His name was Amandeep. He was starting grade seven and he had just filled out his three choices of musical instrument, in order of preference. His first choice was trumpet. I knew a little about him from his Junior division teachers: he rarely spoke and tried very hard to blend into the background. I remember him as he sat in his chair, trumpet case on his lap, looking quite anxious. I walked over and showed him the mouthpiece, demonstrating how to make a sound through it. He placed it against his lips and made that distinct buzzing noise that a trumpet mouth piece makes. Most kids find it hilarious. Not Amandeep. He was fascinated. He continued to buzz away, oblivious to the squawks, squeaks and laughter of his classmates. He then put the mouthpiece onto the trumpet, blew his first note, and magic happened. Amandeep was hooked.
That first year with Amandeep progressed so quickly, as a few notes became short pieces which grew into a repertoire. I watched him realize not only that he was very good, but that the more he played, the better he became. By the end of the school year, he soloed with his band. For a boy who wanted to be invisible, this was transformational.
In a short time, Amandeep quietly began to mentor those around him. Before long, he was recognized as the go-to person for help and advice on how to play. Amandeep began to take responsibility and ownership for his talent. He saw the big picture of playing in a band. In the same manner as sports, a band is a collective team effort that requires focus, determination and responsibility from all. And like a sports team, music requires leadership. We have a co-op music program at our school where older student musicians act as T.A.s with me, working with younger bands and choirs. Amandeep embraced this opportunity, and I was amazed at the presence he began to have. He began to teach full lessons to the class, working with younger trumpet players as a group and individually. He would often come into the music room at lunch times to practice, and quickly he had an army of trumpet players joining him. I can confidently say that many of our trumpet players today are playing because of Amandeep.
This sense of responsibility and new found confidence spilled over into every aspect of Amandeep’s life. He had sometimes struggled academically in other subjects. But, his music experience gave him permission to try, to realize he was better than he thought, and it taught him the value of hard work. Amandeep's marks climbed in all subjects and he became a prefect, a model for the rest of the school. Looking at him now, it is hard to see that shy little boy who tried to slip unnoticed into my class. He is still quiet, but he exudes a calm confidence and has garnered unbelievable respect from his peers and teachers. Amandeep’s example shows the power of music to transform and enrich a young life. Amandeep found his voice. He found something that empowered him, allowed him to shine, and made him feel like an important part of something bigger than himself.
Amandeep is in my grade twelve music class now, and he is just a few weeks away from graduation. I know that I will miss him, but so will our entire music program. He is heading off to university next fall, having been accepted into a prestigious business school. Although he will try to maintain his current mastery of the trumpet, it is likely that his studies and all the diversions of post-secondary life get in the way. I know Amandeep dreams of someday starting his own business, and I doubt that will afford him either the time or opportunity to practice the trumpet. These realizations often come with the bitter-sweet moment of having to say good-bye. Like for so many previous students, the end of high school seems to presage a diminishing of the importance of music in Amandeep’s life. In the long run, will the trumpet simply fade into a warm high school memory? Will he have spent countless hours of repetition to develop a skill set that has little relevance to his future? On the contrary, what I know and, more importantly, what Amandeep knows is that music has and will continue to shape his future. Wherever his life takes him, he will face that future with the skills and confidence that he has earned through his dedication to music over the past six years. Music is a part of him: it is a legacy that will enrich all that he does and all that he will become.
Ali walked into my Summer Band Camp the year before she began Grade 4. She was carrying an alto saxophone case. Actually, I should say she was dragging the case, as it was almost bigger than her! Here was a very feisty little girl with an incredibly competitive spark, a willingness to take on the world and show that she could be the best. I remember she seemed a little nervous, but there was a look of sheer determination on her face. One of my camp volunteers was able to take Ali and show her the ropes on how to play the sax while I worked with other students. She walked in the next day with a big grin and played five notes!
Already an accomplished athlete, I was not sure how much Ali would want to give to music. I was to be very pleasantly surprised. Like Amandeep, she rose quickly through the ranks of school and jazz bands. An oddity at times, since she was so tiny amongst a sea of older kids, it was clear that she was there for business. What was so delightful to discover, however, was where she put all of her energy. So many driven individuals, even as children, seem to need the spotlight: they need to be recognised as the best. (It is no coincidence that the music industry has given us the word “diva”.) Ali developed an unstoppable need to round up the troops, educate them, and build team spirit. Before long she was assistant sectional leader and eventually sectional leader. Her involvement in music gave her an opportunity, not only to develop an incredible talent in music (she taught herself to play the clarinet and flute) but to develop outstanding leadership skills.
