My response to a controversial article about middle school band

A certain article, published in TOPS magazine, triggered a lot of backlash in the music education realm. Here is a link to a blog post of the article that was published:

Here is what I wrote in response:

Dear HB,

I have read your article in TOPS magazine and your apology, and I have found myself with so many things to express to you. As a fellow writer, I wish to write this letter to you to explain what I am feeling and thinking, if you could please read what I have to say.

The first thing I would like to do is commend you for your decision to introduce your children to music and allowing them to take private lessons. You are very astute to recognize that music should be part of each of your children’s educations.

What I have found so distressing about your writing, as humorous as it was intended, is your description of your experiences at your children’s concerts. How they are described, for all the world to see, as if they are an unpleasant chore that must be taken care of, like emptying the trash or cleaning out the toilets. How you and the other parents cannot sit through them without texting each other jokes, which out of context, are very funny when exchanged amongst fellow musicians but rather insulting when coming from the musicians’ parents via cell phone during the musicians’ performance.

You describe the experiences of attending your children’s private study music recitals with some degree of approval, then announce your entrance into the world of public school band programs with a sigh of disappointment. The remarks on the school music program’s recycling of tunes (a common practice among all band directors), placement of the concert in the school’s gymnasium, and lack of funding are stated not with righteous indignation at the lack of attention the music program receives but with disgust and disdain for the less-than-ideal situation.

You don’t hide your description of the middle school band’s musical product: “Bad” with the “unmistakable squonk of a beginner clarinet.”

I’m sure the goal of studying any musical instrument is not foreign to you. As musicians, as artists, we strive for perfection in everything we do: tone quality, articulation, dynamics, playing while riding on a giraffe, etc. We strive also, for beauty in everything we produce.

I agree with you. The products that middle school bands put out are not perfect. They are far from perfect. There are many things that go on during those performances that cause the performance of “Sleigh Ride” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” to be less than stellar (no pun intended).

You have admitted that those middle school musicians are not professional musicians. Many of them are not phenomenally talented. They have not received a sky-high level of instruction nor encountered a conservatory level’s course-load of study. Many of them are beginners.

Here is a simple, yet enlightening concept that I believe everyone should know:

Music is for everyone.

Everyone? Even the non-musically gifted? Even the less-practiced, the newer musician?

It is a strange Western tradition that our appreciation of music became reduced to the concept of musicians sitting on a stage and playing for an hour while an audience watches quietly, separated by the wall between performer and spectator. In the Eastern world, music is something to be experienced by musician and audience member alike, through dance, through vocal encouragement and participation, through meditation. It is strange Western tradition that our music-making became restricted to only the elite.

Everybody in the world is musical. Everybody. The blind, the hard-of-hearing, the unruly, the lackadaisical, and even the inexplicably tone-deaf. People, do, however have varying levels of musical aptitude, which is a person’s natural ability to learn and experience music. People begin their lives, in the womb, with varying levels of musical aptitude. From pre-birth to around age 9, a person’s existing musical aptitude can be increased by their environment. By a mother who sings to her child. By exposure and exploration of many different types of music. By early childhood music classes, and general music education experiences in elementary school.

By age 9, that aptitude is stabilized. A child will not become any more musically gifted from that point on, and some children will have inevitably ended their developmental period with a lower-than-average musical aptitude. And yes, these children may very well sign up for band. And yes, that band director very well may have “no idea what lack of musical talent lurks behind the eager face of the beginning flutist.”

Achievement > Aptitude. Under a band director’s careful instruction, a low-aptitude child who devotes herself to music and works very hard may very well succeed. She will not succeed at first. But if she refuses to give up, she will start to improve, and once she starts to improve and she begins to get excited, who’s to say the sky will be her limit? Who’s to say she didn’t deserve to be taught, despite all the people who cringed as her clarinet squonked up the gymnasium in her first concert, like any beginner’s clarinet would?

I do not wish to sit here and rage at you, as many people as passionate about music as I am have probably already done so. I know you have seen the faults in your light-hearted, yet unfortunately offensive article, and I believe you when you say you are a lifelong supporter of arts education.

I am now going to trust you with a mission. A mission integral to saving the arts in the public schools. A mission I know I will be part of for most of my lifetime.

All of those kids, sitting there in front of you in their too short black pants and wrinkled golf shirts? Those kids who perform “Sleigh Ride” with only a loose definition of dynamics and an understanding of intonation that could be a whole lot better?

