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