To Play or Not To Play

The second week of school, our fourth-grader brought home the paper she’s wanted to see since first grade: the band sign-up sheet.  

“Which one should I play, Mom?  What do you think? I always wanted to play the flute, like you are learning.  But the saxophone is good, like my brother plays, and you play.  And what about the clarinet, like my other brother plays?  Which one, Mom?”

I decided to stay neutral on the decision, and only offered specifics.  I pointed out the weight of the saxophone (so heavy for me when I was in middle school and had to carry it to the end of the long line of buses!).  I noted how dizzy I still can feel while playing the flute.  But her brothers pointed out how much easier it is to play an instrument that takes all your air and makes a sound, instead of using only about half of it.  At the same time, they thought the saxophone was cumbersome for her, too–and quickly noted that they would not be carrying it up and down the driveway for her, and admonished her to choose wisely.

Back and forth she went, considering all the instruments and their pros and cons.  

What never entered her mind was the pros and cons of even joining the band.  That part was a given.  

I imagine that many fourth-grade homes around the district have a similar conversation each fall.  Does their child want to play an instrument?  Or not? Then I thought back to our own family’s decision-making process on this particular topic.  It really was not a question.  It was more of a hope for the first child, at least on my part.  I was in band from elementary on up; I liked it; I wanted my kids to have that same fun.

So while writing this, I wondered why I joined band.  I couldn’t remember, so I called up my mother, and posed the question to her.  “Was it an expectation, Mom?  Or something I wanted to do?  Did you push me into it?  Or did I bring it to you?”  I also wondered about my two sisters.  “Did you require them to choose an instrument, too?”

Perhaps not surprisingly, her recollection mirrors what has happened in the next generation.  She recalls that it was offered, and they asked me if I wanted to do it.  I decided that I’d like to, and then my two sisters just kind of followed along and played instruments as well.  

Now, I sit with various hats on my head when I think of instrumental music/band.  I am the proud mother, who happily watched the first child want to play an instrument... and then just stated that the other two children would, too, when the time came around.  I am the eager listener when the concerts come around, enthralled by the progress made from truly awful honking in animal-like sounds, to melodic, identifiable songs.  And I am the school board member who supports keeping instrumental music in the school day, and staunchly supports our band programs in this incredibly musically gifted town.

This year, we will hear music at the elementary level (that very elementary level, where it is almost painful to listen--if you are not a parent, or perhaps, if we are honest with ourselves here, even difficult to enjoy when you are a parent), the middle school and the high school.  Due to scheduling conflicts, our oldest will only play in band the second half of the year, and this makes me–and him–rather sad.  The middle schooler is already talking about quitting next year, and the elementary beginner is ecstatic–she’s finally going to get to play!

All of the kids have asked me, at some point and with varying degrees of frustration and curiosity, just why I think band is so important.  This is a fair question, truthfully.  

My best explanation comes again from my mother.  She remembers a story about me that I really don’t recall at all–but it encapsulates the entire reason I’ve pushed for my kids to take instrumental and choral music.  My mother remembers my practicing a part, struggling with it and trying to get it right.  I must have been worried about the way I was playing. I stopped, and said to her, “Mom, you might not think this sounds like much, just me, with my one little part here.  But I hear the whole thing in my head.  And it’s really good.”

It’s that experience that compels me to insist that my kids take advantage of the opportunity that instrumental music brings.  It’s that all-important learning experience of being a part of a whole.  It’s knowing that if you don’t pull your weight, you’re letting someone else down.  It’s realizing that every single person in the group–no matter how good (or bad) they are–affect the outcome of what you’re doing.  It’s the unique ability to take something static, written on paper–and turn it into a living, breathing experience, created solely by the efforts of those in the small group.  It’s the appreciation of practicing, practicing, and practicing some more–until what was unintelligble becomes a thing of beauty.  It’s the agony of reading something the first time and being sure that it is beyond your abilities–and then reaching, even surpassing, what you thought you were capable of.  It’s the awareness that you are not alone in a group, that your part combines with someone else’s, to make something better when the two come together.  It’s the desire to quit, to just give up in complete disgust with yourself and conviction that there are better things to do–surpassed by it all, finally, coming together to soar.

I know of no other experience that pulls these fundamental life experiences together the way that  music does.  I wish for my children–and all the children of Brattleboro, really–to have these same experiences.

We continue our discussions here at our household, conversations about finding the balance for all the courses you want to take in high school for something that’s “directly applicable to your career”, with the elective of band... about feeling that you are no good at playing, and how great it is to persevere through.. about how we make decisions and what they mean later on...  

To play or not to play: what does it really mean to each of them?  

Jill Stahl Tyler is a parent to three children involved in the local schools–now at the high school, middle school and elementary school levels.  She firmly believes in all education, and currently sits on the board for the Brattleboro School Endowment, the Brattleboro Town School Board and the Early Education Services policy council.  Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..">This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..