School Bands and Orchestras An Appreciation

Mike Lawson • Commentary • March 20, 2017

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School bands and orchestras carry on a great heritage in the American public school system.

Simply stated, they enrich their schools and communities by nurturing young local musical talent. Among the many opportunities they provide are:

• bringing student musicians together to learn and perform as a unified whole • building skills, motivation and discipline

• fostering and encouraging musical talent

• exposing students to different styles of music

• offering settings for students to forge friendships with fellow student musicians

• enabling students to discern a music role model in the band director or orchestra leader

• giving students experience in playing before the public

• helping students mature via the responsibilities inherent in being a band or orchestra member • being a source of pride for their schools and community

• serving as a wonderful cultural resource for their schools and community

School music ensembles are an integral part of formal public education, but they are really something more, something unique and special. They are academic and artsy. They are its own culture. They help shape students into realizing their potential as musicians. They inspirit students to do their best under trying conditions. And from the lowest grades to the highest grades they all have one over­riding lofty goal: for the students to work together under the careful supervision of their conductor to bring to life musical works of art.

School bands and orchestras have long been a source of pride for their schools and communities. Over the years they have carried on a time­-honored tradition of putting on concerts that are open to the school community and the public. These are joyous occasions when the students’ family and friends, as well as others, come to see them perform. Older school music groups may also entertain at football games and other sporting events. They may enter competitions, play at festivals, march in parades, perform at special events. They are their schools’ music ambassadors to the outer world.

Students may study privately but school music ensembles give them an opportunity to come together with their peers under the professional direction of a conductor and experience the exhilaration of being part of something bigger—an actual band or orchestra! To be a cog in a great musical wheel is a great thrill for the student musician and also a vital part of the student’s musical growth. Indeed, playing in a school band or orchestra can be a launching pad for not only becoming a professional musician but a composer, arranger, orchestrator or music teacher.

For a student to be in a school music ensemble requires commitment and dedication. There are numerous rehearsals, private lessons to build skills, and formal concerts at which to perform, not to mention participating in other events outside of the parameter of the normal school day like marching band camp, playing with the marching band at football half­times, playing with a pep band at other sporting events, or performing at festivals. Some students are section leaders or music librarians for their school group. Needless to say, all these responsibilities contribute to building the student’s character and even leadership skills.

The variety of music played by school bands and orchestras enables students not just to play different styles of music but expands their vistas of the vast and exciting repertoire of music. Their minds may become open to worlds of music they may not otherwise have experienced. Stoking the flames of their passion for music at their tender ages may enhance their lifetime appreciation of music.

Students come to school bands and orchestras with different skills and aptitudes and they all take their own individual paths to finding their way musically through rehearsals and working diligently together to form a cohesive performing unit. Surely, different compositions present different challenges to students and it is a testament to the students’ hard work when everything comes together.

But encomia of the highest order must also be heaped upon the conductor who is the tour guide through all the musical adventures of the school band or orchestra, shaping and molding the students from roughness into a collective finely­ tuned instrument. With prodigious talent, musical instincts and perspicacity the conductor leads his or her musical pack over hills and valleys, around curves and over rocky terrains to that golden perch where the students play at the summit of their musical abilities before the public: the concert stage.

And oh, what a grand showcase the school concert is! The doors open and people begin to file in: parents, fellow students, teachers and staff, members of the community. All are looking forward to a delightful time listening to wonderful music performed by the school band or orchestra. The minutes pass by until the program is just about ready to begin.

By now, the members of the audience have slipped into their seats. There is excitement in the air. The students are on stage clutching their instruments awaiting the conductor’s cue. The conductor, standing on a podium, baton in hand, takes a deep breath and raises his or her arm. Upon the signal, the musicians begin to play and the auditorium is filled with rousing passages, florid cadenzas, impassioned solos, flourishing trills, robust staccatos, stirring tremolos, electrifying glissandos, dreamy legatos, thrilling finales and other dexterous executions, all produced by the student musicians who worked hard to put together a program of delectable music for the enjoyment of fans, friends, acquaintances and strangers.

Given the myriad distractions in today’s modern world­­ the computer, Internet, smart phones, video games, sports practices, to name a few—it’s no small miracle to get everyone together for rehearsals over a long stretch of time for the goal of presenting a riveting program of music. And it’s awesome when it happens! Shining beacons of talent and dedication, the conductor and student musicians with their concerts and other illustrious musical presentations today continue the great heritage of school bands and orchestras in America.

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 ASCAP­Deems 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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