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Nurturing Passion in Young Musicians

Mike Lawson • Commentary • October 6, 2016

In the September 2016 issue of School Band and Orchestra there appeared an article I wrote entitled “Practice Without Playing.” I actually wrote the article, or at least a first draft of it, a long time ago — half a century ago to be precise — when I was just 15 years old and a student in the tenth grade. At the time I had played the clarinet for just thirteen months but by my sophomore year I just couldn’t get enough of this mellifluous licorice stick and my passion for music was becoming insatiable.

In tenth grade I graduated from my Evette-Schaeffer student model to a better clarinet and that is what really sparked my enthusiasm for the instrument. After my father bought me a Buffet R-13 I stared endlessly at its glistening silver keys and liked to rub its smooth black granadilla wood. I practiced four hours a day, proudly maintained a library of clarinet music, and was always in search of a better mouthpiece. I bought a razor blade and reed-cutter and constantly shaved and trimmed reeds to help give me the tone I wanted. I fingered pieces I was working on in the air, rolled quarters between the fingers of my clenched fist to improve my dexterity, and went to bed at night listening with headphones to clarinet records revolving at 33 1/3 RPMs on my turntable on the floor.

I learned all the key signatures and what flats and sharps they had. I looked up all the music terms that you see above the notes. I learned how to transpose music into the clarinet’s key of B-flat. I walked to rhythms in my head. I delved into clarinet literature for pieces that were not part of my lessons that included all genres of music from classical to jazz.

With my hungry appetite for all things music I collected catalogs of musical instrument manufacturers, acquired every piece of print music I could lay my hands on (I especially liked the pocket-sized full-band parts of pop tunes published by such companies as Hal Leonard, Charles Hansen, MCA, and Boosey and Hawkes, I made sure I got on their mailing lists), and studied conductor scores to see how compositions were arranged.

I used to take the Long Island Railroad into New York City to visit printed music stores. When I was in the behemoth Music Exchange on the fourth floor of the famed Brill Building on Broadway and 49th Street (little did I know at the time that the building housed the offices of many of rock and roll’s greatest songwriters and record producers), I was in utter ecstasy with their endless rows of bins and stacks and cabinets of music of every genre and every instrument.

My early days as a student musician were inauspicious. When I was six I began taking piano lessons but after a few years I quit because I wasn’t progressing to my satisfaction and I didn’t feel inspired by my teachers. I knew I liked music but without playing an instrument my interest was all very passive. Then one day during the summer after eighth grade, I was over my friend Cliff’s house and I heard his younger brother playing the clarinet. For some reason the sound and look of the instrument resonated with me and I decided to learn how to play it. I started taking lessons and joined the band when school began in September. Since I was behind the other students in my grade who had been playing for years already, the band conductor quarantined me (at least it felt that way!) behind the clarinet section on the bass clarinet.

I wasn’t all that musical but I did love music. In Mr. Falling’s seventh-grade music class he introduced us to classic American folk tunes and famous Broadway show songs which intrigued me and sparked my interest in history. In my eighth grade music class with Mr. Zogaib, he played Tin Pan Alley songs that we sung as a class to his piano accompaniment. I loved these catchy ditties which always seemed to stick in my head but he once stopped the class because someone was singing out of tune. One by one he had us sing until he found the culprit. I felt like the executioner was coming because I knew that I was the one who was guilty of defiling the class chorus. Not to worry, he said. He never had a student he couldn’t teach to sing in tune. It turned out I was the first and seeing him growing frustrated in trying to help me in the future I mouthed the words when the class sang but made sure no sounds came out.

That experience certainly did not deter me from loving music. Okay, I couldn’t carry a tune, but I could certainly bang one out on the instrument of my liking which became the clarinet. So after my summer-of-eighth-grade introduction to the instrument I continued and I—our high band—was fortunate to have a conductor, Mr. Dwyer, who was like a musical mother hen. He nurtured our passion for music to such heights that he was much beloved and legendary among the school band musicians, past and present.

Band rehearsals were things of joy. I remember when we first played the Rodgers and Hart tune “Isn’t it Romantic?” I felt exhilarated by playing such a charming and sophisticated Tin Pan Alley song in a concert band. It was unlike anything I experienced in our band in junior high school, which housed the ninth graders, and it made me feel grown up and yearning to explore more types of music.

For one week each summer of high school the student musicians went away to marching band camp and that was always a blast! We played at New York Jets football games and competed with other Long Island marching bands at the annual fall marching band festival held at Hofstra University in Hempstead. Mr. Dwyer demanded the best from each of us and of course we all wanted to give him our best. We could be rowdy sometimes and he handled that in a good-natured way. He had a gentle way about him and when he smiled at you, you felt like a million bucks. He inspired us to do my best; at least, I know I always tried my best. I played first first clarinet in our high school concert band and made the all-county band also.

