On Saturday morning, our oldest son, a third-generation trumpet player, became a second-generation marcher as a member of the Platteville Middle School Marching Band.
I marched for three years in the La Follette High School marching band in Madison, an experience that included playing in football games of a team that won nine games in four years, but also a high school boys basketball championship. (The 30th anniversary of that state championship was this past March. A DVD of the game also shows how much TV time the band got.) My wife marched in the Lancaster bands for five years.
High school band was a more cool experience than I could describe in 1,000 or so words. We were playing every day, and while practice is important (or so I’m told, not that I’m an example as an occasional trumpet player), there’s a difference between practicing by yourself and practicing with the entire group. Being at a high school of 2,000 can be an isolating experience, but I had something in common with 150 at the school, particularly the 50 in Wind Ensemble.
Not only did we have concerts to perform, including a cabaret-type evening in our Commons, but we got to go on tour — the Twin Cities one year, including the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” (along with staying in a hotel with dreadful Hawaiian music and a roommate who fancied himself a rapper), and Chicago the next year, including “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Marriott Lincolnshire Resort, an evening that followed an afternoon in the hotel pool with a guy who turned out to be Tevye.
My wife’s two most vivid marching band memories were in this area. After a UW–Platteville Homecoming parade, a tuba experienced grievous bodily harm when its bell was run over by a Lancaster school bus. (Insert joke about tuba players here. Unlike my Boy Scouts bugle that suffered a similar injury, the tuba survived with a new bell.) The highlight most likely was the Lancaster band’s win over archnemesis Cuba City at the 1982 Belmont Fair parade, a win, she says, the Cubans expected instead.
My high school band experience segued into five years in the University of Wisconsin Marching Band. My first year, the band played a concert in Platteville, where UW Band Director Michael Leckrone introduced a Platteville senior who was coming to UW to play football, Paul Chryst. Unlike today (because UW athletics is an order of magnitude better, Saturday’s debacle notwithstanding), my postseason experience consisted only of one bowl game, and no NCAA basketball or hockey tournaments.
Nevertheless, the impact the UW Band had on me extends to my subconscious. Most people who went to college probably have had the dream in which you’re having an exam you forgot about and thus for which you’re not prepared. My recurring dream (which I get in the fall) is that I find myself back in the band (why the band would need a 47-year-old trumpet player is for you to decide) with a game to march in that night, having neither read nor practiced the music nor the marching directions. No uniform either.
One thing I got out of both high school and the UW Band was a wider appreciation of music than I had before. I can go to a high school band concert and hear something like Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Folk Song Suite” or Gustav Holst’s suites in E-flat or F and remember playing them. The UW Band played much more than “On Wisconsin” and “You’ve Said It All,” including “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Porgy ‘n Bess,” “West Side Story,” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (The funniest was probably the international “On Wisconsin” show, which featured a waltz and Japanese and Russian versions of Wisconsin’s fight song.)
When I hear people talk about how the only important things in school are the stereotypical academic subjects — math, English, science, etc. — I start looking for my old trumpet (which actually was my father’s high school band director’s trumpet, which now weighs more than a baseball bat after several layers of lacquer) to swing at their skulls.
Extracurricular activities. including athletics and music, take up 1 to 2 percent of a school’s budget. Those who think extracurriculars take up too much in resources have yet to explain why those who participate have had higher grade point averages for decades than those who don’t.
Being in a musical group gives participants many of the same effects of being on an athletic team — a sense of belonging to a group within the bigger group of your school, the importance of the team over the individual, the importance of each person’s contribution to that team. Yes, not everyone has musical talent, but not everyone has athletic talent either. Music perhaps more than athletics can overcome lesser skill by hard work and practice.
Music builds self-esteem not by dubious self-psychology, but by accomplishment and public performance, including putting performance anxiety in its proper place. There is nothing quite like playing by yourself in a room full of people watching and listening to you to focus the mind. Music has additional academic benefits, including development of creative thinking ability and promoting doing over observing.
Music is an exacting academic field, closer to math than you might think. As the Children’s Music Workshop puts it, “In music, a mistake is a mistake; the instrument is in tune or not, the notes are well played or not, the entrance is made or not.”
Performing well whether anyone’s watching was a staple of the UW Band in the bad old days of the ’70s, most of the ’80s and the early ’90s, and I got good preparation for that marching pregames and halftimes of a football team that won nine games in four years. But beyond that, it was good preparation for a professional field that doesn’t include a lot of feedback, a field in which (like any other field of endeavor) it’s important to do good work whether or not anyone recognizes it.