The Opposite of Terrible

It’s time for school concerts. Noah played in the winter band and jazz concert a couple weeks ago, and June’s school’s holiday sing was Monday.

Winter Band and Jazz Concert

Noah was a nervous wreck in the car on the way to the band concert. He’s been playing drums for six years and he’s not usually too worked up before concerts, but he’s in an advanced band in which he was placed because of a schedule conflict and he’s got a bit of an imposter complex about it. He said he thought the fact that he was so nervous would make it more likely he’d make mistakes.

I thought he might be right, but I told him even if he did make a mistake he’d be the one most likely to hear it, that all the sound the audience is taking in making it hard to hear individual errors. He wasn’t having it.

Noah took private lessons instead of playing in the band last year so this was our first high school band concert. At his school, they split the orchestra, band, and chorus concerts into three different nights. I thought this meant the concert might be shorter than a middle school concert. But there are five different bands at his high school, not counting the marching band, which I don’t think plays at concerts. Noah had attended the orchestra concert the week before and had gotten back later than I expected, so I wasn’t expecting a short night. A glance at the program confirmed that would be the case again.

June was with us, even though it would surely keep her up past her bedtime, because we don’t have a sitter any more now that Eleanor’s in college and we so seldom need one I never invested the time in finding a replacement. If June had her way I would have found her a ride to and from her school’s Reading Night, someone who would drop her off at our empty house when it was over. But even though she’s been staying home alone for years we didn’t feel quite right about having her alone in the house at night, so we made her come. She probably would have been excited about being out late if it wasn’t for the fact that she was missing something she wanted to do. But she was mature and didn’t complain too much. It might have helped that we bought her a brownie at the bake sale and I read to her from Cricket while they were setting the stage between groups.

Another way the concert was different from a middle school concert was the fact that we were in comfortable auditorium seats, the band was up on stage, and there were colored lights behind them that changed from blue to green to red. It was nicely done.

The Jazz Combo played first. This group consisted of two saxophonists, a pianist, a bass player, and a percussionist. Because it was such a small and talented group, there were plenty of opportunities for solos. My favorite piece was probably “Black Orpheus,” but they were all good.

As would happen with each band that followed, the teacher introduced members of the band who were in the school’s music honor society and those who had made the county honors bands, the all State bands, the All Eastern Bands, and the Honors Band of America. There were a lot of names to announce. The musicians at Noah’s school are an accomplished bunch.

Next up was the Jazz Ensemble. They had vocalists, a boy and a girl, for three of their five numbers, which interested June. I think she might have been imagining herself up on stage with a microphone and a big band backing her six or seven years hence.

Then the concert band played a few songs. One was one of those high concept band pieces with which you’re probably familiar if you’ve ever had a kid in band. It was called “The Great Locomotive Chase.” It was inspired by a Union raid on the railroad tracks in Georgia during the Civil War, and featured instruments that sounded like a train whistle and other sound effects. That was fun. June was starting to fade, though, and she alternated between leaning against me and Beth. I was tired, too, as I’d been up late keeping Noah on task the night before as he wrote an alternative ending to “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”

Symphonic Band (the intermediate band) was next. Noah’s going to play in this band next semester. It’s hard to fit in band with as many required classes as the CAP kids have, so this year they’ve just let him play whenever his schedule allowed, which we appreciate. Many kids in CAP just drop music and I’m glad he hasn’t had to do that, even though he had to skip a year.

At last, it was time for the Wind Ensemble, or the advanced band. I don’t know why they call it the Wind Ensemble when it’s not just wind instruments, but there you have it. Noah had told us what he was playing in each song ahead of time. We like to know because it’s usually impossible to see the percussionists all the way in the back. He’d also told me weeks ago he didn’t have any difficult parts, so I was surprised to hear the snare drum as the most prominent percussion sound in their first piece, “Matador.” This is a very fast song and he sounded fantastic, very precise. Beth and I exchanged happy, relieved looks over June, who muttered, “He probably made three little mistakes he’ll go on and on about.”

Noah played timpani in “Amazing Grace,” a smaller part, but I’m always glad whenever he gets some timpani experience because they didn’t have one at his middle school and it’s been an audition bane for him because of that. He played the bass drum and woodblocks capably in “Hebrides Suite” and the concert was over.

As we walked back to the car I asked him how he thought it went and he said, “okay” and later, “not terrible.” This for him nearly amounts to self-promotion. But he’s right. It wasn’t terrible. It was the opposite of terrible. I’m happy he held his own with challenging music and I hope he’ll be comfortable in Symphonic Band next semester. It was clear from the concert he doesn’t belong in the non-audition concert band, which was his first choice (because he hates to audition). But whatever band he plays in, I always enjoy hearing him perform.

Holiday Sing (and Electoral College March)

June sang and played violin at her school’s Holiday Sing once last Friday and twice on Monday. Last year she was in the chorus, but there was no chorus this year, so the whole fourth and fifth grade sang instead, preparing in their regular music class. The band and orchestra played, too.

June is having the opposite problem Noah’s having with music this year, and I think it’s a worse problem to have. Mr. G’s replacement isn’t as skilled at assessing the students’ skill and experience levels and coming up with appropriate lessons for everyone. This was Mr. G’s superpower.  Mr. B is basically treating them all like raw beginners. June says the fifth graders who just started to play last year are incredulous at how easy the music is and she’s been playing for almost three and a half years. Not surprisingly, there’s no advanced string ensemble this year.

