I’m a firm believer that all children should play a musical instrument. There are all sorts of studies that suggest that an exposure to playing music leads to an increase in general math scores, teaches discipline, fosters a feeling of accomplishment, fights tooth decay, combats halitosis, and all sorts of other things that the local junior high school’s band director dreamt up one night while he was really high. Playing music is great, but based on my experience, kids really should be limited to instruments no more complex than a triangle.
I joined band when I was in 5th grade. My instrument was chosen after a long and rigorous screening process designed to match each student with an instrument that closely matched his or her musical ability. Hahaha, just kidding. I chose to play the saxophone because my parents would have disowned me if I had attempted to play the drums, and the saxophone was what was available when may name was called. Well, the saxophone and the flute.
Band Teacher: Ok, uhhh… Greg? Yes? Ok. Greg. What instrument do you want to play? You can play the saxophone, or you can play the flute!
Me: The saxophone.
Band Teacher: Are you sure you don’t want to play the flute? We need some more people to play flute.
Me: The flute is for girls. I want to play the saxophone.
Band Teacher: Oh, the flute isn’t just for girls! Lots of guys play the flute. I know how to play the flute!
Me: Yeah, I bet you do, pal. Gimme the saxophone.
I didn’t say that last line, but I sure did think it. Gender integration had come quite a long way by the time 1979 had rolled around, but it had yet to crack the first row in our band. The only people that played the flute were females, or males that wished to have their lunch money stolen and their parentage questioned. I played the saxophone like a real man, which is to say that I ignored it for the most part.
And to judge from the sonic evidence, I wasn’t the only one who ignored his instrument. We were terrible. And I don’t mean out of tune (although we were), or off tempo (we were that too). We weren’t even bad enough to have been accused of playing the wrong song (although I did that once during a recital). That would imply a level of musical competence that we had yet to achieve. If you were to stumble across one of our recitals, you were more likely to think that 50 or so children were engaged in a life and death struggle with some sort of accordion-playing bison.
This infuriated our band teacher, who I realized many years later must have been some sort of musical prodigy who didn’t quite crack the ranks of professional musicians. If a student complained that their instrument wasn’t working correctly (usually because they were blowing in the wrong end), Mr. Tepps would pick it up and rattle off an astonishing number of notes in short order, then play something a little slower and with feeling, almost as if he was reminding himself what it was like to listen to music. “Seems fine to me,” he’d say, handing the instrument back to the student.
I saw him do that with every single instrument in the band at one time or another, which didn’t seem abnormal at the time. Years later when I began to learn how to play guitar and I realized how hard it is to master one instrument, I realized with a start that this guy knew how to play at least ten different instruments, and probably a lot more.
So I imagine that it was infuriating beyond belief to have all of that talent, yet sit there in front of a bunch of musically handicapped kids who couldn’t tell their ass from a quarter note. Actually, I didn’t have to imagine, Mr. Tepps made it quite clear when he was infuriated, which was pretty much all the time. We got used to him saying things like this on a regular basis:
Mr. Tepps: Ok, we’ve been working on this song for a month now. You do know that this is a song, right? It’s supposed to sound pleasing to the human ear? Because we’re not there yet. We’re not even close. I don’t know why I even bother if you’re not going to practice at home. You need to practice! I can’t say that enough: YOU NEED TO PRACTICE! Otherwise everyone at our recital will say, “That didn’t even sound like Shenandoah!”
Trumpet Player: We’re supposed to be playing Shanendoah?
Mr. Tepps: YES!
And at this point half the band would furiously shuffle their sheet music.
Mr. Tepps: DAMMIT, IF YOU CAN’T EVEN… HOW DO YOU THINK WE’RE GOING TO… OK! IS EVERYBODY READY TO PLAY THE MUSICAL NUMBER KNOWN AS SHENANDOAH? REALLY? YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TELL ME FIVE MINUTES FROM NOW THAT YOU THOUGHT WE WERE PLAYING HAPPY BIRTHDAY? OK, GOOD! ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR…
And then we’d all play random notes until Mr. Tepps’ head would explode. After the first couple of times, when it became apparent that he wasn’t going to hit us, we’d go out of our way to make him melt down because we were little bastards. An easy way to do this was to mess with his head during the period of time dedicated to tuning our instruments. As the flute players were playing an E, the saxophone players would be whistling an E minor, which is an exaggeration because we’d have had more luck finding Jimmy Hoffa than finding an E minor. We’d just whistle something in the general vicinity of an E, and Mr. Tepps would go into his routine:
- Tilts head, plugs one ear
- Asks student to adjust tuning
- Tilts head, plugs one ear, starts turning red in the face
- Vein in forehead starts bulging
- Asks to see instrument
- Plays beautiful, haunting melody for two minutes
- Asks student to play an E again
- Realizes other students are whistling out of tune
- Yells a lot
- Goes to his office to drink
One time, at the end of a particularly difficult tuning session (seriously, we could make these sessions go on forever), he angrily instructed us to turn to a certain piece of music, then sarcastically asked if anyone had any questions. So I raised my hand.
Mr. Tepps: Yes?
Me: Mr. Tepps, did you know that your name backwards spells Retsim Sppet?
Mr. Tepps: …
Mr. Tepps: …
Me: I was just thinking that it kinda sounds like “rent some spit”…
Mr. Tepps: GO TO THE OFFICE!
But if he was pissed at a second chair saxophone player, most of his ire was reserved for the drummers, whom he actively wanted to murder. He would plead with them to “use a little nuance” in their playing, which even back then made me laugh. These are ten year old boys, and you expect nuance from them? Instead, they played the drums at insanely violent noise levels, and consequently drowned out the rest of the band. Why he thought this was a bad idea was beyond me.
