Archive for April, 2012

My Band Students

It has been a good week at Backpack Middle School.  While it  has been busy, there were few surprises.

On Monday at 1:00 pm we had a pre-scheduled, system-wide fire drill.  The fire department even brought out the big trucks with sirens blaring.  This all occurred during 6th period band rehearsal.  When the alarm went off, my 6th graders were understandably startled.  No matter how many fire drills we have, the loud alarms still make us jump.  Nevertheless, I was unprepared for the site of one of my brass players running for the door, arms flailing.  This was uncalled for; I told him and everyone else to sit back down so we could practice exiting the building in an orderly way.  Once outside and away from the alarms, I explained that panicking would not be allowed under any circumstances.  I figured since this was a drill, we should practice doing it right.

On Tuesday and Wednesday our brand new band students received their third lessons after school; woodwinds in one group, brass and percussion on the other.  Only one 5th grader was absent, which by itself is remarkable, and both groups impressed me with their enthusiasm and attention to detail.  I can already tell that these students have the potential to do very well.  Teaching them will be like driving a sports car.  They will make fast progress.  I just have to make certain no one gets left behind.

With Thursday came the unexpected surprise of a two-hour fog delay and the opportunity to get some work done before students showed up for school at 10:00.  Then, all the classes were trimmed from 42 minutes to 28 minutes.  You might think that very little can be done in such a short time, but ironically, students often come into these abbreviated rehearsals knowing we have to get started right away.  So they seem to get focused more quickly and easily.  Of course, we don’t actually get as much done, but somehow the rehearsals are still productive and worthwhile.

Friday morning I found a note in my mailbox from one of my new 5th grade clarinet players.  She had gotten in trouble for her behavior in the middle school hallways on Tuesday when I dismissed her group from the after school rehearsal.  So the principal assigned her lunch detention during which time she wrote the following:

Dear Mr. Shaver,

I’m sorry for making you look bad by getting in trouble after band.  I know I was representing you and I was not representing you well.  And I am sorry for it.

Your Band Student,


I know she was instructed to write this note as part of her discipline, but I liked it anyway.  “Your Band Student.”  That has a nice ring to it.

Finally, on Friday afternoon the Backpack High School Band came over to the middle school and put on a show in the gym.  They were directed by my colleague and friend Mr. Fletcher, who is also known as “Top.”  He earned this nickname as a master sergeant in the Marines’ band program, and this is what everyone calls him, including the students.  The middle schoolers enjoyed seeing and hearing the band and guard members perform jazz, pep, and concert band music in a show that was very well designed and presented.  And of course, the band finished the program with every Bulldog’s favorite song, “Hail to Backpack High!”  The whole crowd was up on its feet clapping along in a certain pattern that is unique to this small Hoosier town; if you don’t get it, you just don’t get it.  Anyway, it was fun to listen to the high schoolers, especially knowing that almost every one of them had received their first lessons in the middle school as one of my band students.

*name changed


99 Degrees

At dinner not long ago, one of my daughters asked me, “Did anything funny happen at school today?”  I guess I’ve told enough stories about my students that she has come to expect them.

So for her, here is a little collection of some recent favorites.


While doing hallway duty I saw Brendyn walking by wearing a Nike t-shirt that said, “These Guns Are Loaded.”  We have a few students in the middle school who could wear this shirt without embarrassment.  But I had to admire Brendyn, with his scrawny arms, for wearing it.  He wasn’t lacking in self confidence.

I couldn’t resist stopping him to ask, “Hey, Brendyn, can I see your guns?”

“Uh, not right now…” he replied with a little grin as he hurried away.


My third period class was working its way through a new piece of music recently when we got to a particularly tricky part.

“O.k., class,” I said.  “Here we go.  Let’s tackle this tough passage.”

Without any hesitation, a trombone players got down on one knee and said, “It’s Tebow time.”


In a 6th grade Cadet Band rehearsal, Jake was getting impatient with the slow speed we were taking to practice a fast piece.

“Are we ever going to take this piece faster?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, “but we have to walk before we can run.”

To which another student offered, “Forrest Gump can run.”


While recounting my trip to see the U.S. Navy Band the night before, I also told my students about an especially tall man I had seen at the concert.

Me:  “I saw the U.S. Navy Band in concert last night.  Afterwards, in the lobby, I saw a man who is at least 7′ 6″ tall.”

Class:  “Wow…”

Me:  “He also had his teenage son with him; he looked like he is maybe 14 or 15, but he is already almost 6′ 6″  tall.”

Class:  “Wow…”

Me:  “Can you imagine being so tall by that age, but knowing that you could still grow another foot?  I mean, think about it – he could end up with three feet.”


Philip was being especially squirrelly one day.

“Philip, you need to settle down,”  I told him.

