Small Groups with Big Hearts

Last Friday night, 134 people gathered in a room in our local public library for the sole purpose of sharing music with each other. Most of these were students, along with parents, grandparents, and community members who maybe were surprised to hear live music floating through the air at an otherwise quiet public library.

Mr. Band Director will tell you that this might be the best teaching he’s ever done—when he stands back and doesn’t teach at all: these Friday night monthly gigs at the library are the result of his initiative to get kids playing in small groups, completely self-led. Many of the students playing found their own music (or wrote their own!), set up rehearsal time, and are completely autonomous.

What I see at each of these small concerts are musicians taking risks, showing their vulnerability by performing some of their own work, and displaying how much communication can be relayed without a single word. I see students who stand up and introduce their groups, their faces flush with nervousness from public speaking, only to immediately look more relaxed when their instrument is in hand. I see tall, lanky boys go to their grandmothers in the audience, leaning over to kiss their cheek as Grandma grins proudly, holding his face in her hands. I see little sisters watching their older siblings, and I wonder if they are imagining their future selves up in front.

How it started

A few years ago, my husband, decided that if he wanted his students to continue including music in their lives beyond high school and college, he would have to show them a different way of using their skill than just in a large group of musicians like a concert band or marching band. It’s much easier to participate in band when it’s a class during your scheduled day in school, but as adults, how can you find time to fit music into your life, especially if your career is in a non music-related field?

One of the first small groups he developed was our own boys: He took Clark, a bass player, and Ben, a guitar player, to our local homeless shelter on Saturday nights. Later, they added in our third son, Reese, who plays cajon, a small Peruvian hand drum. Those Saturday nights were magical. My four guys, plus a rotating cast of friends would play instruments, reading charts they’d pull up on the internet. They’d play classic rock like Beatles or Eagles. The guests would join in with singing. Soon, the Saturday night jam sessions became a routine, and each night ended with one of the guests always singing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Another guest, Rich, turned out to be a gifted guitar player. Someone would bring a guitar each week for him to play, and for an hour or two, Rich’s face looked less drawn and tired as he poured himself into the music.

Mr. Band Director is a huge fan of synergy and mutually beneficial situations, so he started looking up literature that could be used for small chamber ensembles from musicians in his larger bands. From there, small groups began practicing on their own, all working towards “gigs.” These groups would go to nursing homes, assisted living facilities, churches. To make a game of it, he made it into a challenge.

Read about his 100 Gig Challenge here.

These young musicians are why I will argue loudly to anyone who disparages “kids these days.” The kids I know are talented and hard-working. They want to be part of something that has purpose. They want a better world. They want to have ownership over authentic experiences. They want to challenge others and be challenged.

Music Builds Cathedrals

Being a band director’s wife, there is no shortage of music in my life–thank goodness!

Last weekend in a span of less than 24 hours, I had two very different back-to-back musical experiences. On Saturday, we were given primo floor-level tickets to Symphony Center in Chicago, arguably one of the best and most beautiful performance spaces. We heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform music by Dmitri Shostakovich: loud, brash, passionate, and stirring. The way the brass played with such power that the sound pummeled the walls behind us then dissipated in swirls around our ears, had my trumpeter husband just as enthused as you might imagine someone cheering on their favorite team in the last moments of a neck-and-neck championship game.

Players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra warm up before performing Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony

Sunday, however, there were no tuxedos or stages or conductor podiums or glasses of wine poured at intermission; Sunday we went to an assisted living facility just a mile or so from home. Like many times before, Mr. Band Director invited his students to volunteer to come on a sunny Sunday to play a piece of music or two for the residents.

If anyone ever sighs, “Kids these days!” Mr. Band Director and I will argue that the kids we know, the band kids, have hearts of gold and will take our world into the future in excellent fashion, thank you very much. Carrying their instruments and music stands, a small army of students followed my husband to the second floor, where folks were already gathered, canes and walkers cast aside, brakes secured on wheelchairs. The room is used for programs, concerts, and parties, and the stained glass window nestled in the crux of the vaulted ceiling gives the insinuation of a chapel.

Teaching band at the local high school means my husband stands before large groups of kids for concert band, jazz band, pep band, even marching band. But the small groups that form–perhaps a couple flutists, or a group of woodwinds, maybe a brass quartet–is the stuff that produces some of the largest educational leaps in his students. Since Mr. Band Director grew up taking his music to nursing homes–unlikely cathedrals–he knows this is something worth doing.

The music begins. Smiles spread across faces. Eyes sparkle. Toes tap.

A group of students play an instrumental arrangement of “Havana,” by Camila Cabello. It’s unlikely any of the residents recognized the Top 40 hit, but no matter; the students sound good, and the tune has a catchy groove. More toes tap.

At the sound of an old favorite hymn–“Morning Has Broken”–a collective sigh ripples through the crowd.

Ahhhh, I remember this one!

Before long, the imaginary wall between audience and performer breaks down.

What kind of saxophone is that? a woman asks.

I used to play clarinet, says another woman to the students. My sister played flute.

A man in back doesn’t say a word. But there are tears in his eyes.

And who’s to say which is better, the concert hall or the retirement home? There are arguments for each. Symphony Center takes my breath away at the domed ceiling, bright lights, and the sheer lifelong, grueling commitment of all the musicians to study and hone their craft in order to join and remain in one of the finest Symphony Orchestras.

And yet.

The students didn’t come that Sunday for a grade or for a paycheck. They volunteered–said yes–to sharing their music. Some didn’t know what to expect, but they came anyway. Some had only one song prepared, but the one song came out sweet and strong and clear.

I think these young musicians already know that music can exist among tuxedos, stages, and box seats, but it doesn’t need to. This beautiful connective force called music belongs in unexpected places, among the hearing aids and orthopedic shoes, on a quiet street, in a homeless shelter. You can bring the music to the cathedral, or you can build the cathedral with the music.

Mr. Band Director knew it all along. Off to the side, he’s giddy with excitement, cheering on his team.