Sunday, September 6, 2015

Little Drummer Boy (Who Plays the Bass)

My son turned 16 today. He didn’t get the keys to a car; that’s beyond our means right now, but he did get a pair of drumsticks and a practice pad so that he can learn to tap out rhythms. He recently joined the “School of Rock” club at his school, and though he currently plays the bass guitar in the group, he really wants to play the drums.

My son at 6 months with his drum
Before I get to my main point, let me back up several years. My son loved beating out rhythms since the days of his Little Tikes drum with connected plastic sticks. When he was about 5 years old, he advanced to a junior drum kit. I bet our apartment neighbors loved that! At 10, my mom gifted him with a more advanced drum set. It was still a learning model, but he had fun operating the bass drum and cymbals along with the drum heads. He began talking about signing up for band the following year, and as parents who met in high school band, we were only too happy to support his enthusiasm and musical ability.

At the next opportunity, we spoke with the middle-school band director. That conversation changed the course of a life.

She told us emphatically that my son would not be allowed to play in the percussion section in band because he had not taken 3 years of piano lessons prior to beginning a rhythm instrument. Wait. What? I’m pretty sure most of the drummers I rocked out to in the 80s hadn’t been required to take 3 years of piano lessons before they started playing. Though I clearly see how this practice would be helpful in playing the xylophone or marimbas, I could also clearly see that my son would not learn toward those instruments. Besides, piano lessons are incredibly expensive. We could not afford them. I kept all of my opinions about elitism to myself and beseeched the band director to let him join if we promised to find a way to get piano lessons on the side. She stood firm with her answer: no.

I checked with some other parents about the veracity of this answer, and as far as anyone knew, this was the norm for this school. Parents don’t always feel empowered to question the system or even know how to begin doing it if the need should arise. Often, parents just do what they’re told, and that’s what we did. In retrospect, I wish I had been a stronger advocate for my child in this case.

Feeling dejected and not wanting to play any other instrument in band, my son struggled to find enthusiasm for any other extra-curricular activities in middle-school. As it turned out, some of the 8th-grade orchestra students from the middle-school visited his elementary school within days of his hearing the verdict. A particularly cool bass player (they’re still friends to this day) caught his attention by playing the bass line to a Green Day song. The next thing I knew, we were learning all about orchestra and figuring out how to buy and transport a bass.

My son has loved playing bass. He’s pretty darn good at it, too. He is excited that he can play the bass guitar as an extension of learning to play the double bass. But he feels like something is missing. He feels like he should be marching with the drum line at his high school.

This breaks my heart.

Here’s why. Can he learn on his own and still play the drums now? Yes (hence the birthday present). But he will never benefit from the years of a qualified band director or school-associated private lesson teachers to learn from. Will he ever experience marching band? No. He will never experience the camaraderie of the rhythm section of the band, and there’s nothing else like it.

Would it have hurt that band director to consider making an exception for a highly motivated, enthusiastic child who had long-term goals in her program? No. It would not have. As it turns out, the other schools in the district don’t all have the same policy. I didn’t know that then. I have asked several of my percussionist students – some of whom have qualified for All-Region and even All-State band – over the years if they took piano lessons before they joined band. About half say “yes.”

I felt moved to write this piece because as an educator, I feel that it’s important that no one in this profession ever forget that these moments of interaction do alter our students’ lives and have far-reaching implications. We must know that each decision we make is not based on some arbitrary rule that is designed more for our convenience, or the state’s, or the district’s, than the student's, and that we make each decision on a one-by-one basis. After all, these are human beings, not mere units in a band. We must know why we give the answers we do, and we must believe in them so strongly that we could look that student (and his or her parents) in the eye years later and still support that decision.

Note from my son: As he read this to offer or decline his approval, he stated that it would be the same as if they had asked him to take 3 years of guitar lessons before joining orchestra. He has a point. And he offered his approval of this message :)

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