So, we’d been considering having June drop out of orchestra after the January concert, but then we found out there wasn’t going to be a January concert this year so the timing is less clear. It’s hard to see the point of pulling her out of her science and Spanish class once a week if she’s not learning anything. But before we take that step, I wanted to address my concerns with Mr. B first. He did offer to give June some harder music and meet with her after school on Mondays, which was generous of him. But the first piece he gave her was “Frere Jacques,” so we still have the same underlying problem.

Meanwhile, to keep from losing ground, June’s been practicing songs from orchestra camp and last year’s orchestra selections, and she’s using online tutorials to learn new songs. She and Beth have also been practicing Christmas songs together in preparation for a joint performance for Beth’s mom at Christmas, which they are both enjoying. The obvious solution is to put her back into private lessons, but between Scouts, basketball, and voice lessons, she has enough on her plate without adding another item to her weekly calendar.

This year the Holiday Sing was the same day the Electoral College met. I’d noticed this coincidence ahead of time and I thought it might mar my enjoyment of the event. Sure enough, I was melancholy as I walked to June’s school.

Just two days earlier I’d taken another long walk, from the Washington Monument to the White House, as part of a rally and march to ask the electors to vote their conscience.

I told June I was going to a rally to ask the electors to vote their conscience and asked if she’d like to make me a poster. She considered. “Is it okay if it has glitter glue and sparkles?” 

“Yes.”

She was sold.

I told Noah where I was going and he said, “Why do you think that will work?”

“I don’t,” I said.
“Then why are you going?”
“Because sometimes you have to try even when it seems hopeless. That’s what we learn from Frodo and Sam, right?”
He gave me a half-skeptical, half-sad smile.

The march started at the Washington Monument and proceeded to the White House. Even though we’d had an ice storm that morning the day had warmed up considerably. The late afternoon light was a lovely pale gold. I wore my coat unbuttoned and even got a little overheated as I tried to keep up with the marchers, who on average were probably about twenty years younger than me and pretty well spread out in the street. The march was spirited, but sparse, as these things go. The signs were about all sorts of lefty issues, relevant I suppose because they were all issues affected by the election, but I would have preferred a narrower focus on our appeal to the electors.  At the end we were standing by the reviewing stands for the inaugural parade, which are under construction. This seemed to point out how little we could really do about it.

But when I got home, Beth had made a lasagna and Noah had made enough progress on his pre-calculus so we could read the last chapter of Return of the King after dinner. I felt I’d done what I could and it was comforting to be back home.

At June’s school before the Holiday Sing, I sat in a row of a few other mothers of June’s friends. The mom next to me and I discussed how neither of us was sad to be leaving elementary school behind at the end of the year and the state of instrumental music at the school. She seemed to agree with my assessment but I could tell from a look of mild surprise on her face, that I am considerably more worked up about this than she is. This had been happening to me every time I talk to someone about instrumental music. I guess I need to tone it down.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised when the band started to play “Jingle Bells” because they didn’t sound half bad, if a little morose because the tempo was so slow.  Their Hanukkah selection, “My Dreidel” was fine, too. I started to wonder if the orchestra would sound better than anticipated, once all the different instruments were playing at once, as opposed to June’s simple, repetitive piece of it that I’d been hearing at home. Sometimes that does happen. But when they played, it sounded more like an exercise for beginners than a song played by kids with over a year’s experience playing together. I was also having disgruntled thoughts about watching children fiddle while Rome burned.

Luckily, the singing part of the Holiday Sing was next. In this performance, the fifth grade sang a few songs alone and then there was a sing-along with the fourth-grade audience. Half the fifth grade (all that can fit) got up on risers and sang a traditional Puerto Rican Christmas song, followed by a spirited rendition of “Let it Snow.” There was a pause while the two halves of the fifth grade traded places and sang their songs.

I was sitting in exactly the wrong place to see June. The music teacher was blocking my view of her. But the teacher was swaying and the longer the concert went on the more pronounced her swaying became, so I could sometimes see brief flashes of my daughter. This was somewhat amusing.

They sang two songs alone and then it was time for an eight-song Kwanzaa/Hanukkah/Christmas sing-along set. Many of the songs were familiar from years past. There’s a Hanukkah song I’ve always liked called “In the Window,” and “Ocho Candelitas.” They shook things up a bit with the Christmas songs. No “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Feliz Navidad,” which are perennial favorites. Among the new songs was “Mele Kalikimaka.” I’d like to think this Hawaiian-themed song might have been a tribute to our outgoing President, but who knows? At any rate, they don’t change the songs much and in my ten years of attending this concert I don’t think they ever sang it before. And then, my last Holiday Sing was over.

That night, doing the dishes, I was trying not to think about what had happened that day, that out of 306 electors who were supposed to vote for Trump, only two had the decency and temerity to consider his appalling words and actions and say no. I wasn’t expecting a different outcome—really I wasn’t—but if it had been even a dozen of them, I might have felt a little better about humanity.

As I pushed these thoughts away, I found myself humming that pretty Hanukkah song, so familiar from years of Holiday Sings. I’ve never heard it anywhere else. The experience of hearing children on the verge of their winter break, singing songs of joy for all these years has also been the opposite of terrible. Maybe I will miss it after all.

Postscript: Beth went to a march about a week ago as well, against the Muslim registry, and President Obama recently took steps to make that registry less likely. We are not powerless.

 

  • Nicole MacPherson

    I wasn’t expecting a different outcome either, but still.

    Can I admit something? I love love LOVE Mele Kalikimaka so much. It’s one of my favourite Christmas songs.

    All the best to you and yours this holiday, my friend. I hope you have a restful, peaceful, joyful holiday. xo