I watched as Ali took her saxophone section and the whole band to new levels. She was able to use her powerful energy to guide and inspire. Ali made music fun for the others, yet pushed them to go above and beyond, and to play with heart. She also was able to benefit from mentoring and participating in Music Co-op. Like Amandeep, Ali found her voice, and it was unselfish, encouraging and enthusiastic. I believe Ali's leadership skills and her drive were always there. Music gave her a platform to use that voice, to develop her passion and skills, to discover herself.
Ali is also graduating this year, and she is heading into a kinesiology program and varsity soccer. She will try to fit music into her incredibly busy schedule. And, I know that whatever she does, she will lift the performances of those around her. Music has helped channel the energy of this remarkable young woman, and shaped her into the kind of leader we all seek to follow.
Caleb is the third member of this year’s graduating class whose story I wish to share. He came into his first music class very quietly, and like Amandeep, tried to blend into the background. He had taken about a year of piano classes when he was younger and hated them. He quit music. Clearly, this was not going to be an easy sell. Caleb’s academic work was exceptional, however he found it difficult to string a few sentences together. Expressing himself was extremely difficult as his mind seemed to surge with so much thought and emotion. I could sense an underlying frustration and a marked impatience about him, and these are not traits that lead to great success in music.
Caleb first picked up a trumpet, and as he tried to make the first few sounds with the mouthpiece, I could see his heart sink. He could not make a sound. He tried again and again and still nothing. His defences went up immediately, and he began to joke around with his friends. A second failed attempt with music had clearly happened, and Caleb was already writing off the whole experience. I walked over and quickly handed him a mouthpiece for the euphonium (which resembles a baby tuba). With a sarcastic look, he took the mouthpiece and buzzed. A sound came out. It was clear, it was pure. He froze, then did it again and again. He quickly inserted the mouthpiece into the euphonium and blew, and lo and behold a solid single note came out. Caleb was fascinated. Over the next few days he came into the music room and played more and more. I would walk into the class, and hear that he was already figuring out pieces of music.
Once Caleb's ear for music was discovered, he explored all the possibilities that his new instrument had. I would sometimes be leaving school after work, and see Caleb walking home playing his euphonium. He had found a passion and, to my joy, it led to him rediscovering the piano. The result was a boy whose talent in music was astonishing. With limited piano training he began to play and play. His playing turned into improvisations and then into full scale compositions written for piano. His euphonium playing improved exponentially. By Grade 8, he soloed with the school's high school Senior Band. Caleb had a gift that went beyond words. His performances and his compositions were astounding and moving. Caleb never really grew to speak very well, but his voice and his thoughts and his emotions became music.
Not every child or teenager in my music program rises to exceptional levels of playing. But, what music gives all of them is a voice, one that is distinctly their own. They learn to express themselves, to band together collectively, to convey emotion, to understand responsibility, and to demonstrate leadership. We all know the statistics of students who play music and how they do in schools. They score on average 19% higher in English and 17% higher in mathematics than those who do not take music. I am certain these figures are correct. My music students unequivocally make up the majority of top academic students at our school. They are leaders in council after council, and excellent role models.
The philosophy in my music program is to teach kids to love music, feel good about themselves, and to NEVER underestimate their potential. I have found that one of the best ways for students to learn, is to teach. One of the best ways for kids to mature is to give them responsibility and put them in a position of leadership. Year after year, I have seen students like Amandeep, Ali and Caleb give back to the very program that began their musical education and love for music, and we have all been made richer for that.
By the way, where is Caleb, the boy who thought music was a joke, heading next year? After having been a two time Provincial Honour Band member, a Canadian National Youth Band member, a member of the Toronto Youth Wind Orchestra, and this year a member of the prestigious Hannaford Youth Band, Caleb has been accepted to the University of Toronto to study Music Performance. I feel so proud of Caleb, and also of Amandeep, Ali and all of this year’s graduates. And, does it ever make it hard to say good-bye.