The Pied Piper Learns a Lesson (First of a Coming Series)
Spend 36 years in “The Vineyards of Education” and unless you were somehow completely insensible to your surroundings you will have a truckload of incidents, some humorous, others poignant, and a few (although too many) tragic, lurking in your memory. I began my career in September of 1957 as a band director/instrumental music teacher in a small school located on US Highway 40, ninety miles east of St. Louis. I’ll save you the trouble of looking at a map and guessing; it was a one-motel town called “Altamont” and I stayed there two years before looking for greener pastures in a suburban village called “Dundee/Carpentersville” 40 miles northwest of Chicago. My job there involved working one period a day with a junior high school band and one hour a week (after school hours) with a grade school band, plus spending twenty minutes per session over a period of several weeks during the spring semester “teaching” 4th graders how to play a “Tonette®”
If a person blows gently through a “Tonette®” it makes a sort of doleful whistling sound and simple tunes can be played with it. But . . . when a person blows through it vigorously it makes a high-pitched shriek that is guaranteed to set a listener’s teeth on edge. Guess which way most 4th graders blew. However, enduring teaching 4th graders how to play “Tonette®” was the price I had to pay to make sure I had a steady flow of beginners into the band program. My (and any honest school band director’s) true purpose in spending that time in 4th grade classrooms was to get them acquainted with me and sell them on the idea of becoming a member of the grade school band next year; a mission sort of analogous to that of “The Pied Piper.”
One spring, in a fit of not-very-well-thought-though showmanship, I scheduled a concert in the junior high school gym. The high point of this concert was to be a piece that featured ALL the fourth graders from five different grade schools playing their “Tonettes® while the Junior High Band played an “accompaniment.” A feat I thought would have their parents busting with pride and sold on the idea of having their child in the band. (Think “The Music Man.”)
To appreciate what happened at this concert you have to realize that as a band director I dealt almost exclusively with well-mannered kids; either in band or in small classes of similar instruments. In my monumental ignorance I had no idea what would happen when a hundred or more unsupervised 4th graders were seated cheek by jowl in gym bleachers; holding “Tonettes® in their sweaty little hands. By the time the Junior High Band had played the first number I knew. It was quite clear to me that I had created a monster. All those little unsupervised 4th graders, resplendent in their white shirts or blouses, were behaving like a colony of disturbed ants seated across the gym from me in the bleachers. I could see that total chaos would engulf us within the next few minutes. Now in survival mode and hoping they would hear me over the din of “tonetty” whistling and general racket in the 4th grade section, I announced to the audience of Moms, Dads and Grandparents that we would change the program, (I had intended the Massed Tonettes® number, emulating "The 1812 Overture," to be a glorious finale to our concert.) I told the audience we would feature the 4th graders next, after which they were to go sit with their parents. The applause following that announcement equaled that which my band would’ve received had we played a flawless masterpiece.
It is a pity that the sound that filled every crevice, crack, and cranny in that gym during the next 5 minutes was not recorded and preserved in The Library of Congress. It was a sound right out of Dante’s “Inferno.” Mercifully it ended without any casualties among the children. You can be sure my band did not play an encore at that concert. The last note sounded, the curtains were quickly pulled; and I considered it a blessing that I was neither threatened with a lawsuit or being fired.
I continued teaching 4th graders how to “play” a “Tonette™” for several more years, but there were no more massed Tonette extravaganzas.
It is too bad it was not recorded,,,would have been able to sell thousands today as 'ring-tones' for cell phones,,,and further truth to the notion that NO GOOD DEED goes unpunished.
Oh, the agony I endured during the first 15 or so minutes of that "concert" was true punishment. I guarantee that if that sound was used as a ringtone ALL cell phones would be answered at least immediately following the first "ring" if not midway in that ring. I had a GREAT principal at that time in my life. He didn't hand me my buttocks on a platter. He could've.
I have to smile! Having taught middle schoolers (7th and 8th grade 11 to 13 year-olds) your concert story reminds me of the social nature and the noise that his age group displays. But 4th graders, with all their enthusiasm and naivity thought they were producing a wonderful masterpiect, no doubt. Oh the innocence (and ignorance) that we miss as adults! I an empathize.