Love, Loss, and the Bb Concert Scale
To be honest, I didn’t know Ben that well. He was in seventh grade and I only assisted with the middle school bands when Jan needed me. It was also my first year of teaching; and, even though it was the spring, his was one of the 500 or so band students’ names I was struggling to learn. On top of that, Ben was in and out of school receiving treatment for his illness. However, I did have a personal connection to Ben’s family; his sister played euphonium in a wind ensemble I directed at the high school. If his friends’ devotion to him is any indication, then it is clear that Ben was a great kid. The night before our spring band concert, he texted his friends to say good night and told them that he would talk to them tomorrow.
Ben passed away during the night.
The next day, the morning of our concert, Jan led the sixth graders through their dress rehearsal. As they ran through their pieces, I stood in the gymnasium that functioned as our auditorium and was unable to stay focused. I kept checking the clock to see when the seventh graders were coming. They had grown up with Ben, had visited with him during his illness, and they would be the ones who would most intimately and immediately feel his loss. As the clock ticked by, I felt even less sure of what to do. Fortunately for me (and the children), I didn’t need to know. They had Jan.
Jan had been their band teacher since fifth grade. She called parents, picked literature, wrote letters home, and organized the concerts. While Phyllisand I both assisted with the younger students, nobody could deny that the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade bands reflected Jan’s organization, energy, and focus. Needless to say, on this sad morning, I was relieved that Jan was the seventh grade band teacher.
Jan told me the news when I arrived at school. Over the last couple of weeks, it had become apparent that Ben could no longer fight off the illness he had been battling for most of his life. While the small community in which I taught had been mentally preparing for this moment, I distinctly remember that very little was said about Ben’s death on that morning. Sure, there were lots of tears, but few words. What can you say?
Shortly after hearing the news, however, I turned my attention to the students—his friends—who would be arriving at school shortly. They had lost a friend, a person whom they had seen, spoken to, and texted with just days (or even hours) earlier. I felt that it was my responsibility to be there for my students. But how? I couldn’t think of an appropriate way to act, and I sure didn’t know what to say. This felt like a really important moment as a teacher—a moment that the kids might remember for the rest of their lives. I wanted to do the right thing. Unfortunately, I just didn’t have the skills – my undergraduate degree definitely hadn’t prepared me to handle this situation. I felt frozen. Feeling like I had little to offer, I tried my best to help set up for the dress rehearsals that would occur throughout the morning.
After the sixth graders packed up and were escorted back to the middle school, the seventh graders started to arrive. Since we were in the gymnasium, and not in the band room, the kids trickled in more slowly than usual. As they arrived, the seventh graders put their instruments together, and found their seats. The combination of excitement and nerves that usually accompanies dress rehearsals was replaced with a sullen quiet—a quiet only broken with the unusually restrained sounds of seventh grade murmurs and the occasional tears. Some kids warmed up for the rehearsal and some sat quietly in their seats, instruments across their laps. I stood near the percussionists to make sure that they had all of the mallets, sticks, and music that they would need for the rehearsal. As I was asking around to make sure they all had their music (a common problem for percussionists in any school), Jan approached the podium.
As she stood at the podium, she waited for all the sound to stop and for everybody’s eyes to be on her. She was always much better at that than I was. I remember thinking at the moment that she was going to have to do what nobody else seemed to be able to do: talk to the kids about the terrible loss they were feeling. I also realized that, if anybody could speak to these children, Jan was the one. As she stood at the podium, I got the sense that the kids were thinking the same thing.
Jan looked out at the seventh graders and said reassuringly, “I know we’re all sad. When you’re really sad, I’ve found that it’s best to let routine take over. Let’s just play a simple Bb concert scale in whole notes. We’ve been doing that for three years now.”
As she put her hand up to give the downbeat, I turned and walked towards the bleachers to listen. I was perplexed, “She would have to say something, wouldn’t she?”
My back was to the ensemble as the first sounds of the familiar Concert Bb scale reached my ears. Almost every band director on the planet is familiar with the sound of a middle school band playing that scale, but I bet few of them have heard anything that sounded like this. While any attempt to describe music surely fails, I can only say that the seventh graders’ tone sounded dark and heartbroken. When they changed notes from Bb to C, you could hear how heavy their bodies felt—each note taking longer to fully speak than it should. As I stood there listening, my eyes began to swell with tears.
I have spent thousands of dollars to see some of the greatest musicians on Earth, but none of those performers were able to communicate any emotion as honestly—or as convincingly—as those seventh graders did that morning. When you play in an ensemble, some experiences are musical, while others are highly personal. Somehow, this scale was both—a moment only possible through the love that existed between a teacher and her students.
Right away, I knew that Jan had succeeded where no one else had. Those kids loved Ben and couldn’t find the words to express their grief. On that morning, a Bb scale had given those students the voice that nobody else seemed to have.
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Nick Jaworski is a graduate student in music education and communication at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois. In addition to teaching introductory music education technology classes at the university, he serves as the Vice-President of Secondary General Music-Elect for the Illinois Music Educators Association. Previous to graduate school, Nick taught band, music appreciation, and rock & roll methods at Winnebago High School, in Winnebago, IL. Ways to get in touch: Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nick currently blogs at teachingmusic.tumblr.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JaworskiMusic. And, yes… the talented Barbara Grant Jaworski is his Mommy.
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