Monday, September 7, 2009

Memory Monday: Band

Before writing this article I was wondering how I could write about the huge role band played in my high school life. Luckily, I was seized by a file organizing frenzy this weekend and came across a tribute and compilation of band memories I had written as my contribution to a presentation to be made to our band teacher, Miss S., at a Seymour High School Band reunion a few years ago. For many high school students, their high school identity was in large part defined by their participation in a particular high school activity group: athletics, performing arts, or academic competition. And very often, the loyalty and esprit de corps shared by the members of these groups can be traced to the strong presence of the teacher/advisor/mentor figure of these groups.

So it was with Miss S. She was a force of nature, and she guided the band to a state championship among the strong competition of several hundred other schools. Though technically “retired,” she is still active and going strong and was recently inducted into the Texas Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame. Below are some excerpts from the tribute and recollection I wrote (with comments added later in brackets):

“I played the oboe and remember sitting in the front row between the flutes and clarinets. I was in the band my junior and senior years. I had never played an instrument before but had always wanted to, so I began lessons with the director of the Wichita Falls Symphony Orchestra. I do remember:

• Spending tons of time making new reeds and trying to keep the old ones in shape.
• Embouchure (had to look the spelling of that one up).
• Trying to coax a decent sound out of the school oboe (and usually failing). [Our band was filled with an amazing number of talented musicians for a small-town high school band; I was not one of them. I had studied violin for a few months, but it didn’t help much. Nor did a previous severe ear infection, which impaired my hearing in one ear, especially when I had to blow hard on the cheap high-school oboe.]
• Trying to keep warm when we played at late fall football games, trying to keep cool when we marched in the blazing sun, trying to look cool when we had to wear … those uniforms. [Think of the typical block-cut band coat and pants, heavy wool, maroon.]
• Pride in our stride.
• Welcome to Flying Bandstands....
• Instruments … UP!!!
• Band study hall. [I remember friends copying the music for our school song to be used by the high school band playing in the Peter Bogdanovich movie “The Last Picture Show,” the location shooting for which was being done in a couple of nearby towns; Archer City itself is not far from Seymour and Seymour is mentioned once or twice in Larry McMurtry’s book.]

The pieces I remember best: “Them Basses” (repetitive, thus easy to remember) and Russian Easter Overture (my favorite among the pieces we played during my two years in band). When I mentioned to my husband that I would be writing about band memories, he told me I should just put on my coat and walk briskly around the block several times (it’s about 90 degrees here in Virginia). That’s more or less what I remember: heat. Especially the time I passed out from the heat (see “Most Embarrassing Experience”). And the boards. And diagonals. And trying to achieve a 180-degree field of view without turning my head. [Explanation for “the boards”: a hellish contraption consisting of eight or ten boards, about 8” high when stood on a side instead of lying flat, nailed to two long boards at about one foot intervals to keep them upright. We had to march back and forth over them while playing our music for a God-awful number of repetitions; this was to give us the proper marching interval and to make us lift our knees and feet high when we marched. Practice started about three weeks before school did, early in the August stretch of 100+-degree days.]

As for concert season: the excitement of a new piece of music, getting to know the music, getting bored with the music, and finally rediscovering the music as the band finally got it all together on a piece – usually just in time for concert competition. The contests are mostly a blur. I mainly remember the look on Miss S’s face before a competition – the look that said she expected nothing less than our very best.

Most embarrassing experience: see above. There were far too many funny moments to recount them here, though this brings to mind some of my favorite memories of Miss S., which have mainly to do with her reactions when we played various practical jokes on her.

There have been at least two important areas where Miss S. influenced my life. The first would be fostering a love of music. More than that, she helped to transform what was a passive appreciation for music into an active one, a fascination for the structure of music as well as for all the elements that go into a performance. And I am always a sucker for any TV entertainment involving marching bands or band contests (my family knows to expect dismissive snorts on the low quality of the diagonals).

The other area where Miss S. was a tremendous influence was in the area of self-discipline and the ability to take criticism without being intimidated and to use the criticism as a spur to improvement. This was a lesson that was actually easy to apply in my chosen area of study (and eventually work), foreign languages. My Russian professor at Georgetown was a renowned practitioner of incentivization through intimidation (his Intensive Basic Russian course was known as “Terror Tactics I” and there was a thriving underground literature – apocryphal, I think – of incidents of students fainting/fleeing/dying from fear over minor lapses in his classes), so the thick hide developed from being one of Miss S’s students served me well. And I realized that both of these great teachers cared passionately not only about the music or language, but also about making their students learn to go beyond what they had always believed were their limits and refuse to accept anything but the best effort from themselves.

Another component of the discipline that we learned from Miss S. was the ability, or more precisely, the willingness and patience to repeat the same phrase or passage or marching maneuver over and over – to the point of boredom and despair and beyond – until we got it right, and this is the essential element in learning a foreign language.

What message would I like to give to Miss S. today? – Thank you. From you I learned what high standards are and hot to set and achieve them.”


  1. Gretta. BAND was the favorite class, eh?? MINE TOO! I loved band. When I had 2 teenagers in marching band at the same time I was in my 7th heaven, by the time my teens came along they had devised Marching Band Competitions. I would go no matter what the weather, rain, pouring rain, freezing cold, clap till my hands were red, and screamed till I was hoarse. Ohhh, such great memories! I even have photos of me in the NEW band uniforms we got when I was a senior in high school. I don't remember much else about high school, or junior high for that matter, but, I remember band, and orchestra, pep bands, marching down the halls. WOW, OH, WOW.

    Thanks for this blog!

  2. Omigosh, Carol, another band geek! My older daughter was a chorus kid at her high school, and she always referred to the band kids there as "crazies." I had to bite my tongue to keep from rushing to their defense. Band was definitely my "culture" in high school. There is nothing like another band person to understand what it was like!

  3. Sadly Greta, I was not a band geek. I funked flutaphone in elementary school and just never gave music another try. However, I do love to listen to music ;-)

    I was a swimmer and can identify with your memories of being in an organization in high school and the lasting imprint it made on your life.

  4. My closest contact with the "athlete culture" is through the aforementioned (in the above comment) daughter who was a coxswain on the crew team - I believe swimmers and rowers have a similar discipline and devotion to their sports. She was close to her team members the way I was close to fellow band members.

  5. I never followed through to high school band but took music(piano) along with the flute, a long time ago. This sure brought back those memories and you are so right, music study gives us all a great base for the future and brings with it the wonderful memories. I have 8 grandchildren in one family and they all are in the music/band program. I pray it serves them as well. Great blog!

  6. If you’re in a school band - marching band, concert band, jazz band or even rock band, you have to check out the new Rhett & Link School Band Rap video.