Not a Step

It’s Spring Cleaning time at my house. It’s a little early, but I’m actually going to keep one of my New Year’s resolutions and refinance my house. The appraisal is tomorrow so I was motivated to do a thorough onceover on the house this weekend. I was just cleaning some windows and actually used a stepladder, instead of the usual chair, to get to some windows above the door. If you’ve ever used a stepladder, you may know that there’s a tiny shelf that pivots out that you can put your tools or a bucket on. It bears the ominous warning, “Not a Step.”

I’m generally pretty good about following rules, except when someone tells me not to do something. One sure way to motivate me is to tell me not to do something, or better yet, that I can’t. Tell me I can’t do something, and the gloves come off. Just seeing those words, “Not a Step,” sure made me want to step on it. (I’ve stepped on it before, just to see, so I didn’t have to test my luck again today.)

My first year teaching high school band, I was so excited to be able to play music that was, well, a bit more mature than when I was teaching middle school. Not that we didn’t do a good job, but high school students just have experience on their side and can tackle some more challenging, and for me, musically rewarding literature. I wanted to play “Variations on ‘America’” by Charles Ives, but it’s a pretty difficult piece. In the band world, it ranks a VI on a VI-point scale. But it just felt like the right song to play.

I drove to Florida to visit my parents over the holidays and all I could think about for those 12 hours back in the car was that song. I told some colleagues that I wanted to do the Ives and the general response was, “I don’t think you should do it. Those kids have never played anything above a IV before.” I don’t think anyone say I couldn’t do it, but it was enough of a challenge. It just seemed like the right song for my band. I paired it with “Satiric Dances,” by Norman Dello Joio, a sometimes raucous, sometimes ethereally beautiful suite of dances that I had loved since my own high school days. (For those of you keeping track, “Satiric Dances” is a grade V, which meant we couldn’t enter in the grade VI category, but it still felt right and I opted to go for the music rather than the rating.)

I have to admit it was a challenge. My kids had never played repertoire so difficult. I studied the scores, listened to recordings, even read books about Charles Ives. During the two months of preparation, I invited Lieutenant Colonel Lowell Graham, conductor of the Heritage of America Band from nearby Langley Air Force Base to an evening rehearsal with my students. I recorded the rehearsal and took notes. That rehearsal was transformative. My 45 kids were pushed and prodded by Lt. Col. Graham. They did things I didn’t know they could do. They played at tempos of unbelievable speeds. They created the most beautiful and mature melodies. And they had a honkin’ good time!

After the rehearsal, I told Lt. Col. Graham how much I appreciated his working with my students and that he got so much out of them. I told him I didn’t know they could play so well. I was really astounded. He told me, “Never think you can’t do something. And never tell a child they can’t do something. They’ll prove you wrong every time.” Darn, caught in my own rule!

Our warm-up concert for the band parents the Wednesday before band festival went o.k. Fine, but not great. We worked at it the remaining two days before festival. Oh yeah, we hosted the band festival that year—in my first year—but it allowed me to play on my stage, in the auditorium I knew, and pick my performance time, first after lunch. That performance was astounding. I was physically and emotionally moved by those 45 kids making music like they had never made music before. I didn’t care what our rating was. I told them, I had just enjoyed the best concert of my life and that was good enough for me.

We got our superior rating that year, and won a distinction of a “Virginia Honor Band,” something the band had not done often in the past. We also won the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival that year, a long-standing competition held in Winchester, Virginia, but attended by bands from across the nation (I went as a high school student in Florida and later with the high school my students would attend in Texas). We won the overall symphonic band category with that repertoire and also came home Grand Champions (after two parades, a jazz band concert, and a marching band show…whew!)

But the real P.S. came about 3 months later. I had almost forgotten I had sent a tape of the performance in to Downbeat Magazine. The magazine has an annual contest for student musicians and I had sent in a copy of the tape. When I received a phone call from an alumnus of the school—someone I didn’t know, because, after all, it was my first year—I was flabbergasted. My little band, my 45 kids that had never played music harder than a grade IV, had won a Downbeat Award in the category of classical instrumentalist symphonic band.

Those kids taught me a lot that year, and I hope they picked up a thing or two. So many of them have Facebooked me that I know they probably have. But the most important thing I learned was don’t set limits. Don’t say no. Take the step.

Next time, a technology story, but relative to this one.