Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Stage Elves

This is one of my favorite stories in a school year full of nice stories so far.  It starts back at the beginning.  After a summer of changes, plans made with haste out of necessity, and thus a very hectic start, I met with a group of sixth graders interested in band.  As the dust settled in the first week, we ended up with only ten sixth graders at this school, one of three middle schools in town.  It had been a challenge to recruit, because it wasn't until late in July we really had a solid idea for just what we were recruiting.  By the second week of school, it would be this ten kids.

Two were solid veterans on the trumpet.  They had a year on everyone else.  Otherwise, it was eight beginners.  I decided to take some measures to try and steer this smaller group into some typically difficult instruments to sell, low brass in particular.

"What instruments are you considering?", I asked the eight students not yet committed.

A very enthusiastic young man waxed poetic about his hitherto lifelong dream to play the alto saxophone.  He passionately spoke of an early childhood love for this instrument.  As though he made a case for this, five of the remaining seven also declared a love and devotion to the alto sax, the other two vowed to become percussionists.

"Really, guys?  Nobody is interested in trombone or french horn?"

"OH…I'm playing French horn!", declared my dyed-in-the-wool future alto saxophonist!

…and so he does, and he's good.

So, now my ten sixth graders at this school make up a group of five alto saxes, two percussionist, two trumpet players, and a horn.

My failure to encourage them to seek a wider variety of instruments notwithstanding, this is an extraordinary group of young musicians.  They are enthusiastic, supportive of each other, and motivated to learn.  They prepare themselves from class to class, and they work hard.  They expect and inspire my best teaching.

They meet twice per week.  Friday afternoons during the last period of the day, and Tuesday mornings right after homeroom for the first period of the day.  Neither is ideal, and it takes a pretty mature group to consistently focus during those times.  That's who they are.

Not too long into the year, I stared to notice that when I got to school, our horn player had come into the auditorium and staked out his position, as though a shoemaker's elf had been there.  After a couple of times, I took a picture of it, and told him how cool I thought that was.

 November 12, 2013

The following week, I arrived to find that one of his friends had joined him and set himself up early as well.

 November 19, 2013

"What a cool thing to see!  I wonder what I will see next week?"

 November 26, 2013

"Wow, guys! Dare I imagine there will be four next week?"

 December 3, 2013

"Heck, at this rate, we'll have all of us doing it in a few weeks!"

 December 10, 2013

By the next week, they were all set up and ready to go.  If they don't get to it before I arrive, then they try to sneak in and do it while I am backstage working with one of the seventh graders.  The horn player is the ring leader.  He encourages his friends to join him, and even gets the chairs and stands out for the kids who arrive on the later busses.  They need only pop in with their instruments and put the books on the stands.  It is such a gratification to see this develop, and I can't wait to see their leadership and love for music begin to have an effect on the program as a whole, as they grow into it.

How to maintain this momentum?  That is a daunting yet fun challenge.  I'll have to keep you all posted.

Author's note:  This manuscript was read to the class about a day after it was posted, and for the most part, they were pleased and amused, but most members emphatically insisted that I point out that they think a disproportionately high percentage of the credit had been given to the horn player.  So noted.


  1. Do your sixth graders typicall have success on the French horn without playing another instrument first, or is this kid unusual? My director in elementary and middle school always switched trumpet or baritone players with good ears to the French horn after a year or so if he could persuade them to make the switch. I know it's a tough instrument to master, but perhaps he was depriving them by not seeking out those interested kids with good pitch discernment skills and encouraging them to start on the horn in the first place.

  2. Good question, Alexis. I have success cases in both situations. When a kid starts on horn, and struggles, I am careful to make sure that the kid knows he's got options, but I have had as many beginners succeed on horn as I have converts. Hope all is well with you! I enjoy your blog! Happy Holidays!