When I was 6, I asked my parents if I could take violin lessons because I wanted to do the same thing as my best friend. I have to say I was never very good at it but I kept taking lessons for many years and I truly started to enjoy it when I joined the local symphony orchestra. What I really liked, I realized, was playing music with other people and being part of a community. My friend Virginie’s sons both learned to play music when they started middle school and joined the school band. I was a bit surprised, how can you join a band without having spent years of individual practice and solfege? I wish I could have done that! Last May, I went to see her son Baptiste play with his band for his spring show, and let me tell you, I was very impressed and had a great time! So if your teenager, or any child in fact, starts showing interest in music, I really encourage you to go see a school band show, they are often free and open to the public. In this interview, Virginie and Baptiste will tell you how to join the school band, what involvement it requires, and how much fun it is.
How did Baptiste start music?
Virginie - No one in our family played an instrument but his older brother joined his middle school band in 6th grade, playing saxophone, so it probably inspired him. At this time Baptiste was in kindergarten and he was already saying that he wanted to play the flute. I think he saw the flutes during one of his brother's shows and just liked it.
In January of his 5th grade, we started the registration process for Cupertino Middle School, and at that time they already had to say if they wanted to take band. Band is a year-long course, they have sessions every day like in maths or English, it’s not an after-school program, so we discussed it together. I wanted to make sure he really wanted to do it and that was the case.
When he started middle school, the band director asked the students to write a list of their four preferred instruments. He still really wanted to play flute so he wrote a note explaining it and he was able to play flute so he was very happy.
During the first year, the school can lend them an instrument so that students can try and make sure they like it before buying one so that’s what we did.
Do other kids taking band usually start learning an instrument when they join?
No, most of the kids are already playing an instrument, they are taking classes outside of school and many continue taking private classes during the school year.
Did he find it hard to learn an instrument?
No, I don’t think so but he was really motivated. He had to learn alone because my husband and I don’t play music so we couldn’t help him even if we wanted to.
Was he able to play quickly some nice tunes?
Yes, I think after one month he was able to play some tunes. He started learning in August at the beginning of the school year and each December the band has a show and even the beginning band with first-year students were able to play several songs that sounded great.
So he didn’t feel that there was a gap with his bandmates who started music before joining the band?
No, I don’t think so, or at least he didn’t mention it. I believe the band director is really great, he really listens to the students and doesn’t make distinctions between them.
What are they doing during their everyday sessions? Do they learn solfege? Do they have individual classes or just group practice?
They don’t really learn solfege, I think they learn to read music sheets on the go while playing. They have individual booths in their band room, where they can play alone but most of the time is spent playing together.
The band director plays tuba and trumpet and he has a notion of all the instruments but for instruments he doesn't play, like the flutes, he usually has a visiting music teacher come for a day or two to teach the students the basics at the beginning of the first school year. During the school year, some teachers also come to teach specific things but it’s mainly the director who teaches them.
Is there a lot of individual studying required?
They are supposed to play for one hour each day by themselves, I don’t think Baptiste plays that much every day. But when he has new songs to learn then he will spend more time practicing at home.
Do they only work on songs they will play during their shows? Do they have method books?
Yes, they learn to play warm-up exercises and other tunes.
Do they have a lot of performances throughout the year?
They have 2 or 3 concerts each year in December and in Spring at the school. They are usually open to the public.
There are 3 bands of different levels at his middle school: Beginning Band for students in 6th grade, Blue and Gold Band for students in 7th and 8th grade, and Advanced Band, which requires an audition to join.
Each year the students in the Advanced Band go for a few days to Disneyland, they play in the parade, and they record a song in the Disney Studios, like The Little Mermaid for example, and then they will watch the movie with the song they have recorded. This is a great memory for them.
They also participate in the CMEA State Festival. It's a competition against other bands where they will play songs they learned and one sight-reading song that the jury gives them just 30 min before they have to play it.
What do you like most about Baptiste being in the band?
I think it is a great activity. Being in the band really makes him feel like he belongs to a group and it was the same for his older brother. With his bandmates they are really close together, they have become his best friends. He has friends in the other classes he takes but it’s different.
I also like that being in the band develops his autonomy, he needs to manage his instrument, his music sheets, and his training, especially since we cannot help him.
Do you have things that you don’t like or that you find challenging?
Sometimes I would like for my kids to practice sports, to spend more time outside rather than doing an activity that involves being in a classroom and that requires a lot of work. But he likes it, he has fun doing it. I think that what he likes most about being in the band is that he gets to spend time with his friends maybe even more than doing music in fact.
Do you have any advice for parents whose kid is considering taking band?
If your kid wants to do it, this is a great activity. I think what is important is that you don’t push children to play music. From my experience with my two sons, I can only see positive things to say. They really had fun doing it.
What do you like about being in a band?
Baptiste - Band is a group of musicians and I enjoy being around those who share my passion.
Did you find it easy to learn to play the flute?
While it can be challenging to play the flute, I have great friends in band who can help me. My band teacher will also help if needed.
What are your best band memories?
My best band memory happened in my second year of band, when we achieved the highest score at a music festival called CMEA (California Music Educators Association).
What are your next goals regarding music?
Next year I would like to join the marching band and possibly win a competition.
How long do you see yourself practicing flute? Do you want to continue in high school? And maybe even after high school?
I see myself playing the flute through high school and perhaps occasionally play after high school.