For the past several years, I've been a part of something that makes me extremely proud: the Menomonee Falls School District's Summer Band Program.
For six weeks, I teach an introductory course in percussion to selected sixth graders who are about to participate in their first year of school band, at North Junior High.
I'm proud of this because I've been entrusted with the responsibility these past many years to mold selected students, most of whom have never picked up a drum stick or mallet before, into percussionists ready to participate in band class. This is a responsibility I do not take lightly.
Imagine you're a band teacher in front of 40 kids on the first day of school. You raise the baton and before you hear the first hint of an instrument, you're hit with, "How do I hold the drum sticks?" "How do I get a sound out of the flute?" "What do all of these keys do on a clarinet?" "Man, this tuba is bigger than me. How do I even hold it?" Just a bit chaotic! My small corner of the percussion world is just a tiny part of what's going on in the band as a whole.
This is why I am so passionate about my role in the Fall's Summer Band Program. In order to help get the band's school year off to a successful start, I need to have my small part of the team ready to go. But it's not my usual, familiar role of teaching percussion one-on-one. I need to teach these kids about teamwork within the entire band as well. Therefore, I need to adjust my teaching style to be to the point, yet fun. I have a lot of ground to cover in six weeks. I really enjoy this challenge!
While I teach all of the basic skills to each new percussionist (how to hold drum sticks and mallets, basic rhythm and melody notation, dynamics, counting aloud, tapping one's foot to have a sense of pulse in a song, etc.), I also continuously impress upon the musicians how to visualize themselves playing in band class behind many other band students who are playing many different instruments. I always get wide-eyed expressions after mentioning this "picture," but then that expression fades, and a smile takes its place.
I also explain to my students the conversation that takes place within a musical selection. Since any type of discussion requires a clear voice and proper listening skills, percussionists -- who are asked to perform using the most powerful sound-making devices known to mankind (only slightly exaggerated) -- ought not crush a beautiful flute or french horn solo beneath this din.
We must actually follow the dynamic markings within the music that means to play quietly (p = piano/soft). Playing "piano" will enable flutists to play their part, without a drummer "shouting" over it. It is the flutist's turn to "talk" and be heard prominently. Then, a concert audience can make better sense of the music they're listening to, and enjoy all of the instruments that are playing. "After all, my percussionist friend, you will be playing in your first school band concert soon enough. You'll get it." The student usually responds to this statement with an even larger smile.
Did you know that the Menomonee Falls School Band Program is a nationally recognized, award-winning program? The high school band department comprises four bands: freshman, concert, symphonic, and wind symphony, plus three jazz bands. John Woger and Michael Zens direct the high school's bands. The middle school band program comprises three bands according to grade level (6th, 7th, and 8th), jazz bands in grades 7 and 8, and 8th-grade woodwind ensemble. These bands are directed by Sarah Holst, Steve Johnson and Lonna Schickert.
The Menomonee Falls School District band directors, top to bottom, do a wonderful job helping young musicians learn and grow musically. All of them take pride in how they do their jobs, and the quality of musicianship their students attain. I've had a professional relationship with all of these teachers for many years, and have seen first hand the care with which they each do their jobs. They are there for the kids.
I feel privileged to be a small part of this amazing team.