Lessons from my year of observing a middle school jazz band

I am no musician. Although I may attempt to sing along with Adele while I’m driving, much to the mortification of my younger son, I am nowhere in the zip code of in tune. Sheet music reads like a foreign language to me. And yet, I’ve recently learned how potent a tool music can be when wielded by a compassionate teacher seeking to help students channel challenging emotions through their instruments.

Thus began a recent essay I wrote reflecting upon my time shadowing the Southborough, MA middle school jazz band, and its director Jamie Clark, for a year. “Music lessons from Mr. Clark,” published by Gatehouse Media,  was written in the closing days of my son Jonah’s high school career, highlighted by the nine years he played music, drums and jazz specifically, in school ensembles. I was feeling nostalgic and grateful for the months I spent quietly sitting off to the side of the Trottier Middle School band room, notebook and pen in hand as I watched. And learned.

While I didn’t learn how to read music or play an instrument during the 2012-2013 school year, the experience of observing the students and Clark at work opened my eyes:

I didn’t learn how to read sheet music. I still couldn’t sing. I couldn’t blow a note on a trumpet, but I learned, firsthand, about the stunning power of music and one teacher to give young people the guidance, safety and comfort they desperately needed in order to move on.

Read the full essay here.

 

SmartMusic’s ‘5 Lessons from Mr. Clark’

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SmartMusic has published my blog post, “5 Lessons from Mr. Clark: How Risk-Taking Teaching Can Benefit Kids.”

He doles out hugs like they’re candy. In fact, he doles out candy too. And Pop Tarts, Wheat Thins and ramen noodles. He lets students eat, hang out, and listen to music in his middle school band room during lunch. He once gave a student rides to early morning Big Band rehearsals when her suddenly-widowed mother couldn’t. He often shouts at his musicians—ages 11 through 14—when their playing offends his musical sensibilities. At least once a year, he kicks members of his Big Band out of the band room if he thinks they haven’t been putting in their best effort.

… In an era when teachers are often expected to soften their language so as not to offend, to keep physical distance from students, and to refrain from raising their voices, Clark is an outlier. However Southborough parents, students, and fellow teachers laud Clark’s teaching techniques, particularly as he applied them in the year after Green died. 

Listen to Mr. Clark & His Big Band

At the party celebrating the launch of Mr. Clark’s Big Band, Jamie Clark led the current middle school members of his jazz band as well as jazz band alums in a rousing rendition of “Groovin’ Hard.”

The alums, who had no rehearsals before the party, used their muscle memory from their middle school years to play what’s now considered a Big Band standard, a piece they hadn’t played in years. Several of them gave up playing musical instruments after leaving Trottier’s Middle School and their beloved music teacher, Mr. Clark.

As he thanked those who attended the book launch party, Mr. Clark spoke eloquently about the importance of risk-taking teaching and being able to work in such a supportive environment.