“But I’m not ready to start a family…” he objected.


On a recruiting visit to a 5th grade class I asked the students to tell me some of the reasons they might choose not to join the band.

A girl raised her hand and said, “My dad told me that all the nerds are in Band.”

When the laughter had died down, I replied, “That’s not true.  I know a lot of nerds who aren’t in Band.”


A couple years ago I was working in the BandLand worldwide headquarters (my office) when Chris walked in with a big smile on his face and announced,

“Guess what, Mr. Shaver… It’s 99 degrees in my pocket!”

I really didn’t know what to say.

“Yep,” he explained, “I’ve been carrying this temperature gauge in my pocket all day, and no matter if I’m running or sitting, it has stayed at 99 degrees in my pocket.”

Melissa Wuz Here

During rehearsal one recent day at Backpack Middle School I had stepped off my podium to check fingerings in the clarinet section when I noticed some writing on the back of Melissa’s hand.

Melissa is a seventh grader with a sweet spirit and a serious case of diabetes.  It is not uncommon to see her pull out her testing kit, stick her finger, and check her blood sugar level.  She does this so often that the students around don’t seem to notice.

Anyway, written on the back of her hand were the words, “Melissa wuz here,” with an arrow pointing up her arm to her self.  I laughed when I read it – it seemed funny and clever on several levels.


The past several days have been busier than usual as the new 5th grade band students have been getting their first lessons after school.  There are 36 new citizens of BandLand this Spring.  My first impressions of them as a group are good.  There is nothing in the world like the enthusiasm you see as they open their instruments for the first time and learn how to put them together.  And nothing can match those first sounds coming out of their horns – Good Golly!

When I had finished 8th period General Music today, I went back to the band room only to find that our substitute custodian had locked the BandLand door before the end of the day.  So a bunch of new 5th graders were waiting out in the hallway along with some middle schoolers who needed to take their instruments home.  Unlocking the door, I saw that the custodian had also erased my chalk boards.  No big deal, right?  Just write it all again.

First thing in the room, two young ladies meet me and say, “We’re the new clarinet players, but we don’t have instruments, yet.  Didn’t you tell our parents you could loan us instruments?”

“Yes, but they were supposed to let me know for sure that you would be needing them, which they didn’t do, so I don’t have them out, yet,” I replied.  “But no problem.  We’ll just get them now.  Let’s see, here they are.  Let me write down the serial numbers.  Oh, yeah, I will also need to loan each of you a reed, and a swab, and cork grease.  Here you go.  Last ones I have, but that’s o.k., I’ll order more.  Oh, you don’t have music books, yet?  O.k., let me get a couple from the cabinet.  There.  All set.  Go have a seat.  Thanks.  Anyone else need anything?  A french horn book, and a baritone book?  Here is a horn book.  I’m out of baritone books.  Sorry, but no problem.  You can use this trombone book for now.  I’ll tell you the fingerings as we go.  Now let’s get everyone arranged.  Clarinets, please sit over here in the front row; saxophones over there, with the tenors behind them in the second row.  Then, let’s have the french horn, trombones, and baritones next to the tenors, with the snare drum on the end.  Don’t be bashful; you can go ahead and move.  No, clarinets over here, saxes over there…”  And so it went…

As you can imagine, it can all be a bit overwhelming.  About this time, as I had my head buried in a pile of details, I heard a voice beside me:

“Mr. Shaver?”  It was Melissa, my seventh grader, picking up her clarinet before heading home.  “I can’t leave without a hug,” she said.

I put my arm around her shoulder and gave her a quick hug, all the time thinking that teachers aren’t supposed to do that anymore.  “I’ll take one of those anytime, Melissa.  Have a good night.”

Then I got right back to work.  I really didn’t think much about it at the time.  But later on, while driving home feeling tired and frazzled, I remembered her hug and smiled, and thought how glad I am that Melissa wuz here.

Learning the Hard Way

18 years ago I learned a valuable lesson the hard way.  It was the day after our Christmas band concert and I was just a few months into my first teaching job.  Standing up in front of my 8th grade brass and percussion students, mostly boys, I was thinking about how hard they had worked preparing for the concert, rehearsing every day since the beginning of the school year.  I wanted to give them a break, which would also give me a chance to get to know them better.  My plan was that we would first discuss how the concert had gone.  Then we would play a game like 20 questions or something.

The first part of my plan went well.  The students shared their impressions of the performance, and we identified areas for improvement.  It was interesting to hear their points of view.

Then I made the mistake of asking the class an open-ended question like, “So, what do you want to do now?”

Without hesitating, Kurt – a tall, asthmatic trombone player with thick glasses – stood up, lifted his chair over his head, and yelled, “RIOT!”  He then ran out of the room, chair and all, with most of the class following right behind.

