them out of bed in the morning.

Lancers DCA 2012 formal

 My husband’s Aunt, a lovely lady in her 80’s not only still plays the piano but takes lessons and practices. She is widowed, and her adult children do not live nearby but her piano is there to keep her company and give her daily goals and challenges. She proudly told us that some Beethoven and Mozart pieces she had been working on for a long time are finally coming together, and she occasionally plays for other residents in the retirement community where she lives. For her, music provides a future at a time in her life when some days, the future may look bleak.

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Enjoyed lunch recently at an outdoor venue where a trio of older gentlemen were entertaining the crowd with some blues and classic rock. Their bass player was a local professional photographer who had recently taken up the instrument and this was one of his first performances. They’re never going to give the e street band a run for their money, but they were having a blast, especially the rookie bass player.

For me, making music is something I can still do reasonably well, unlike getting up from sitting on the floor or watching TV without my glasses. I’m singing with the finest choral ensemble I have ever been a part of and am re-discovering what it means to practice and even memorize a few pieces. Unlike the other person who shares my home who can instantly sing the harmony part to any tune he hears, I must work hard to memorize alto lines. I felt good this past weekend when I could sing our memorized pieces with confidence (except for the one that required off-beat clapping, but then I just didn’t clap much.)

Memo music

There is no downside to this music thing. There simply isn’t. Yes, it requires practice and discipline and at the professional level there can be bitter competition and politics, and some of us are inevitably going to be better musicians than others. But that’s true of most things in life. Whether you’re a concert pianist or a fifth-grader blowing the first few notes on a saxophone or a senior citizen singing in the retirement home chorus, it’s all good. Music quickens our pulse when our souls are dragging and comforts us when the storm outside becomes unbearable. Music stimulates our brains and bodies and it’s something we can do forever, unlike a lot of sports which, let’s face it—sooner or later, are going to cause our knees to pack up and say, “Ok, that’s it. We’re out of here.”

So keep singing or marching in the drum corps or playing in a local bluegrass band. Start taking lessons at 40. Or 80. Get out your old trumpet and play along with your child or grandchild. Sing in your church choir. Ring a handbell. Try out for a performing ensemble. Play in a praise band.  I often told my students that you don’t have to be first chair to enjoy making music. You don’t have to be great. You don’t even have to be good. There’s nothing wrong with ordinary people making ordinary music. Sometimes sitting in the back of the second violins (what I used to affectionately call “Margaritaville”) is just fine if you’re happy and it makes you forget about life for a while.

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