Now in my third year teaching The Bridge at Hugh John Macdonald School, I’m seeing students who were in the band room for countless rehearsals and on stage for various performances move on to high school. Such is the life of a middle school music instructor: in many ways, on many instruments, it’s simply back to square one.
The last period of the day on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday serves as our band class. There are approximately sixty kids signed up for the program this year so a third of the students come in each of those days, creating in essence three separate wind ensembles. What’s important to us at The Bridge is making music—having some instant success—so we focus on the basics: proper technique and good tone on a handful of notes. Then we play “Hot Cross Buns” or “Jingle Bells” by ear. When the instruments aren’t in hand, we learn the importance of rhythm and playing in time together. We talk about basic music theory, laying groundwork for the note-reading we’ll begin in the New Year.
After school, the philosophy is the same although progress is much quicker. For one thing, all students are encouraged to attend all three days, which means that the core group of keeners gets considerably more time on their instruments. Again, we look for instant success. We’re working on “What’d I Say.” Bass players learn the repetitive (but oh-so-funky) bass line, pianists learn a simplified version of what Ray Charles plays on the record, drummers learn a pattern that catches the bass rhythm, and horn players concern themselves with three notes played in syncopation.
We play by ear and our rhythm exercises pay off! Students are listening to each other, fitting their part into the pulse of the song. Quickly, “What’d I Say” starts to sound pretty good.
These kids have talent and enthusiasm, and the 2013-14 edition of the Hugh John Macdonald band is shaping up to be special. And here’s something really cool: band alumni are joining us after school when their schedules permit to help out and pass along the joy of creating music together.
I guess it’s not square one after all.