Everything I Need To Know I Learned In Wind Ensemble

Today was one of those "If you can read this, thank a teacher" kind of days. After blogging about the harmonic convergence of a high school band performance and my trip to Korea, I decided to track down Mr. Santoro (my high school band director); turns out he teaches at a school not far from my home, and we traded a few emails. His reaction to my recap of his "Band prepares you for life" mantra was "I didn't think anyone was listening."

Judging from the number of emails and comments I've received, I think quite a few band nerds were listening to Mr. Santoro and other Harry Dinkle-inspired band directors as well. Here's my list of what I remember from high school band:

  • Music keeps you sane. This one didn't dawn on me until we had our first child, who was the Colic Monster From Another Dimension. The only thing that settled her down was the University of Michigan Marching Band's CD of John Phillip Sousa downfields. I never knew that my 8-to-5 (8 steps to cover 5 yards) marching skills would come in handy for settling babies. I'm certainly still into a variety of music and while my sanity can be questioned, more than a few long road trips, late nights, or difficult design discussions were punctuated with something I first heard in high school.
  • Buy one [jazz] record for every three [rock] records. Your stylistic mileage may vary, and substitute "download" for "record" and it still makes sense and respects the RIAA. My father got me to listen to Sonny Stitt, I got my son to listen to Pat Metheny and Wes Montgomery, so there's something of an aural tradition waiting to be continued here. In its purest form, it's a case of Long Tail econonmics inspired recommendation: listen to something new with a reasonable relative frequency to the stuff on the heads of your playlists.
  • It's close enough for jazz. This meme has been part of my vocabulary for 30 years, even winding up in Managing NFS & NIS (p 395) as a nutshell summary of how to approach server tuning. The converse phrasing is "don't sweat the small stuff" but it also neatly conveys the law of diminishing returns. Don't over-engineer or over-design, just get it close enough so it sounds (and looks) good.
  • Band prepares you for life. In my most personal case, this is indirectly true. Band helped me discover how much I liked jazz; jazz got me into WPRB-FM; WPRB (in its commercial radio days) was where I found out that I liked sales. A systems engineer born out of the saxophone ranks. One of my fellow jazz band members combined a love of bass violins, carpentry and session work into a remarkable bass luthier business; he reproduces classic (now copryright-free) bass designs with modern techniques.

  • Not to be too senitmental, there were plenty of amusing things and completely useless trivia that I remember from band as well. I can still walk through most of the downfields we performed in the three years that I marched. Any time I hear "Hey Jude," "Nobody To Depend On," "Smoke On The Water" or the 20th Century Fox movie theme, I get the urge to step off from a nearby end zone and bleat quarter notes from a soggy sax. Perhaps I'm testing the boundary conditions on "sane" there. I learned that the basic laws of supply and demand apply to band fund raisers, despite our attempts to deny them and sell to someone with a last name different from our own. If there was little demand for holiday fruitcakes, then holiday votive candles, holiday decorative bells, and more fruitcakes were highly unlikely to find new markets. Marching bands often seem adept at fund raisers that raise the bar on non-consumption. And finally, while adding completely unnecessary glissandos to holiday music is funny (especially with a "guest conductor", A/K/A substitute teacher who was told he was getting a shop class), it's also artistically and perhaps morally wrong. Eddie Van Halen on the trem arm is a school of rock Eruption (listen about 1:00 in to the clip on the right); when done during a school band rendition of Silent Night it's grounds for ejection. Or perhaps there's a mash-up waiting to be made, and wind ensemble prepared me more for digital life than I would have guessed.

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