Our son is attending Grade Four in a specialized program that includes a compulsory String Instruments class, thus he’s been struggling to master a screechy little violin since September. It’s a public school; by some budgetary jiggery-pokery they manage to retain the services of a nearly-full-time Strings teacher. Last Thursday night was the Christmas Concert featuring the fourth and fifth graders, and we had no idea what to expect.

Madness, madness, madness; the “intermediate” fifth-grade orchestra, the “beginners” fourth-grade orchestra, and the Advanced Seventh-Grade “Irish” and “Christmas” ensembles. This is a lot of kids sawing away in a not-very-big school gym.

Madness at the school Christmas concert

The first surprise was that the gym, packed that densely, wasn’t bad acoustically; you could hear all the musicians pretty well wherever you were sitting.

Then it turned out that the fifth-graders were actually good; reasonably tight and pretty well in tune. A perusal of the picture above reveals that the school population is heavily Asian in background; my guess is 80% or so. Accordingly, a couple of the pieces were in a Chinese flavor.

Then it turned out that the fourth-graders, while not actually good as such, weren’t terrible, and were funny. Their segment went with a narrative about how only three months ago they’d never touched a violin and could only make horrible noises (they all gleefully made horrible noises) but had progressed through pizzicato (illustrated) to open strings (illustrated) to actual tunes; and could now play Jingle Bells, which they did without disasters albeit at a lugubrious pace. Here are some of them:

Fourth-grade string-instrument performers at the Christmas concert

The seventh-graders were polished and fun. The Irish ensemble had some impressive tempo changes and held together through the fast bits. Then the other group played a “Modern Christmas Medley”, schmaltzy arrangements of seasonal music composed between 1940 and 1965. Merry Little Christmas, Santa Claus is Coming, Rudolph, Frosty, Most Wonderful Time, you know the stuff. The stuff they play over bad speakers at malls. The stuff I’ve always loathed. Played competently by live instruments with intelligent arrangements, well, these are actually some pretty fine tunes, and they’re all imprinted deeper on our hindbrains than we’d like to admit. I actually found myself choking up a bit.

I made a point of tracking down the maestro afterward to compliment him on the medley. We’ve had a couple of conversations; at the start of the year I introduced myself as someone with moderate competence in music and strings who might be able to help, and then a month ago I dropped the boy’s violin and broke it (remarkably traumatic) and had to go in shamefaced to ’fess up and pay up.

He thanked me with a smile and said “Hey, you’re in Wikipedia!” Which is the first time this has happened to me. I didn’t have a snappy comeback ready so I just stammered. I’ll have to work on something, civilians don’t realize how easy it is for computer programmers to get in.

Think those pictures look a little yellow? Well, that’s a lie. The gym has yellow walls and violently yellow ceiling lights. Lauren speculated that they were trying to erase the ethnic variations in the room by making everyone look like a space alien. I rammed the White-balance slider all the way over in the interests of humanization.


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From: Derek K. Miller (Dec 13 2008, at 12:54)

"A lot of kids sawing away" instantly brought into my head the famous theme from "Psycho," but I'm sure it was at least a little less intense than that.

My kids chose piano (no really, they did), and fortunately it's impossible to make it screech. Plus, our digital keyboard has a volume control.

Not that I should complain. They're both becoming quite good (they know more theory than I do), and I'm the one with the drum kit and guitar amps in the basement. Speaking of which, time to pack up for a gig tonight...


From: Piotr (Dec 13 2008, at 15:23)

"...Asian in background; my guess

is 80% or so..."

It is literally incredible how Asian people strive for success from very young age. Then you go to youtube.com and cant believe you eyes seeing child prodigies doing things you normally do at the age of twenty.


From: Stuart Marks (Dec 13 2008, at 16:02)

Well written! I'm imagining "Jingle Bells" played at a lugubrious pace. (Those 8th grade vocabulary words come in handy!) Yep, just about how I'd expect a 4th grade orchestra to sound. I was in a wind band in 4th or 5th grade. I suspect we sounded about the same.

The lighting in there looked really difficult. I suspect the fluorescent lights had something to do with it as well. Still, the photos came out well, especially the second one.


From: Elaine (Dec 15 2008, at 09:22)

That brings back some lovely memories! I played viola for 10 years, from 3rd grade until sophomore year of college. (When my viola was stolen in the Xmas robbery of '93.) I was never especially good, but it was a great social environment, and I got to do a lot of interesting things and see a lot of interesting places. I played at school, in a community orchestra, went to music camp and took private lessons.

Actually, those memories have been coming back quite a bit lately, as the old orchestra gang has been joining Facebook and posting photos from back in the day. Ah, crazy hair of the late 80s.

Oh, and my mother was the one who picked viola over violin back in elementary school, and I highly recommend it when your little girl gets to that age. Much less screechy than violin. The orchestra parts aren't generally as interesting, but there's some nice music for viola out there.


From: len (Dec 16 2008, at 08:14)

Ah the ease of when the kids were young. When you are in a family of performers, scheduling is hard.

The wife is making costumes for the paegeant and singing in the choir, the son is playing college graduation ceremonies, his band gigs, and my music, I'm doing the contemporary service with an original song and a 14 piece arrangement, playing a orchestral/choral classical original with the traditional group, singing Ave Maria (Gounod/Back) solo with original arrangement for guitar (thank god for the reformation), and working the paegeant with my wife, singing in the choir, and did I forget something? Oh yeah, going to work. The daughter is playing in the concert band and all of the 'youth groups' at church. Our house is a mess, our health is going to hell fast and not one bit of Christmas shopping is done much less putting up a tree or mulching the leaves.

They call this the Season of Peace. Right... I was surprised how well the Ave Maria went over with the old folks. The young folks just ask why I sing in Latin and how hard is it to switch in and out of falsetto. (Because the English doesn't work (ask Beyonce) and not as hard as it is to sing A about the staff in full chest).

If I get my vacation at work (doubtful), I have to start on the original score for the children's theatre production in January that my wife's best friend talked me into.

So go ahead and get out your cello, T., and get Lauren back to vocal lessons. If you think it is complicated now, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Or learn to say "no". Just remember, if you change your mind, the opposite of 'no' isn't yes, it's "on".


From: KeeKee (Dec 16 2008, at 13:47)

I have not only been involved in many a school band concert but have also been to quite a few myself to watch my younger brother play. I love the way you described the different groups playing because we usually heard comments like "Well at least I think that you played 'Jungle Bells', didn't you?" Loved the pictures too and I'm sure it was the lighting but still great pics.



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