They ran down the music hallway, took a left, a right, and another right, ending up in the cafeteria.  I ran after them, taking a right, and then a left, heading them off in the cafeteria and leading them back to the band room, all the while nervously looking up and down the hallway for the principal.

Needless to say, I was quite relieved to have them back in their seats.  After taking attendance, I avoided my earlier mistake by giving the class a choice between two different activities; no more open invitations.  They chose to play 20 questions, so we played a version with the class divided into two teams and myself as the moderator.  It was fun, I managed to keep my job, and it has been a tradition for my bands after every concert ever since.

What If…?

News Flash!

The Backpack Community School Corporation announced today that with its first round draft pick it has selected Mr. Brian Tyner as its new 7th grade English teacher.  He will take the place of Backpack Middle School teacher Mr. Joseph Franklin, whose contract was not renegotiated when he became an unrestricted free agent.

“I’m really excited to be joining the Backpack school system.  Go Bulldogs!” said Tyner, who is leaving Hoosier University early to join BMS.  He is one of the first to benefit from the new Snag-a-Teacher program designed to identify the most promising talent, get them teaching early, and give them college credit for time spent in the classroom.

Some have criticized Sn.a.T., saying it will lead to a “one and done” system that discourages future teachers from finishing college.  BCSC officials dismiss this, however, saying teachers like Tyner will be under the direct supervision of experienced teacher/coaches, will teach a lighter load for their first two years, will continue taking college classes, and will receive credit for time spent in the classroom.

BCSC positioned itself to select Tyner by trading a science teacher and a second round draft pick, but officials are confident it was a good decision.

“Mr. Tyner has enormous potential,” said BCSC school board president Mrs. Becky Purdue.  “With this selection, we are making a significant investment in our students.”  Tyner has reportedly been offered a five year/$500,000 contract.

Superintendent James Donahue said, “He’s a franchise teacher.  With time we are confident Mr. Tyner will step into a leadership role on the 7th grade team.  He showed us some great stuff during the Pro Day workouts.  He is quick-witted, organized, and compassionate.  And his hallway presence between classes was imposing.  In short, this level of maturity is a rare find in one so young.  We couldn’t afford to pass him up.”

When asked about the effect Mr. Tyner’s celebrity will have among the more experienced faculty, Principal Dave Welby responded, “Our staff members are all professionals.  I don’t expect any drama in the teachers’ lounge.”

Tyner will be reporting to summer training camp in July, provided contract terms can be settled.

My Mysterious Malfunctioning Podium

My podium malfunctioned again today.  You know the box a conductor stands on to direct the band?  Mine stopped working, which means I was unable to speak.  If this sounds odd, remember… no, never mind.  But let me explain.

Normally, my podium does just what you would expect it to do:  it gives me about six extra inches so the students in the back row can see me better, and more importantly, so I can see what they are up to.

But occasionally it malfunctions and interferes with my ability to speak, which of course complicates our rehearsal a great deal.

For instance, today we were in the middle of a rather ho-hum rehearsal – students not really watching or listening to me – when suddenly, I lost my voice.  I had just stopped the Band to offer a bit of brilliant musical advice, but nothing came out.

Needless to say, the students were baffled.  I stepped off the podium, got my voice back, and explained,

“This is not the first time I’ve had this problem.  Occasionally, one of the wires in my podium shorts out, causing some sort of interference with my voice that renders me temporarily mute.”

“Your box is wired?” asked a skeptical drummer.

“Yes.  How else would it work?  Now please listen.  A podium technician inspected it, but he was unable to track down the offending wire.  He did note, however, that the malfunction seems to occur most often during rehearsals in which students are not watching or listening to me.

“You mean,” asked a trumpeter a little too eagerly, “when you step back up on the podium you won’t be able to tell us what to do?”

“Uh… while I will still be able to see you,” I replied cautiously, “it’s true – I won’t be able to speak to you.  So I will have to use hand gestures and perhaps whisper a little.  If things get really bad, I will step off the podium to get my voice back.  But one thing is for certain, we are not stopping our rehearsal for this.  We will just have to figure out a way to communicate without words.  So pay attention.”

With that, I stepped up on the podium and used my fingers to signal for the band to begin at measure 9.  A student in the front row whispered, “Measure 9,” to the person behind her, who then passed it on, as if the people in back could not see me.  Then I raised my baton and began.

Very soon we came to a place in the music where I wanted to add a crescendo (to get gradually louder).  I directed one, but nothing happened, so I gave a cutoff to stop the band.  However, quite a few students played on for several measures because they hadn’t been watching, which, of course, was the problem to begin with.  Jumping up and down and waving my arms, I finally got their attention, and I heard another student say, “He stopped us.  You guys need to watch.”  Pointing to that student, I made a show of awarding him with a bonus point.

