About Me

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Lake Mathews (Perris), CA, United States
Born in Illinois, I grew up in Wilmette, a northern suburb of Chicago. I have one sibling, an older brother. I am married, for the 2nd time now, to Butch & got 4 children in the deal. They have gone on to make me grandmother 25 times over & great-grandmother to over 20!. After many years working in industry, I got my bachelors and masters degrees in speech communication, & was a professor in that field for 13 years. I retired in 2001 & returned to school & got my doctorate in folklore. Now I meld my two interests - folklore & genealogy - & add my teaching background, resulting in my current profession: speaker/author/entertainer of genealogically-related topics. I play many folk instruments, but my preference is guitar, which I have been playing since 1963. I write the "Aunty Jeff" column for the Informer, newsletter of the Jefferson County NY Gen. Soc. I work in partnership with Gena Philibert-Ortega & Sara Cochran as Genealogy Journeys® where we focus on educating folks about Social History. More about that: genaandjean.blogspot.com. More on our podcasts: genjourneys.podbean.com. More about my own projects: Circlemending.org.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Of bands, instruments, and kids: keep the music playing

For nearly as many years as I have been alive (at least, once we got a television set in about 1956), I have spent a part of Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. It's as much a part of tradition (for me, that is) as turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Even though I am "under the weather" (a euphemism for "sick as a dog," or, in this case, "sick as a pig"), I still watched most of the parade yesterday morning.

I am not a huge parade lover, per se, but I am a sucker for marching bands. The Macy's parade has, as I see it, 4 primary elements: floats, enormous balloons, performing groups, and Santa (who, once I see him on the screen, tells me I now have official sanctioning to program my stereo to non-stop Christmas music and to haul out the ornaments and lights for official decorating - this year, the former applied, but I am holding off on the latter due to the illness). I enjoy watching the baton twirlers, love the drill teams (oh, yes, indeed), but the bands are amazing. I am mesmerized by a marching band.

My husband was on the Navy drill team at Great Lakes (IL) and he marched in our local parades in the area where I grew up. We tracked our personal histories to discover that he & I marched in a parade together in 1959 - he in the drill team and I in the Brownies. He was awaiting the birth of his first daughter, I was awaiting the chance to "fly up" to become a Girl Scout (after which I deserted the organization, but that's another story). My father, who of course was present for the parade, filmed (8mm, black & white, no sound) the event but only filmed 2 of the groups: the scouts (of course ... and there I was, clumsily trying to carry the flag in proper form) and the Navy drill team! When we saw that on the film a few years back, we were amazed! Was Dad astute enough to realize that was his future son-in-law he was filming? (No, you couldn't recognize him ... the shot was way too distant to differentiate the people, it was just, obviously, the drill team from Great Lakes.) Butch & I like to joke about our first date occurring when I was just 8 years old!

But back to the bands. I taught at Riverside Community College for a time and loved to listen to their Marching Tigers rehearse. They marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade on more than one occasion. And a few years ago, my friend Susan invited us to come to Yucca Valley to hear a concert by the Marine Corps Band from 29 Palms. Oh, I think I cried throughout the entire performance! And my favorite scene from Mr Holland's Opus is where he leads the high school band in the parade and they break into "Louis, Louis." I even like the part in The Music Man where the kids finally get their instruments and put on their first public "performance," as it were. But I also love bagpipe bands and even ukulele bands.

But band musicians are not easily located. I mean, it takes a lot of practice, solo and group, to be a band musician. When kids were in school, when I was growing up, they had the option to be part of "band" - the class where, for credit, they got to play music together for an hour 2 or 3 times a week. I did not opt for that as I knew I had problems with reading music and was terrified that it would be a major embarrassment for me. But I envied the kids in band. You knew who had "band" on a particular day because the kids would come to school with their little black cases, holding trumpets, flutes, saxophones, etc. Some kids had to get rides on band day because they had elected to play tuba. Well, every choice has its price! (I have a dear friend who played tuba in high school, back in the 1940s, and says that his relationship with the band and his band leader were more influential in his early development than his relationship with anyone else at that time. He went on to play the instrument in the Marine Band. He still has that tuba - it has a lot of "dings" in it, but he keeps it polished and treasures it, even though he doesn't play it any more.)

My Dad, though principally and organist & pianist, played flute at Princeton where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Study (1938-1939). It was a great stress-reliever, he told me. Back then the flutes were wooden and were harder to keep in tune as the wood would swell or shrink. But playing in the Princeton Orchestra was a high point of his time there (he talked more about that than the fact that he was doing work with Von Neumann and Einstein!). (FYI, the flute had been purchased from Sears & Roebuck Co. for, as I recall, about $15; I still have that insrument, though it is cracked and dried out and sounds pretty bad.)

I'm getting to my point (finally). What happens to those instruments and that talent when the kids graduate from high school and move on? A few (very few) manage to get music scholarships to colleges. Some (even fewer) go on to be part of community orchestras (if they play a cross-over instrument). My friend Susan, who was an outstanding flute player in high school, continues to maintain her instrument and plays it in church programs and Sunday services. But most of those instruments, if rented, go back to the music store. If they were owned, they end up in closets, attics, sold on eBay, or passed down to a younger sibling or cousin. I was given a trombone once (have no idea where it is today) by one of my grandfather's neighbors who knew I liked music. I got frustrated by it on many levels, but it was one that the neighbor's child no longer played. Many of our grandkids have played instruments in their school bands and/or orchestras: Kirbi and Emily both played violin (one that had been in our family for years, in fact) and Kirbi went on to play viola (we have both of those instruments, waiting for someone to love them again). Louis played trumpet, if I remember correctly. Jeni played oboe. Our son Max tried the flute for a year (his CP and being left-handed made it more of a challenge than an enjoyment, however).

These opportunities to play instruments with groups give kids a number of benefits in life: they learn to work with a group, they gain a new and valued mentor in their band or orchestra leader, and they get a break from the rigors of traditional school work. Playing an instrument can become an escape as well as an emotional outlet. Now that so many schools are taking this option away in their budget cuts - "band" is hardly an academic necessity - kids are needing to find other ways to develop their creative genes and learn the teamwork they get from the music programs; some such developments never happen and some occur in less than socially acceptable ways. I know that playing the flute or oboe or piccolo may not become a child's life goal, but, at least for those years in school, that can provide the stress-relief that we all seek when the demands of life are closing in. And, without the music programs in the schools, where will our future bands and orchestras come from? Most of those musicians I watched in yesterday's parade have been playing their instruments for nearly half their lives (or they wouldn't be good enough to "make it" into such a prestigious event). Without the training for the youth, who will be in those marching bands in 20 years? 15 years? 10 years? or maybe even 5 years in the future? I could not bear a parade without the bands.

Finally, I have friends who are music teachers in their respective school districts. One of those has seen the music program completed dissolved in her district. Thankfully, her educational background is broad enough that she found another teaching position. The other's music classes have been so reduced that her work hours hardly constitute a living wage. While this is a shame for these people whose passion has been to teach music to children, it is also a devastating blow to the children who are now deprived of the lessons learned in music classes. Support music programs in your children's and grandchildren's schools! Let's keep music alive for the generations to come, just as it has been part of the lives of our ancestors before us. Check out SupportMusic.com for more information.


  1. Yes, I like the brass bands when they play a good march. Thanks for your posting on bands.

    I hope you get feeling better soon.

  2. I too, love the bands and the concerts, and the practice, and the noise. The kids do better in school when they play instruments and it gives them something to work toward that has a reward every time they succeed. I love it when they finally sound good!


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