He’d march to the back of the room and demonstrate how to play the bass drum with less than nuclear force, sometimes swinging the actual arm of the bass drummer to show him how it was done. “You got that? You can hit the drum without using all of your strength, ok?”
‘Right. Got it, Mr. Tepps.”
And as soon as we’d start playing, the kid would hit the drums even harder, sending Mr. Tepps into a rage. I would often take a break from playing my instrument to laugh, because Mr. Tepps would continue to conduct the band while making frantic motions to the percussion section. If a subtle flick of the conductor’s wrist was meant to indicate a quiet passage, and short jabbing motions were meant to indicate a staccato passage, these motions were meant to indicate “I will sneak into your room at night and murder you in your sleep, you little fuck!”
The drummers so infuriated Mr. Tepps that leading up to one recital, he announced that his brother, a session drummer, would bestow upon us the honor of playing in the band. The percussionists were relegated to playing the triangle, the cowbell, and other, less noisy instruments, while his brother competently played the drums at a sensible level. Then, after two short songs, a special drum kit was wheeled out, and his brother played an extended, 15 minute solo. And that was it. End of recital. It was as if Mr. Tepps had said, “Ok, you got to see your kid butcher the theme to Masterpiece Theater. Now let’s listen to something that doesn’t cause intestinal bleeding.”
One year, some apparently deaf person decided that our band should participate in the local homecoming day parade. The high school already had a competent marching band, so why they wanted us to be there, I’m not sure. Maybe they had learned not to rely on teenagers, and booked us in case the real band showed up too high to play.
So for the next couple of weeks, instead of driving Mr. Tepps crazy with our inability to play, we got to drive Mr. Tepps crazy with our inability to march. He’d take us out into the streets of a residential neighborhood and go absolutely apeshit when he discovered that we couldn’t master something as simple as walking.
“LOOK! IT’S VERY SIMPLE!” he’d scream, while we were all giggling at his impotent rage. “YOU JUST WALK AT THE SAME SPEED! EVERYONE START WITH YOUR LEFT FOOT, READY?”
And after five or ten minutes, just when we’d all gotten in sync, he’d turn his head and we’d all intentionally start jogging, skipping, or whatever, just so that when he turned his head back a second later, we were totally out of synch again. “WHAT HAPPENED!?!?” I bet he prayed for a car to come tearing into the neighborhood and take us all out. If we were near an interstate, I’m sure he’d have marched us right up an on-ramp.
In my final year in band, I inadvertently played a role in making Mr. Tepps cry in front of the entire band. A week before, I had been screwing around with some friends when I violently flung my saxophone case across a parking lot. I didn’t do this for no good reason, mind you. I did this to illustrate a joke I was making, which if memory serves was, “Hey! Watch me damage this expensive musical instrument for no good reason! Hahahaha!”
When I came into band the next day, my saxophone made noises more horrible than was usual (which is saying something). Mr. Tepps asked me to bring the instrument forward and attempted his usual virtuoso performance only to fail with a series of terrible squeaks and howls. “Something is very wrong with this saxophone,” he informed me. “You need to bring it into to the shop to get it fixed.”
The shop that he was referring to was a local music store which supplied all of the instruments that our band played, or in my case, threw around like a bag of hot shit. The owner took one look at my instrument and asked me, “What happened to this saxophone? Did you drop it?”
“No, of course not,” I answered. “I’m always VERY CAREFUL with my beloved saxophone.”
The owner exploded into a rage (it must be an occupational hazard) and canceled my school’s insurance policy on the spot. Apparently he’d seen one too many damaged instruments come out of my school and to judge by the number of trombone fights I’d witnessed, I don’t blame him.
The next day, we were informed by a somber Mr. Tepps that we were not allowed to play our instruments or take them home because we’d lost our insurance policy. Instead, we were given a permission slip to take home and get signed. This is a rough paraphrasing of that permission slip:
Due to the fact that your children suck major ass at music and treat their instruments like fucking light sabers, we had our musical instrument insurance policy canceled. This means that when your particular juvenile delinquent throws his musical instrument off of a seven story building for kicks, you’ll have to pay for it. I certainly can’t pay for it. I’m a fucking band teacher.
Anyway, sign below to acknowledge that you trust your child to treat an expensive and delicate musical instrument with the respect it deserves, and if they don’t that you’ll pay for the damage, bearing in mind that extracting a dead frog from a french horn will cost a minimum of $750.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that virtually no one came back to school with this release signed the next day, which also happened to be the day that Mr. Tepps was informed by the school that his contract for the following year was not being picked up. We sat in silence as most of us watched a grown man cry for the first time in our lives.
Luckily, the school was able to get a different insurance policy and Mr. Tepps discovered that his contract was part of a larger negotiating ploy with the teacher’s union and that he would, indeed be back the following year. This might have mellowed Mr. Tepps a little bit, because over the summer he didn’t seem as full of rage as usual. Maybe he was just hungover.
Yes, my parents made me take summer band, which involved band practice at 8:00 AM every weekday for the whole summer. I’m not sure I’ve ever forgiven them for that. At the end of the summer, we had a recital, and in typically blunt fashion, my mom told me what she thought afterwards. “That was terrible! I couldn’t hear anything other than the drums! Why doesn’t your teacher do something about that?”
“I dare you to go ask him that,” was my reply, although I didn’t really want her to for fear that he’d concuss her with a clarinet.
“If I had known that would be the end result, I wouldn’t have made you take band this summer.”
Seeing an opening, I announced my retirement from playing the saxophone, although not necessarily from the band. I still planned on playing a role as a consultant.
Me: So you’re going to play the trumpet?
Younger Brother: Yeah.
Me: All right, the first thing you’re going to have to learn is how to whistle off-key.