They deserve applause. Uproarious applause.

Not just a pity clap. Not just an obligatory polite clap. Not just a “good for you, you’re done!” clap.

No, these kids, and their teachers, deserve a lot more.

For mediocrity? Why applaud mediocrity? America is known for breeding mediocrity. If you clap too hard, too much, will they be too proud of how mediocre they sound right now? In the 7th grade? What does that do for our children other than dig them into a deeper hole of mediocrity than they already are?

But really, they aren’t “mediocre” in the slightest.

When you applaud your children, you applaud for their journey. Always the journey. They are developing as musicians, and more importantly, developing as human beings. The time they have spent finagling with the intricacies of their instruments, the hours of rehearsal they have spent working on their music, putting in the effort to make it as perfect and as beautiful as possible. The time they are spending, day after day in that band room, learning ever so slowly to work with each other, to trust each other, to become the epitome of teamwork through their music making.

For that last one, very few of us have the words to describes what this means to us. We can only assure you that learning to feel what it is be connected with the people around us, whether it be through music or not, is the reason why we love to live.

That “dear band director”? She lives for this. She finds that no matter how stressful and frustrating and complicated her job can be sometimes, no matter how many times she (apparently) has to stop the kids from jousting with music stands or using a pair of bassoons as stilts, there are moments: a simple musical achievement from the band, a small thank you from a student, that mean the world to her, that make everything she has set out to do worth it. In the end, she finds no greater joy than to instill in her students a work ethic of steel, an enduring spirit, and a lifelong passion for music.

Because when something you attempt is difficult and tragically unsuccessful the first few times, it isn’t acceptable to give up. How would anyone accomplish anything meaningful if they always gave up when they failed?

Yes. Yes, your applause for those young musicians sitting up there in the middle of the gymnasium? It MATTERS. It matters A LOT.

For heavens sakes, stand up! Give a standing ovation!

Even if you stand up, and you are alone. Trust me, trust yourself, that you are doing something amazing. Others, they will follow.

Your appreciation means EVERYTHING to your kids! To know that their time and effort and passion is worth more than a pity clap!

Perhaps they don’t sound the greatest? They’ll sound better, they’ll have a drive to improve, knowing that what they do has value, enough value that a roomful of their parents will leap to their feet and cheer them on as if they were rock stars.

No matter their talent. No matter their ability. No matter their stage of development.

Suddenly those kids who, picking up on social cues and the generally accepted attitude of disdain towards public school music programs, had always assumed it wasn’t cool to be in band, those kids who hadn’t wanted to practice—Those kids who have always loved band and have worked hard but have found no one to understand their passion–

Those kids now are driven to be excellent. They know it is meaningful. And they want more!

People go wild at football games. At pep rallies. When the lunch bell rings. Why on earth shouldn’t they show as much appreciation at a middle school band concert?

Sadly, many school band programs perform in rooms of crickets and golf claps. They have never known full-throated appreciation. Their audiences are bored, sit on their hands, and treat school-concert-going as a chore. And those kids are led to believe that indifference is all they will ever deserve.

That is why we need a hero. A hero like you, who can break through that wall between the performer and audience member and lead the way for other heros.

I just want you to understand that you, as a parent, as a spectator……you have so much power to do good. To change the way our world rolls.

Your kids are the future of education. Of learning to life live to its fullest. Of learning to give back. And so are you. You have power.

Use it wisely. Share the love. Be an active participant. Stand up and cheer. Show your appreciation; celebrate what these children have done.

There is no need to pretend it isn’t “cool”. You don’t have to assume it won’t make a difference.

It makes all the difference in the universe.

Stand up and smile. Put your hands together.

You are the beginning.


L. Leigh

One thought on “My response to a controversial article about middle school band”

  1. AWESOME REPLY! Unless a person is a musician, and not just someone who plays an instrument (which you are and she obviously isn’t), they won’t get it. There’s an old tv episode of M.A.S.H. in which the surgeon, Charles Winchester, is elated he’s saved the injured young man’s leg. However, he soon finds out the soldier is a concert pianist. The most telling moment is Charles trying to explain to the young pianist that almost anyone can learn to play the notes, but to make music is a gift. Charles can play the notes, but no matter how hard he tries, they’re just notes, not music.
    Even tho a bunch of 5th and 6th graders may just be playing the notes, they are learning what is inside themselves, for even “just playing the notes” is not easy.
    Keep up the great writing and take care.
    Mary Adachi aka Krashdragon

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