What images come to mind when you think of music lessons? Do you envision something like this?
Or is it more like this, the scene from Mr. Holland’s Opus when Mr. Holland has to hit the kid in the head with a bass drum mallet because he can’t keep the beat steady otherwise?
I have experienced both as a student, let me tell you, but last week when my band-teacher friend, Joan, asked if I’d like to teach some of her younger French horn students, I jumped at the chance and hoped for the more refined idea of music lessons. What I got was somewhere in the middle—delightful but unrefined—and that’s A-okay.
Once a week, I’ll be going to the middle school to be a Community Friend. I think that’s a euphemism for free labor, and I’m hoping the people I know who are trained and licensed to teach music to kids never find out, because what I’m basically doing is scab work.
For three class periods, I take students into a little room adjacent to the bandroom, and I help them learn to play this big horn that seems a puzzle to them. First, I have two seventh-grade kids, a boy and a girl full of heart. On day one, we learned how to hold the horn, how to empty spit from it and how to play a basic scale using proper fingerings. We’re aiming for two octaves. We have a book we’re working in, so we played a page of exercises, then a hymn and then a small Mozart piece (Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, as they know the tune). At the end, the boy stood up and said, “Thanks, this was fun!" That’s the point, kid.
Then I in walked a little boy with just as much heart and SO interesting. He collects clocks and told me about how he got started doing that and how he has so many that he has to store them in two rooms at home. We worked on the same scales, fingerings, and Mozart, but he’s not quite big enough yet to hold the horn properly, and his little fingers really have to stretch to reach all the valves.
Then the eighth-grade kids came in, and we started all over again. They were both new to the instrument, so we didn’t get as far as Twinkle, Twinkle, but hopefully we’ll get there in a week or two. They’re still getting the hang of the main principle—only one finger on a valve at a time, honey. No need to use two fingers on the first valve to play an F. That won’t make it any easier.
I think I’m going to like this new teaching business, and I’m intrigued at how school kids conditioned to look to adults for all their answers will walk up to a stranger and ask questions. I’m standing in the bandroom, so I must know something, right? Like, where is our teacher, and are you the substitute? No. Do you have extra copies of our fundraiser form? No. Do you know my aunt who sings with an orchestra in Canton? No. Here’s my favorite—can I finish eating my apple? What kind of instrument do you play? Drums—what, did you think I’d eat an apple and then go play a trumpet or something? Shut up. No, I didn’t really tell him to shut up, but after a couple of days in that room, I can see how a teacher might want to box some ears now and then.
As for my personal students, everyone walked away saying they look forward to next week, and the rest of the students complained because they wanted a Community Friend, too. Cute, right?