Yesterday I went to the Memorial Day parade in West Shokan. I go to it almost every year. My father marches with the American Legion and my cousins march with the fire department. I love the parade, and there is something very special about West Shokan. How it is snuggled in the hollow between the mountains. How it seems the wind always gently whips up during formal ceremonies such as funerals, dedications, and parades. How connected you feel to past generations.
On Sunday, I'd read an old West Shokan newspaper obituary that my mother typed up. At the ceremony after the parade, I couldn't help thinking of all the old articles I've read about gatherings in West Shokan.
For the past few years, it has struck me how much the high school band has deteriorated. Not the uniforms, which are truly gorgeous, but talent-wise. It reminds me a bit of the Music Man - minus the enthusiasm. The similarity is in the sense of being beautifully turned out, while having no clue of how to play. In my position, I have a tendency to blame the teacher, to say he's burned out, undisciplined, or uninspired, but some part of it could be that kids aren't really interested, don't care or are spread too thin, that they don't show up at practice and parents enable that behavior.
Yesterday, one kid banged a drum during the march from the post office to the town hall, and then while we stood there, they played the Star Spangled Banner. At least that's what I think it was supposed to be, it could also have been Battle Hymn of the Republic. I'm not really sure. Finally, one kid played Taps. It sounded like they had not practiced at all.
Maybe they just do not know how to play parade music, but are capable at sports games and during concerts, but I doubt it. If they knew how to play anything at all, I think they would play it. I mean, it is hardly worth it to fire up the bus and drag them there for one kid to bang a drum.
It's no secret that my experiences in K-12 were not great, and as a result I have no particularly warm feelings about my high school alma mater, but one thing I can say is that when I was a student there, our band was second to none. They were a sight to behold and made everyone proud. They marched in the Macy's parade on Thanksgiving in NYC. The music teacher who was the band leader was tough yet dedicated, and it came through in the band. The school had both a junior high and a high school band, and the bands took turns going to the parades. One year, your town would get the junior high, the following year, they would get the high school. Besides that, we had an orchestra.
I wasn't in the band, since in elementary school, just when we were poised to leap from the flutofone to a "real" instrument, one day the teacher yelled out, "who's Catholic?" A handful of us raised our hands. We were taken across the street to the church for religious instruction, and so we missed instrumental music. When we got to junior high, those of us who were not in band took general music, which involved reading a primer, listening to snippets of Peter and the Wolf, and having to answer multiple choice questions extemporaneously when the music teacher/band leader barked your last name. It was terrifying.
If I had the opportunity, I had planned to choose the clarinet, since that's what my sister played. I would have rather learned the piano, since I had a toy one that I loved to bang on at home, but it wasn't a choice. I never considered the violin, which is surprising, because today that is the instrument I would most like to know how to play. In fact, a couple of years ago I bought one, I guess it is sort of a "bucket list" for me, even though I think the idea of a "bucket list" is silly.
Besides the beautiful uniforms but corresponding lack of skill, another thing that was noticeable was that the band must be about half as big as it was when I was in school there. The shrinking demographics could not have been more obvious.
I never wanted to be the person who laments about the current generation and then sighs "when I was a kid..." I teach 100 young people per semester and I am optimistic about the future; the majority of my students are great. But I have noted a few times the subtle (and not so subtle) changes over time, and not all of them are positive. So here goes. When I was a kid, the band knew how to play!