Friday, December 9, 2011

A "Why I love teaching middle school" Moment: Recording Emotional Melt Downs

(photo @

Last year, I began having my students record their playing tests rather than doing them in class. This not only helped me gain a good deal of instructional time, but it also allowed me a chance to give a more thorough analysis of a student's performance and keep a record of their progress over the course of the school year. It also had the unexpected side benefit of providing me with some amazing examples of middle school angst and rage.

One of my new all time favorites was by a 7th grade saxophone player named Keon. Keon was a good kid that had always been a pretty good player, but in recent months had really begun to show a large amount of progress. One of the assignments that he had taken on in full was his audition music for honor band tryouts. He had gone from struggling with the piece to being able to play it at nearly full tempo with only a few minor mistakes.

Emboldened by his new found proficiency and confidence, Keon decided to stay after school one Friday and record his entire solo. There was just one problem; his last remaining reed had a chip on it large enough to drive a small car through.

Not quite that bad, but close.

Still, Keon insisted that he could overcome this major obstacle and record his entire solo. He went into the recording room and began his first take...and then his second...and then his third. From outside the room, myself and a few other students that were waiting to be picked up by their parents could hear that Keon was struggling. The constant squeaks and groans that sounded like a goose being strangled were no where near his usual level of musicianship.

At this point, one of his fellow section members walked up to the door and tried to convince Keon that it would be impossible to make a good recording with such a badly damaged reed. Keon looked up, glared menacingly, and proceeded to shoot lasers from his eyes that instantly decapitated his former friend. He then continued attempting to record his solo.

...after holding this pose for 30 uninterrupted seconds

After take number 6, I decided I should go in and tell Keon to stop beating himself up, get a new reed over the weekend, and take the test again on Monday. Before I could get to him, however, Keon began take number 7. I am glad I did not make it in time, because this recording caught one of the purest expressions of raw frustration and anger that I have ever heard in my life.

I dashed into the practice room and quickly made 3 demands:

1.  "Stop beating yourself up. I know that you sound much better than how you sound right now."
2.  "Get a new box of reeds. That one looks like you bit it off of a tree."
3.  "DO NOT delete that last take. Save it to the hard drive."

Keon laughed, shook his head, and packed up his instrument so that he could go home and enjoy the weekend.  

People ask me sometimes why I enjoy teaching middle school students.  They don't seem to realize that I too am aware of the students' mental instability and lack of control over their emotions. But I'm also aware that if you can get a kid at this age to care about music, the type of passion that they usually reserve for awful fashion, television, and Justin Beiber/Twilight can be put into a skill they will enjoy and carry with them and cherish for the rest of their lives.

Along with the high blood pressure.

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