Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Music Class

For some strange reason, I’ve been thinking about the music classes we had in grade school. Do schools even have music classes anymore? Music teachers? I imagine private schools do, but I’m not really sure if such a thing is still a priority with public schools. They must, if they want to have marching bands in their high schools. I don’t picture many kids learning the piccolo or tuba of their own free volition.

Another of those rare things I’ll bust my parents on is that they should have made us all learn an instrument. Jesus, I was practically begging for a piano or keyboard of some sort when I was a kid. We had a play-by-number organ in my dad’s room that I learned. After I mastered the play-by-number book, I would take the sheet music from my sister’s flute charts (she played that in the marching band) and transpose the notes to numbers. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” is burned in my mind as a result. Unfortunately, I think the coolest song they did was “Love Is Alive” by Gary Wright, which sounded fucking insane on a play-by-number organ. If I would have had one of those “samba beat” functions, I could have pulled it off.

That’s about as far as I got. Older brother M bought a shitty used acoustic guitar somewhere, and we all tried and failed at learning it, not even sure how to tune the damn thing. All we had was some instructional manual featuring a cowboy on the front – I’m sure those familiar with rudimentary guitar probably remember the book and/or title, which I’ve forgotten. Without a teacher, it was a waste of time. It seemed like most “musical” kids came from families where their parents or older siblings played instruments, too, and the kids would just pick it up as they went along.

The music classes we took as part of the curriculum in grade school were something else entirely. I recall them lasting up through the 8th grade and being an excuse for most kids to laze around. Music teachers tended to be a pretty weird lot. The weirdest was Mr. M in our 5th and 6th grade classes, a very small guy who looked like a skinny eskimo and was very prissy. I remember the time a bunch of bigger kids saw him on the sidewalk in front of the school wearing a gigantic parka, and the kids surrounded him, poking fun at his choice in outerwear. All he did was stomp his foot and say, “Are you done with this infantile tom foolery? This type of cavalier behavior is unacceptable.”

The kids didn’t get into trouble. Your average male teacher would have beat the shit out of them, which wasn’t a capital crime back then and probably changed the course of a few rowdy kids who really needed that sort of ass-kicking.

By the same token, the 7th and 8th grade music teacher, Bruce M, who had Bruce Dern’s psychotic demeanor, yet was about 5’ 2”, never had any sort of respect issues with kids. I once saw him make Rick G, the toughest kid in our grade, openly weep after getting him in a headlock. Rick was probably about four inches taller and 50 lbs. heavier than him at the time. Mr. M was a bad ass who eventually was asked to retire early because he was still throttling misbehaving kids. (From what I see of kids, he was probably right 99% of the time. But with how litigious society has become, and the “enlightened” new rule that teachers can’t lay a finger on kids, it was probably for the best that he left early.) Bruce M was a pretty good guy if he liked you, and he liked most kids. He was in a band in the 60s that nearly broke the Top 40, but never quite made it. Thus, he gigged around with his band in the area, making good money in the process, and he could make all the girls cry by playing “Nadia’s Theme” on the piano. We got along like gangbusters.

Music class started out being fun, because when you’re seven years old, it’s a kick to sing out loud with a group of other kids. We’d have a ball singing “Senor Delgato,” “Where Have You Gone, Billy Boy” and “My Hat It Has Three Corners.” People not raised in the 70s may listen to that Langley Music Project CD and think all kids in the 70s were singing “Desperado” and “Space Oddity” in their music classes. Guess again. Those kids in that Canadian school had a hippy music teacher who has pushing the envelope. Contemporary music was looked at as being barbaric and inferior. I also couldn’t see us grooving to “Satisfaction” and “Stairway to Heaven” – hard group sing-a-longs and strange lyrics for kids to be singing. I once recall we had a mandatory talent contest in the second grade, which amounted to nearly every kid doing an acapella version of “Joy to the World.” I’m picturing myself in my skintight plaid red bellbottoms, doing my Brady Bunch dance moves and fearfully warbling “Jeremiah was a bullfrog/Was a good friend of mine” in front of 20 other equally scared shitless kids waiting their turn to be publicly humiliated.

