So You Want To Lead A Band

 Dick Miller 

October 1, 2014. We were sad to learn of the recent death of Dick Miller. May his stories live on.

© Copyright 2014 by  Dick Miller 

Photo of a band and high school conductor.

I was a Physics and General Science teacher in a large New York City high school: large in enrollment, small in facility. In fact, it was the same school I attended some years before (but that’s another story). The school was overcrowded, so some students (and teachers) started as early as 7:00 AM, while others stayed as late as 4:00 PM. I was on one of the later shifts.

I took advantage of that late schedule by coming in early to rehearse with the school band. I’m a trombone player, and this was a good opportunity to keep in practice. The band had only one euphonium player (the tenor voice of the tuba family), which reads the same music as a trombone, so my contribution was welcome.

One morning as I clocked in, I found the Assistant Principal pacing back and forth in front of the time clock with a worried expression on his face. “What's wrong?” I asked. “There's an assembly today,” he replied, “and both band teachers are out sick. I have no one to lead the band for the assembly.”

Emboldened by my musical background and the fact that I had just completed an in-service course on conducting, I said, “I think I can help.” “Really?” he replied. “Sure,” I responded. It's just the Star-Spangled Banner and a couple of marches while the students file in and out. I can handle that.” Visibly relieved, the Assistant Principal left and I headed toward the auditorium.

The kids in the band were pretty self-sufficient. The band teachers had them well trained. They got their instruments out of storage, the music librarian got out all the copies of the march books and the Star-Spangled Banner and placed them on the appropriate music stands, and the students were taking their seats with instruments in hand. The conductor’s stand held a copy of the conductor’s version of the appropriate music and a baton. I was all set, or so I thought.

When all the students had taken their seats, I got their attention by tapping on the conductor’s stand with my baton. “Both band teachers are out sick today. I am going to be filling in. Be kind to the new guy.” They laughed. “To keep things simple, we'll just play the first march in the book as the students file in.” The band members all opened their march books to the first tune, as did I, and we waited for the student body to arrive at the back doors of the auditorium.

When the students arrived, I turned to face the band, gave the signal to the drummers for a street beat and a roll-off, and gave the downbeat for a rousing Sousa march. All went well. The students did a credible job with a somewhat simplified arrangement of a fairly difficult piece of music.

As we approached the end of the music, I looked over my shoulder with horror to note that there were still a lot of students who needed to file in and take their seats. I signaled to the drummers for another street beat and called to the band members to repeat the same march. Little did I know that the long-established routine when a situation like this occurred, as it did from time to time, was to play the next march in the book.

I signaled to the drummers for a roll-off. Apparently, the musicians in the seats nearest the conductor’s podium heard what I said, while those farther away did not, and followed the standard rule of playing the next tune. Of course, the tunes were in different keys. The cacophony was overwhelming. The musicians lasted about four measures before they broke up completely and stopped playing. This, obviously, caused the entire assembled multitude of about five hundred students and teachers to break up, too.

With all this pandemonium around me, I turned to face the audience, and with a grand, sweeping gesture, made a great theatrical bow. This plunged the auditorium into total chaos. Hoots, hollers, stomps, whistles, and other rude noises ensued. As things quieted down, I turned to the band, and said in a very loud voice, “Let's all play the second march.” We did so as the rest of the students filed in to take their seats.

I have no idea what the assembly program was about that day, but I certainly won't forget my debut as the leader of the Tottenville High School band.

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