The Pencil War of 2011


Now, in my tenth year in this job, I have made a lot of little logistical in-roads to progress in the program. I have realized a few visions that nagged at me for a while. The percussion equipment in each school is now decent, if not excellent. The students have taken more ownership for care of the equipment in all the schools. There are many ways in which things are better.


I have watched technology proliferate over the last ten years. Most of my students would not be caught dead without an iPod, or cell phone, or laptop, or even portable video game, all within an arm’s reach. If I needed to borrow a graphing calculator during band class, I am sure I would have my pick of eight from the front row alone, almost instantly. Despite all of this immediately available technology, it seems as though my students were resolved to never be caught by their peers with a pencil on their stand. Despite my directives, admonitions, and protestations, any time I asked them to jot something down in their music, they seemed to grin at my in cold defiance. This was simply asking more of them than they were willing to give.

I tried reasoning with them. If they can always have a $400 iPod with them, they also can be expected to at all times have a 29 cent pencil. Certainly they have pencils in their other classes. I tried for nine years to impress upon them that their use is no less necessary in band than in any other class. It was to the point that they almost showed pity for me, as though they really felt my anxiety, but certainly not enough to commit to having a pencil in rehearsal. Let’s not be ridiculous.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came during the dress rehearsal for our winter concert. There was a section in the band that I had asked to put a breath mark at a certain point. Each rehearsal required their being reminded of this, and yet there on stage, just a few hours before they concert, they all missed it. I walked out behind them, and none of the four had marked a thing on his music. I completely lost my cool!

“Attention. This rehearsal will resume when every single music stand of this stage has a sharpened pencil on it, and not one moment before. Let it also be known that December 11, 2010, is the last day that I will ever beg an Andover High School musician to have a pencil on this stand. You will have a pencil, and I mean pencil, (no pens, erasable or otherwise) and it will be out and on your stand, not in your case, or your backpack, or even your pencil bag under your chair. Your efforts at seeing to it that this band remains mediocre have failed and will go on no further. You will now stand up, leave the stage, and either return with a pencil or a drop slip from the guidance office. Go!”

Everyone came back. Everyone had a pencil. Nobody had a drop slip. It didn’t take that long, either.

During our breathing warm-ups, I do ask them to hold up a pencil. I do not begin until they all have them. This process takes just seconds these days. I took this fight to the middle schools, and met equal success. I have to keep at them, but the simple routine and reminder has made it all work. The rehearsal process is much improved as a result. If I ask them to write it down, they do it! I don’t have to teach a lot of things twice.

I fully realize that it’s possible that a majority of you reading this have tackled this successfully long ago. However, for those of you who, like me, found this fight time consuming and at times fruitless, this hard line I’ve taken has made a tremendous difference. I encourage you to give it a shot. It’s an investment in rehearsal time that gives an immediate payback!

You know, this is going so well, maybe I will declare war on their unwillingness to count rests!