I was in a good mood when I read Jennifer Ragsdale’s invitation for the Middle School faculty to come play instruments with the Middle School Band during a pep rally. Replying to her email, I explained that I was willing to try but had not played in many, many years.
A few days later, she is saying she can get a trumpet for me. Mrs. Ragsdale is so upbeat I find myself smiling in agreement, but on the inside I am questioning my earlier email to her, thinking, “Oh no, what have I agreed to do?”
Fast forward to the week of the pep rally. Mrs. Ragsdale stops by the library to tell me how many faculty members are joining the band: Mr. Kunin, Mrs. Clayton, Mr. Bonaker, Mrs. Robb, Mrs. Willett, Mrs. Allen, Mr. Beckman and Mrs. Hanson. I can hear the excitement in her voice when she says she has an easy song from the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie for us to play.
I’m sure she can see I am having second thoughts because she assures me it doesn’t matter how well I play. Later in the day, excited students approach me in the Middle School library asking if it is true that I am going to play in the band with them. They smile, laugh, and don’t seem to care when I say I haven’t played in more than 30 years and who knows how horrible I will sound? They are excited the teachers will be with them, part of their group. Their excitement makes me smile and forget my doubts.
Sitting at the end of the trumpet section in third period band class, I am hoping not to embarrass myself. The students are focused on Mrs. Ragsdale and begin a more complicated warm-up scale than I ever remember from my middle school days. I know the students sitting close to me can certainly hear my off notes, and notice when I skip playing higher, more difficult ones. All I can think is, this is HARD! It takes a type of processing my brain has long forgotten, never mind that my lip muscles are hopelessly OLD and out of shape. Whoa!?! how long of a rest is that little black rectangle?? What valves are open for that note? Oh my, this section of the music is super-fast and my trumpet sounds like a stuttering and moaning whale. What focus and concentration these kids have…and this is their FUN period, their elective.
I glance over at Mrs. Robb at the other end of the trumpet section. She looks comfortable. Behind the trumpets sits Mr. Beckman with his tuba looking like he is having a wonderful time. I remind myself they play more often than every 30 years. I feel like a student again. I am uncomfortable, awkward and struggling.
Evidently, playing an instrument is NOT like riding a bike. These skills are not coming back to me. I suddenly have a new admiration for our Middle School students. They struggle with new skills and new knowledge all the time. As adults, we have mastered so many things and it isn’t often that we find ourselves struggling with a new skill. Students are working on many different subjects and skills at one time. How do they do it?
I often think I know how Middle School students feel, but today I am feeling the pain of struggle. Maybe I don’t know how students feel. I want to do well. I know how I should be playing these various notes yet I can’t seem to play halfway decently. Is this what it feels like to students every single day?
Randolph encourages teachers to stretch themselves and encourages continuing education. Many teachers use the summers and professional conferences to stay on top of their fields, learn new technology and explore the latest in teaching methods. We are a community of lifelong learners. In addition to keeping abreast of new information, perhaps we should try something completely out of our comfort zones, at least for a day.
I would challenge other teachers, and other adults, to try dancing, playing a strange instrument, making something by hand if you are not a crafter. I would encourage them to try the thing they are least familiar with and the least comfortable trying. A science teacher could be challenged to write a personal narrative while the English teacher could be challenged to balance a chemical equation. Perhaps most of the faculty could be challenged to put on a harness and climb a very tall rock wall.
As an adult, not only had I forgotten the feeling of the struggle to learn a difficult new skill but the feeling of pure joy when playing an instrument in a large band during a boisterous pep rally. I didn’t want to fail. I was almost scared to try, but Mrs. Ragsdale had faith and the students were supportive despite the squawking I made during the rehearsal. They knew I would be fine and that helped me be positive and continue working.
I practiced for about two-and-a-half hours that night. The pep rally was the next day and no matter how poorly I sounded, I was going to play. I got a little better after one hour. When I took a break my aching lips sort of looked good. Actually, I thought this might be a do-it-yourself technique to get the swollen-lipped Hollywood star look. The next morning I was back to being a thin lipped librarian, but after two hours of practice the night before I at least had more confidence, even if my playing had only improved marginally.
The morning of the pep rally, like a good director/leader, Mrs. Ragsdale delivered our Band T-shirts. I put mine on and later overheard students in the library expressing surprise and pleasure that not only were we playing in the band, but we were wearing the T-shirt.
Later that afternoon, the faculty members sat in the bleachers, shoulder-to-shoulder with band students. We happily waved across the gym to the assembled students while Mrs. Ragsdale called out our names and the instruments we would be playing. When you hear students cheer at the announcement of your name you gain a little bit of confidence. Mr. Bonaker received a very loud cheer from the student body, so I imagine he was very confident and excited about playing his trombone. We played loud and proud that afternoon. Despite my amateurish playing, the band sounded pretty wonderful. It was great to be a part of such an exciting whole.
I realized this is what it is like learn within the Randolph community. At some point, each of us is a beginning musician when we come to Randolph. Students at Randolph welcome new people into groups and encourage others when they see them struggle. Despite my nervousness and some horrific attempts at playing high notes on the trumpet, the students were warm, accepting and encouraging. I urge students to keep trying when they struggle with a skill or subject knowing they will eventually master the task even if they currently feel helpless. I often see students helping other students solve problems and review information. Teachers cheer in celebration when a student “gets it” and crosses an academic hump by regularly turning in homework or starts to master pop quizzes or essay tests.
Like the band, our whole community is based on learning, practice, fun, taking risks, encouraging others, and celebrating being part of a larger group.