My Annual Homily to Eighth Graders


his is the basic idea of a chat that I have every year with eighth grade band members, in an effort to keep them involved as they move on into high school.

"Often we all come into an occasion when we are next to a stranger for a lengthy period of time, and a conversation will feel less awkward that silence. Occasions such as an airplane, a ski lift, a train ride, or something like that. Adults almost always ask each other what they do for a living."

When I mention that I am a school band director, I typically get one of three answers. The first, and by far the most rare, is something like "Oh, cool. I actually play the alto sax in a community band in the next town", or "Yeah? That's great! My company has a Tuesday night jazz jam after work. It's a great way to keep my trumpet chops going."

The other two, which are probably pretty even in frequency, are either "I played the clarinet until ninth grade, but I dropped it. I really wish I'd kept it up." or, "You know, I never played a musical instrument, and I always wish I had."

Nobody has ever said to me, "You know, I dropped the trombone after my sophomore year, and it was the best thing I ever did. Things really opened up for me, and my life is richer because I quit that thing."

I know what you are thinking. Who would ever say something like that to a music teacher? I don't know, but just ask a math teacher what people often say when they announce their vocation."

Moving from eighth grade to high school is a dangerous time in the development of the life-long musician. Parents become less likely to encourage or mandate your participation, and it's easy to feel like it will be more than you can handle with everything else that you think high school will throw at you. History will tell you that it is an easy time to stop playing, and there is almost never an easy time to start again."

You have given yourself, over the last four or five years, a gift. You have made yourself fluent in music. You are special. Many people wish they could do what you do. How tragic for you now to give it up, and take this from me, right at the time when this really starts to get fun."

Do yourself a favor. Don't stop making music. Don't lament to some music teacher on your flight to Chicago twenty years from now that you always wish you'd kept it up. Tell that teacher that you did keep it up, and that you play with your own kids a lot, or something like that. You'll make his or her day, I promise."