I had the honor of being invited to judge the Alberta International Music Festival this past week in Calgary. We were told that we would judge the Jr. High Band Division, which included 60 bands over 3 1/2 days. The judges would rotate and present a clinic session to a band following their performance.
As we started day one, the first few bands were...how should I put this gently...struggling. They were having major performance issues. The other two judges and I had a quick conference and expressed our surprise and concern...were all the bands going to be like this? What do you say in a 30 minute clinic when the band was playing out of key, wrong notes, wrong rhythms, uncharacteristic sounds, and poor posture? What positive spin can you put on the fact that they were measures apart for most of the song? It was difficult.
As part of the introduction of each band, the announcer told their years of experience and their rehearsal schedule. We soon discovered that the bands only met together 1-2 days per week, many of them for an hour or less total. Grade levels were mixed, so the band might be 1/3 sixth graders, 1/3 seventh graders, and 1/3 eighth graders. Experience varied from less than a year to two years playing instruments.
The next revelation came during our lunch break, when our host informed us that many of the band directors were not even musicians. Seems their education system hires you as simply a "teacher". You might then be expected to teach any one of a variety of subjects. Some of the directors we saw might teach wood shop one period, computer programming another period, and band the next period. Some of them did not have a background or degree in music.
Finally, we got notes from several bands stating "our school provides no funding for music, so we do not own timpani or mallet percussion". They covered what parts they could, but without instruments, the music was incomplete. Several schools used an electric bass guitar instead of tubas. Tom-toms, hand drums, etc. were plastic buckets and bowls hit with wooden sticks.
I couldn't help but think about how fortunate we are to have what we have. We see our kids every day. We have great facilities. We have budgets for instruments. Our directors have music degrees. We have assistant directors. We have access to private teachers. It's not -19 degrees outside (OK, that one was personal...)
I will point out that the students in these bands were FANTASTIC. Edge of their seats, attentive, willing to try anything you asked of them, smiling, appreciative, and eager to improve. Parents and grandparents came up after every clinic with handshakes, pats on the back, and words of gratitude. One grandad told me "I wish all of the teachers would give these kids the positive inspirations that you just gave them...it will go with them for the rest of their lives." Kids came up and shook hands and said "thanks for helping us...we want to get better". Band directors expressed their thanks for tips and hints on how to improve. The overall attitude was one of eagerness to learn, desire to excel, and gratitude for assistance.
Sometimes, the fact that we have so much and things might look easy on the surface creates a complacency. We simply expect things to be OK. We don't always take the time to say the "thank you" or to express gratitude for opportunities. We might not feel the need to volunteer because we don't see it as a crisis. Surely things will get done...someone else will take care of it. Then one day you look around and things are a shadow of their former selves.
You look back and wonder "When did we lose what we used to have?" or "How did we get here...we were so much more active before..." Take the time to appreciate what we have. Be supportive. Get involved. The benefits are astounding, but they are not automatic, nor are they guaranteed. Volunteer. Say thanks. You never know when your actions will be the catalyst to get others on board! Make sure that we continue to enjoy the type of program that we have been fortunate to have for nearly three decades. As we often say "It isn't like this everywhere", and I saw this for a reality in 60 schools this past week.