With high school football season rolling back into full swing, I have found myself traveling a bit more frequently down Memory Lane. I didn’t play, although there were a couple of girls on the team, but I did attend every home game in uniform nonetheless — a band uniform.
The first time I picked up an instrument was in sixth grade when I signed up for middle school concert band, borrowed flute in tow. I didn’t stick with the flute, I only played it for one year before I decided it wasn’t my thing and made the switch from woodwinds to brass.
After a brief stint with the French horn, I found my groove and decided I needed to switch from treble to bass clef: it was trombone time.
I always liked trombones. I liked the jazzy music, I liked its beautiful alto “voice” and I liked the idea of a slide rather than learning a zillion different finger positions like the flute required. A trombone only has seven positions — the range is covered by air pressure and lip positions in the mouth piece.
My horn was the childhood instrument of my first band director, man named Bill Swihart who taught at Eber Baker Middle School in Marion, Ohio. I paid $50 for it over the course of the school year by faithfully making $5 a week payments.
The trombone wasn’t anything special, it was an old Conn model C that had a dinged up slide and a faulty spit valve. The case was worn from being submerged in a basement flood and no matter how many times I cleaned it, the blue plush on the inside always smelled slightly of mildew.
I still have it today.
In high school I sat first chair with that old trombone throughout three years of concert season. In marching band, I played the Sousaphone — which most people mistakenly call a tuba.
Yes, I was a band geek through and through. But now looking back, I wish I had stuck with it past high school.
When I moved to New Orleans after I graduated, my trombone came with me and I occasionally played with the street musicians that would meet up in Jackson Square — but that’s as far as it went. I haven’t picked up my horn in probably over a decade. I don’t even know if I remember how to read sheet music anymore, although I’m sure it would all come back with a little practice.
I bring this up because I recently read an article about how more and more middle schools and junior highs are either drastically reducing their funding or phasing out their band programs all together. This is a terrible idea.
Learning to play an instrument is a lot like learning to speak another language — the earlier you start, the easier it is to pick up. If anything, music programs should be expanded.
For example: I took two years of French in high school. Does that mean I’m fluent in French? God no, I barely passed. In two years I learned how to introduce myself, order a cheese omelette and ask where the library is. But, had I started in first grade instead of ninth — I bet the result would have been different.
It’s the same with music.
In many schools across the country, unless they receive private lessons, the first time these kids even pick up an instrument wouldn’t be until their mid-teens and that’s just not good enough. Besides, if they enjoy it and would like to continue playing through college, they’re going to be competing against other kids for spots who have been playing since childhood.
I know schools all face budget cuts and when money is short, the first programs that get the axe tend to be the arts. But I really think that a full education has to include these things as well. Math, science, geography and English have to go hand in hand with music, band, art and orchestra. They’re all important, they all have something unique to offer and they all get the student engaged in education.
Do you need to know how to play a trombone to make it in the world? Well, for the majority of people, I would say no. But that’s a subjective argument. Using that logic I could say that algebra doesn’t need to be taught in school because I’m a writer and I don’t use it in my job.
My point is that you never know what’s going to be important for individual students because you don’t know what’s ahead for them in this life.
It would be a real tragedy if someone who had the talent to become a world class cellist never did because they weren’t handed their first cello until high school.
Kasie Strickland is a staff writer for The Easley Progress and The Pickens Sentinel, sister papers to The Newberry Observer. Views expressed in this column are those of the writer only and do not represent the newspaper’s opinion.