For years I worked as a coach and lesson teacher in the public schools of suburban Chicago. I ran sectionals, did some chamber music coaching, and taught a gaggle of kids during and after the school day. Although I was pretty hesitant about doing this work when I started freelancing, worrying that it would be a massive time sink, I quickly came to enjoy it and I looked forward to the variety that each day of teaching would bring.
I quickly learned that you can be called upon to do ANYTHING in a music department.
I usually got to these schools around 8 a.m., coffee in hand, bleeding from both eyes, feeling the pain of both burning the midnight oil as a freelance bassist and being a schoolteacher in the early mornings. I was always surprised at how great I felt on days when I finally got more than four or five hours of sleep—I had conditioned myself to think of sleep deprived Jason as normal Jason, and I was always amazed to se how all the colors looked brighter, all the smells a little sharper, and all of the days a little more, well… fun than while in my typical bleary haze.
One winter morning a few years back I was walking into the music department in my typical draggy state when I had a series of unpleasant surprises piled upon me.I had arrived a little early, so I unpacked my bass in a rehearsal room and did my usual morning practicing routine, limbering myself up for the long day of teaching and performing that I had ahead of me.
All of a sudden, the fine arts secretary burst into my room, breathless and agitated.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Jason, we’ve got a problem!”she said.“The school is in a drug lockdown state, and Mr. _______ (the orchestra director) is stuck over at the planning center. There’s no one else around but you. Can you conduct the orchestra?”
Conduct the orchestra?You’ve got to be kidding me!I had never picked up a baton in my life, and the largest group I had ever rehearsed was a section of bass players.I knew what a four pattern looked like and that sort of thing, having spent my whole life in ensembles, but I had never tried to run a group in my life before.
Not only that, but I would be…. a… substitute teacher!No!Anything but that!
I also had sudden and unpleasant memories of my own high school orchestra experiences, and I remember what a hard time we would always give subs.Every time we saw the name of a sub on the board we orchestra kiddies knew that we had a fun hour ahead of us.I subtly exchanged my bass for my buddy’s cello, and he would just as smoothly swap someone for a violin.Along with instruments, we usually switched names for the day, so I knew that on sub days you could call me Kevin, Kevin would be posing as Dan, and Dan would be posing as Gretchen (hey, that could be a guy’s name, right?).
I was now faced with the unpleasant prospect of not only being a conductor for the day but a substitute teacher to boot.Great.I walked into the orchestra room where 35 squirrelly kids awaited me, smiles on their faces, their beady little eyes checking out their torture victim for the day, bows ready to poke each other and sword fight the moment my head was turned.
The department secretary introduced me.
“Kids, this is Mr. Heath.He will be filling in for Mr. ________ for the period as your orchestra director.”
Let the torture begin.
My first task was to get these little rascals tuned up. I could at least do that, right?
“OK, everybody. Play your A strings!” I said.
A large sustained wave of intonational nastiness filled the room. Hmmmm. By no standard was that a good A. I broke up the sections, trying to point up or down to show individual players which way to turn their pegs.
It got a little better.Not much.
I did the same for each additional string, noticing with dismay that the bass players (my own students, no less) were already off in La-LaLand, poking each other with their bows and laughing like big dumb circus freaks.
“Stop poking me, dude!”
“No, you stop poking me!”
“No, you’re stupid.”
“No, you shut up.”
Ah, high school, just like I remembered it.
My next task was to try to figure what in the heck they were working on. Where were the conductor’s scores? I couldn’t see them anywhere. Finally I opened the concertmaster’s folder, paging through it and trying to figure out what to work on.
I finally found one of the scores on a table by the podium.I can’t for the life of me remember what the piece was, but I do remember that it was fugal, with all of the different sections entering with the theme a few bars after each other.OK—things were going better.I also found a baton on the podium.I had the kids get their music out, raised my arms, and brought the group in.
WAAAH WAAH WAAH
Ah, the lovely strains of the freshman orchestra. Well, good or bad, at least we were moving along.
I cued (and I’m sure my cue was more a wild spasm than a proper cue) the second violins for their entrance, and a few of them came in. OK—good enough. We kept chugging along. Next up were the violas. I cued them in my own special way.
Before I go on, I have to admit a terrible, shameful secret: I cannot really tell the difference between a violin and a viola. I know that I have spent most of my life in orchestras, and you’d think that I would be able to see the difference. Heck, I even PLAYED violin for many years when I was younger. Nothing seems to help with my viola identification deficiency, however. I try and try, but nothing works. Even now, I still am not sure when I look at a colleague if they are playing violin or viola.
I can HEAR the difference, mind you, but in the cacophony of a high school orchestra rehearsal (with me, Captain Doofus, at the helm of the ship), who can hear anything? Not me, that’s for sure.
Now, back to our story….
I started rapping on the podium with my baton (I catch on to conductor tricks quickly!) and brought the group to a halt. I looked over at where I thought the viola section should be. My feeble bass player brain tried to figure out if they were, in fact violas.
No dice. I couldn’t tell. I awkwardly mumbled to them.
“Uh… hey, guys….are you playing the viola part?”
“Uh, YEAH!” one of them angrily shot back. “We’re…..violas!”
Great. Not the sort of thing you want to say to a bunch of high schoolers. If they didn’t think I was an idiot before, they certainly thought from that point on.
I courageously kept up my stick waving, sneaking glances at the wall clock every few minutes, aching for this agony to end.I managed to fill the rest of the period by spouting bunch of mindless drivel about how to play in ensembles.Time seemed to crawl as I kept improvising up there, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the bell finally rang for the next period.
It was time for me to take off, but the school was still in a *DRUG LOCKDOWN* state, with dogs sniffing all of the lockers up and down the hallways and outside checking all of the cars in the parking lot.
This kind of police state mentality really gets under my skin. I’ll leave that particular discussion to other folks, but I think that if you treat people like they are criminals then that’s likely to be what you’ll get. Keeping schools secure is important, of course, but this affluent school 25 miles north of Chicago was not exactly a haven of criminal enterprise. Getting kids in their classroom and then springing (surprise!) a *DRUG LOCKDOWN* on them and keeping them captive in their classrooms while all of their lockers and automobiles are inspected seemed at least a tad paranoid and unnecessary.
To prove the silliness of this kind of procedure, check out what happened next during the *DRUG LOCKDOWN*.I needed to go—I had a gig—and I was absolutely unwilling to play by their silly drug lockdown rules.What was I going to tell the conductor when I showed up to my gig late?That I was locked in a high school classroom while the drug dogs finished patrolling the 1500 cars in the parking lot?I would absolutely not allow my professionalism to be tarnished by something so trivial.
So I just left. I walked right out the front door past the drug sniffing dogs in the hallways. Near my car I ran into another team of guys with dogs, and I said,
“Uh, I don’t work here.I’ve got to go.”
They said, “Ok.”
And I took off.
What kind of security is that? I had no identification and was parked with all of the students. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I look like a drug dealer, I do have some sort of an unwholesome hippy vibe to my appearance. If the drug enforcement squad were to suspect anybody, why not at least suspect the weird-looking, long-haired hippy guy leaving the school with a BIG BAG and no identification?
I told the orchestra director later that week about the whole incident (my horrific conducting, the “we’re….violas!” comment, and my easy escape from the school), and we both had a good laugh. He agreed—why did they let me go without any fuss at all? What do those *DRUG LOCKDOWN* states achieve except to let the high schoolers know that Big Brother is watching them at all times and doesn’t trust them, so they’d better look out?
Hey, kids! Big Brother’s coming for your drugs! But don’t worry, you can just slip them to the bass teacher—he always gets away without a scratch.