The only times I can recall having fun in music class were when we’d break out the percussion instruments and, with the teacher’s encouragement, get some sort of tribal rhythm thing going, sometimes to the tune of “Simon Says” by the 1910 Fruitgum Company, although that was our “play time” song where we’d rock out before taking naps on wrestling mats set up in the coat room. (Why can’t work be like this?) There’d be 20 kids banging away on tambourines, jawbones, bongos, cymbals, woodblocks, maracas, snare drums, and sometimes each other for the more forward youths. The teacher would have to flash the lights off and on and raise her voice to let us know we were going too apeshit.

Later, with Bruce M, he somehow got the school to buy him a Moog Synthesizer. This was about 1978, and synthesizers were still a fairly new instrument on the music scene. He had a few classes where he tried to teach us how to use it that ended with everyone making the synthesizer blast out a farting sound, thus reducing all of us to tears of laughter. We loved playing with that thing, and I understand there were a few talented older kids in Mr M's homeroom who actually knew how to play thing and were doing Moog versions of “Nights in White Satin” and “Iron Man.” He should have had a class focused solely on playing that synthesizer, but that would have been a pretty radical departure for a rural high school in the 70s.

There were some kids who took a real shine to music class and singing in public. My old friend Rod W in particular. We called him “Hot Rod” because he was a bit nerdy – the kind of guy who sported a peach-fuzz mustache at 15 and had this odd weezing laugh. He used to beat me with a tree branch during recess at the grade school next to my house, then would whine like a lost dog when I avoided him for weeks afterwards. A strange kid who eventually got around that sort of stuff.

Hot Rod could sing like a bird. If we wanted to piss him off, we’d call him Songbird, the insinuation that this made him somehow more effeminate. It didn't help that Hot Rod wasn't too coordinated and didn't like sports. In music class from the first grade onward, while other kids, including me, would cower in front of the class and warble something like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” when we had to sing for the music teacher, Rod would be leaning over the teacher’s desk, shot glass of gin in hand, wearing a leopard-skin cravat, and crooning away like Dean Martin, sometimes shouting “come on, everybody sing” before the chorus. He really loved singing in public and knew how to project a presence while he sang.

Guys like Hot Rod ended up in the glee club … dressed in blazers and striped clip-on ties, singing shit like “Sunrise/Sunset” and “What I Did for Love” … sometimes in period costume … dressed like peasants and Hawaiian natives … zoot-suited street hoods in a back alley. You’d get the more industrious/smarter athletes doing this stuff, too, although they weren’t anywhere near as talented as guys like Rod who lived for this. Glee Club was the gayest shit going around in high school, yet you had a few guys in it who could most likely kick your ass. I can still recall quarterback Dave M, in a monk’s robe along with all the other Glee Club guys, squatting onstage and singing that “Always Thought That I’d Be an Apostle” song from Jesus Christ Superstar. Dave looked a little too into it, like he was having a religious conversion.

But most glee-club stuff had that strange barbershop quartet/middle-aged people singing 'round the piano in the parlor vibe to it. They should have just given the guys Rob Roys and let them unloosen their clip-ons, so that they could really tear into “Blue Velvet” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” I actually like that sort of 1940s-60s pop stuff now, but hated it with a passion back then. Still, I’m thinking now, what were they supposed to do? The kids doing rock songs would have freaked out the parents and would have been even more gay presented in that sort of stilted/sterilized environment. Still, it would have been nice to see the choir take a stab at “Bohemian Rhapsody” instead of “Twelve Days of Christmas.”

A strange thing that I developed such a strong passion for music in my adult life, when I took so few of those small avenues open to kids to develop an appreciation. I’m not sure if things would have been any different if music departments geared their lessons towards music kids actually listen to. Or throw more money into music programs.

There’s a big deal made in urban areas about declining music programs, and how this has tied in with the birth of hiphop – yo, because the kids are creative and doing their own thang. Which is utter bullshit. Are you picturing a teenage 50 Cent playing a trombone in the marching band? Snoop Dog in a blazer and clip-on clicking his fingers while crooning, “Good Morning, Starshine”? Jay Z. manhandling a contra-bassoon? These guys were dealing crack at that age. They were probably beating up kids in the marching band and stealing their instruments. I suspect it’s much cheaper to buy a starter guitar at Walmart than it is to buy a beatbox and a PA system. And if a kid doesn’t have the inclination and discipline to learn either, doesn’t matter how much money his school district does or doesn’t have.

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