Now for the hard part.  I needed to get the class to understand about the crescendo.  Imagine a game of charades.  Using my fingers, I got someone to say, “Measure 26.”  Then responding to my various gestures, students asked questions like,

“We’re supposed to get taller?  Should we stand up?”

I rolled my eyes and motioned for him to sit back down.

“Are we supposed to get fatter?”

I scowled at the boy.

“Do you want us to get louder?”

Another bonus point was awarded.

So this student whispered to her neighbor, “He wants up to get louder at measure 26.”  Then two or three other students whispered it to their neighbors, and so on until the message had traveled around the room.  The funny part of all this was how the students, without my saying so, assumed that my inability to speak meant they had to whisper everything.  It turned out to be an exceptionally quiet rehearsal.

It was also one of our most productive rehearsals.  The class had to pay close attention to everything I did, which meant they were watching me more than usual.  They also had to do a lot of thinking as they deciphered my clues.  And it was great to see them working together.

At the end of the rehearsal, they seemed drained, as though the effort of learning had taken every last ounce they had to offer.  But on her way out of class, one of my clarinet players asked,

“Can we do that again tomorrow?”

I smiled and said, “Who knows?  I really can’t control when my podium malfunctions.  Besides, I’m hoping it will be fixed by then.”

Jim Dandy’s

This past Thursday we held our annual Band Sign-up Night in the Backpack Elementary School cafeteria.  This is the night when 5th graders sign up for band lessons.  Since I live about 30 minutes away, I decided to stay in town after school rather than drive home and return, and this meant I would need to get some dinner.

The Backpack Schools are located in a small Hoosier town with a surprising number of restaurant choices for its size.  There is the Chinese restaurant, for instance.  It has great food and is owned by the parents of two wonderful girls I have had in my classes.  Their mother doesn’t even ask my name when I call to place a lunch order.  She just tells me it will be ready in 10 minutes, and it always is.

Or I could go to Subway where Kayla’s grandmother works behind the counter.  Kayla is one of our flute players, and her grandmother knows what toppings I like on my sandwiches.

But the most popular spot for dinner by far seems to be the local Jim Dandy’s family restaurant, where you can get chicken-fried steak, or the soup/salad/fruit bar, or the famous Jim Dandy sandwich platter.  This is where I chose to go for an early dinner Thursday.  It wasn’t hard to find a table since it was only 4:00.  Seated across the dining room, three old farmers were passing the time talking.  They had obviously known each other their whole lives; their conversation had an easy, forgettable way about it.  I found myself wondering what they had been like as kids together years ago in school.

One of them looked out the window and saw another man approaching.  “Here comes trouble,” he said, smiling.

The new arrival came in and took a seat in a booth.

“Hey, Tom.  So they finally let you out?”

“Yeah, first time to town since they plowed my drive.”  It was hard for me to tell if this was true; it has been a mild winter, and the last serious snow was about two months ago, so he might have been kidding…

One of the waitresses walked over and asked, “Would you like green beans or corn?”  So far as I can recall, this was all she asked.

“Green beans, thanks.”

One of the other farmers asked, “So, Tom, why haven’t you been to town?”

“I been too busy!”

“You know where people go for lyin’, don’t ya?

“Same place as for stealing.”  His quick answer brought more laughs than I would have expected, but I found myself laughing, too.

Pretty soon the waitress walked back over with a bag of carry out, which must have been Tom’s regular order because it was ready fast with few questions.  After paying, Tom said his goodbyes and left.

I, too, finished my meal and headed back to the school.  Sign-up Night went smoothly.  Several of the 5th graders who attended are younger brothers and sisters of band members I have had before.  Nick showed up with his older sister Tori, now a high schooler, who I recalled had suffered through an infection two years ago that was so serious the doctors didn’t know if she would live.  She was in the hospital for a few weeks, and was even longer recuperating at home.  While she has mostly recovered, she still has trouble taking a deep breath, so she often sounds tired.  But she is always smiling.  Nick was, too.

This year’s group of beginners seems exceptionally nice.  There aren’t a lot of them, but they are enthusiastic.  There has been a significant drop in the number of students signing up for band over the last few years.  I wish I knew why.  I suspect it’s due to a number of converging factors:  sports are more popular than ever; video games and other easy entertainment could be a reason; money is tight and budgets are stretched; fewer students seem willing to do anything that takes effort.

But for now, I am focusing on the ones who made the effort to show up and sign up.  Their families are making an investment in their students’ futures, and I get to provide them with some fantastic opportunities.  What a privilege.

And who knows?  Maybe years from now these kids will be the ones shooting the breeze at the Jim Dandy’s, and maybe a few of their stories will be about their time together in the band.