Learning the Notes

photo 2 (1)A guitar found its way into our attendance office, a nice one that invited playing. The first morning I heard it, as I was walking back to my office to brew a pot of coffee to start the day, a Beatles tune drew me across the hallway, and I found two students helping each other master the chords before classes began.

In twenty plus years in education, I’ve gotten used to the fact that it’s not unusual to turn a corner at a school and find something both wonderful and unexpected. Always, I’ve told myself, follow the sound if something sounds like “Penny Lane.”

A couple of days later it was “Let it Snow” that brought me from my office. Our marching band was rehearsing for the Encinitas Holiday Parade, and the sound of horns carried from the blacktop behind the multipurpose room. As I walked up, I saw our band director, a young mom who gives up time with her baby to teach music one period a day, clapping and walking backward as a phalanx of young musicians marched in time after her. From flute to sousaphone, the expressions were serious, though I caught more than a few smiles when the song ended and they finished their circuit around the outdoor basketball courts.

photo 2 (2)Those same smiles spread across the faces of both Diegueño musicians and band members from our neighboring high school when musicians from my school joined the Maverick Brigade, the award winning marching band from just up the road, to march in the parade. And as I got to talk with kids and parents at the hot dog and cocoa fueled tailgate party before they started marching, I was reminded of how magical music can be.

Music brings people together, students and a secretary before classes, middle schoolers a year from elementary school and high school seniors a year away from college. It provides a shared experience and common vernacular for people from all sorts of backgrounds and points of view, and in my experience it brings out the best in people.

In middle school students are beginning the journey of discovering and deciding who they will be. They’re choosing their metaphorical instrument, and learning the notes of their own lives.

My campus supervisor, a musician himself, and someone I regularly talk music with, once called me a musical connoisseur (because I could discuss the differences between Billie Holiday and a young Peggy Lee). I had to tell him the truth: I’m just a fan.

I love to listen to music and spend time with people who make it. I love that playing a instrument shows us that learning takes practice, and that like so much in life, the results of hard work can be beautiful, even as the product is never completely done.

I love that at Diegueño our ASB fill the quad with music at lunch every Friday, and that as the students laugh and move to what they hear they’re able to take some of the pressure of school and shake it off.

I love that our band sometimes marches out onto campus and fills Diegueño with song. They’re willing to take these treks across the grass by the flagpole as they’re learning the tunes, a good model for us all to see that we don’t need to hide our first steps toward knowing, and that learning has a few notes that we don’t yet always hit.

I heard that attendance office guitar again in the administration building on Friday, a much more polished riff from a song I couldn’t quite place. The sound came from the conference room next to my office, and I had to peek through the window to see what was going on.

Two figures were there, a student, focused, fascinated, and learning, and my assistant principal, plucking on the guitar, teaching, talking, and helping this student learn the notes.

As I walked back to my desk, my secretary chuckled and nodded her head toward the conference room jam session. “I wondered how long it would take him to pick up that guitar,” she said with a smile.

photo 1 (1)Music teaches, inspires, and helps people connect. At a school it could be as formal as a marching band or as casual as the quiet instrumental pieces played behind a drawing lesson in art class. It might be spirited, as in an ASB lunch activity, or softly profound, when one musician (even one wearing a tie) helps another learn a song.

Loud, quiet, solo, or marching in a parade, school, like music, is all of that and more. School is a place of magic, one place we learn the notes.

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