FOR THOSE WHO WEAR IT, the label “band geek” is a source of both mockery and pride: Band geeks are nerdy but talented, weird but fun, shy but sometimes cocky. “I do play the tuba, and I still get the girls,” one band geek boasts on a Web site that sells band geek T-shirts. According to a definition on urbandictionary.com that was almost certainly written by one, band geeks are “not to be confused with ‘orch dorks’ or ‘choir queers.’” The common denominator is unmatched adulation for band. Band geeks are the students who are always lurking around the band hall (even after they graduate), who venerate band teachers, who hang out with other band students, who sing their band music when not in rehearsal and finger their parts on imaginary instruments when they recognize a tune.
Texas has a reputation for having some of the best high school band programs in the country—and, as a result, some of its most highly skilled band geeks. Every February they gather in San Antonio, along with thousands of band directors, choir leaders, and music teachers, for the Texas Music Educators Association Clinic/Convention. All-State, as students call it, is the final step of a five-month journey that begins in September, when 55,000 students audition at regional tryouts; the 1,500 of them who descend on the River Walk for the four-day event represent the mere 2 percent “who survived,” as TMEA folks like to say. At the convention, they audition once more, for chairs in the thirteen All-State ensembles, and then plunge into rehearsals for the weekend’s final concerts.
As the students slog through their practices, the more than eight thousand teachers and band directors who come to All-State shuttle around the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center sampling from two hundred workshops on musical pedagogy. This year’s convention featured seductively titled sessions where presenters dispensed technical wisdom about every instrument on the market. There was “Fostering a Fabulous Flute Section,” “The Piccolo Un-Ear-Plugged,” “Bring on the Beautiful Bassoon,” “Fun in Thumb Position Plus Other Cello Techniques,” “The Key to a Rockin’ Horn Section,” “Just the Bass-ics: Pedagogical Insights for Tuba Players,” and my favorite, “The Artistry of Accessory Percussion: Covering the Finer Points of Triangle, Tambourine, Bass Drum and Cymbals.”
At a workshop titled “The ‘Why’ of What We Do,” Tim Lautzenheiser, an adjunct professor from Ball State University, in Indiana, spoke to a crowd of eight hundred about how music sharpens children’s minds. This is an age-old topic of debate. For some time, a chicken-or-egg question has hovered over the fact that music students as a whole consistently outperform their nonmusician classmates in school. The issue is, Do band and orchestra simply attract nerdy kids into their ranks, or do they somehow make kids smarter? According to Lautzenheiser, new research supports the latter. Music making, he told his audience, activates and synchronizes neural firing patterns that connect different sites in the brain, which in turn creates “mind maps” that make the brain more efficient and effective.
“The truth is, every child is born with the propensity to make music!” Lautzenheiser told his listeners, gesticulating wildly with his arms as he paced across a large stage. Yet, much like a child’s ability to learn multiple languages, that propensity begins to recede by a person’s mid-twenties if it remains untapped. The significance of that loss is even greater when one considers that music is made primarily with the creative side of the brain. “That’s the part that came up with penicillin and the polio vaccine!” Lautzenheiser said. “And that’s the part that’s going to cure Alzheimer’s disease and find a cure for AIDS. That’s the part that, someday, cancer—they’ll figure it out. It comes from that part of the mind. If that part of the mind is not stimulated, it begins to deteriorate. And by the time that humans turn twenty-six, twenty-seven, or twenty-eight, there’s less chance that they will restart that part of the mind.”
The audience was entranced, and so was I. Fifteen years ago, I’d been one of those young musicians rehearsing for the big show. Though I’d made it to All-State three years in a row, as a student I’d never had a chance to sit in on the teacher workshops, and listening to Lautzenheiser was a revelation. Whether or not music had made me smarter, I had returned to San Antonio after all this time because I’d always known that the experience played a crucial part in my personal and artistic formation. I too was a high school band geek.
I WAS ELEVEN YEARS OLD WHEN I decided to join the band. The junior high school band directors who taught the sectionals at our elementary school had come to campus and set up a display of shiny musical instruments in the cafeteria. At the end of the school day, we brought our parents to watch as we blew into or banged on our favorite instruments. Because my twin sister had already claimed the flute, I went for what I decided was the second-most-feminine instrument—the clarinet. The salt-and-pepper-haired band director listened approvingly as I puffed my cheeks and forced a mouthful of warm, moist air into the horn, which squawked loudly, as most reed instruments do when handled by amateurs. He said something to me about “embouchure” and pulling my chin down, then sent me home for the summer with instructions to eat better so that my fingers would be fat enough to cover the clarinet’s holes by the time sixth grade began.
When my older sister had wanted to join the band five years earlier, my mother told her she couldn’t afford to buy an instrument. But my twin sister and I gave her no choice. She thumbed through the Bargain Book and located a $100 used flute, then tracked down a $125 clarinet from my aunt’s neighbor. It came in a repulsive brown plastic case shaped like an old-fashioned doctor’s kit.
The black wooden Normandy clarinet