The passion for music for many of us in the high school band extended outside of school. Some of us formed Dixieland bands or swing bands. Others played in rock bands with horn sections. There was camaraderie forged by our common love of music and we formed close friendships outside of school.

I think it’s true that some students will gravitate more naturally to music than others, but I also think that like fragrant flowers, tasty food or amusement park rides music is something most of us naturally like. The infectiousness of a catchy melody or a rousing rhythm or the beauty of harmony are universal elements that take us all in. Creating these blending sounds in tandem with fellow musicians, a wonderful calling of human synchronicity, captures people’s attention and imagination and is exciting and intoxicating.

But for many students, a budding interest in music needs to be properly nurtured. It’s one thing to get started on an instrument, but then that interest needs to be stoked and nourished to develop into a full-blown passion. While some students may naturally be more excited about music than others, it’s important for all students to be cultivated with the right environment, encouragement and opportunities.

I think any student who takes up an instrument has at least a curiosity in music and with the proper fostering can come to become very passionate about music. And so all this brings me to some rules I have formulated over the years about how music educators can nurture passion in young musicians:

• Be passionate about music yourself. As an educator you’re a role model for your students. They look to you for inspiration. Enthusiasm is contagious so if you are excited about music they will be, too.

• Always be supportive and encouraging. Your inspiration can go a long way toward making your students better musicians, and in turn, they will admire and respect you more, and give you better performances. Galvanize your students with encouragement and support.

• Get students engaged. When students come to class and then leave, they’re not as connected as when they are involved in related activities of the organization. From planning special events to fund- raising, find ways for students to become engaged with your group.

• Select appealing music. What kinds of music do you your students like? Try to find music that pleases the students, whether they’re crowd-pleasers or not.

• Have field trips. Field trips are educational and fun. Student musicians feel special when they have great field trips to look forward to.

• Make it a family affair. Make sure Moms and Dads come to the concerts and find ways to make them supportive of your group. Sponsor activities that can get families involved.

• Find extracurricular music opportunities for students. Are there any activities you know about that might be of interest to your students like jobs in music stores or giving lessons to beginning musicians? Activities such as these may not only have music benefits but can help build character and make students become more responsible.

• Introduce students to ancillary areas like composing or producing. Inspire your students to write a composition for your group or arrange a piece for your group (if the preexisting composition is copyrighted permission from the publisher might be needed), or produce a recordings of their compositions.

• Bring in music guests. It’s always exciting to have a special guest like a conductor or composer, especially one who is famous or whose work the students admire.

• Encourage extracurricular ensembles. There’s not always enough time in the school day for smaller groups that play specialized forms of music. Your students may have interests in music outside of the genres you perform in school and you could help them choose genres and find the right music.

• Encourage students to take pride in their instruments. Musical instruments are cool things! From their design to the sounds they produce, they are fun and wonderful and students should take pride in them. Try to instill the love of musical instruments in your students.

• Encourage your students to learn about the composers and the music they perform. Having an appreciation for who wrote the music you play or knowing any interesting anecdotes about it may make playing the music more interesting. If students listen to professional recordings of the music they play this might also help them perform the selections better.

Passion, I believe, is a sublime quality. It not only makes for a more motivated and disciplined student, but it makes life more fun, and you never know where that passion can lead. In my own case, when as a high school sophomore other students at night were reading Lord of the Flies, The Catcher In the Rye, or Animal Farm, I curled up with clarinet instruction books, solo pieces, and sheet music of pop tunes. And one night it hit me that I was actually learning how to be a better clarinet player without actually playing the clarinet. So I took out a piece of paper and began scribbling down a little essay I called “Practice Without Playing,” the aforementioned piece that was originally written 50 years ago. That passion for music and writing eventually led me to write my first book, The Songwriter’s Handbook, which led to my second book, The Encyclopedia of the Music Business, which Academy Award-winning composer Henry Mancini recommended on the Grammy Awards one year, and to many other books including one that was made into a long-running History Channel series. If it wasn’t for my early passion in music, I certainly wouldn’t have segued into a writing and teaching career, nor would you probably be reading these very words right now.

Be sure as an educator to always maintain the passion that launched your own career in music. Paraphrasing a famous expression, a passion for music is worth a thousand notes.

Passion. Embrace it, show it, nurture it with your students, and the rewards will be yours, too.

Harvey Rachlin is an award-winning author of thirteen books including The Songwriter’s Handbook and The Songwriter’s and Musician’s Guide to Making Great Demos. His Encyclopedia of the Music Business won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music journalism, was named Outstanding Music Reference Book of the Year by the American Library Association, and was recommended by Academy Award-winning composer Henry Mancini on the 1984 internationally- televised Grammy Awards. His books have been praised by such music luminaries as Elton John, Aaron Copland, Richard Rodgers, Henry Mancini, Burt Bacharach, Marvin Hamlisch, Sammy Cahn, Jule Styne, Morton Gould, and Johnny Mathis. He runs the music business program at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York.

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