Front and Center in the Background

2011Symposium_1_2My school has four exhibition nights, one at the end of each marking period. The school is a museum magnet school. The museum part of that means that as the students learn about something, they create artifacts that can be displayed in a museum and that demonstrates their learning. Student docents are selected, and parents come and walk through the school building transformed into a museum with the help of museum personnel from the many fine museums in New Haven. Because the superintendent of schools was coming, I was asked to play piano. The intent was that I would add a touch of class and ambiance to the evening. So, right at start time, I opened up my Real Book and began to play popular and jazz standards. The encounters that followed were enjoyable, fascinating, and instructive.

Not too far into the evening, I became aware of someone humming along to “God Bless The Child.” Soon, the man came over to the piano and told me he knew that song. I looked up and smiled at him as he continued to hum. He quietly began singing some of the words, and then went back to humming. I went around another time, and then the man stopped humming and just stood there listening and smiling. When I ended the song, he walked away with a look of satisfaction all about him.

Shortly after that, a high school student came along; one of my former students who had graduated from the PK-8 school and was now attending a performing arts magnet school. “Is that your Real Book?” he asked, again as I was playing. “Yes, as a matter of fact, it is,” I replied. I have one too. I’m playing out of it in school.” The boy is a trumpet player who started trumpet lessons in 6th grade. He was excited that I was playing out of the same book he was using, and stayed a minute or two and then left to view the exhibits. Three other former students came over to say hello, one of them with her sister who is a current student of mine, a fifth grader. It is always good to see former students, especially when they return to school and pop in to see me. My appearance playing piano gave them a chance to visit for a few minutes, and reminisce.

Occasionally throughout the evening I got up from the piano and switched over to clarinet. I had brought a few solo art-of-teachingpieces and played one now and then. The first one was Air from the Orchestral Suite in D by J. S. Bach, popularly known as “Air on the G String.” At this point, the crowd was sparse, and I wasn’t aware of anyone in particular listening, but the space had such full acoustics, I was just enjoying playing this beautiful melody there. When I finished I heard commendations addressed to me; I turned to find the source of these kind words was one of my teaching colleagues, a 6th grade teacher. He was in the kitchen heating up the pizza that was being served, had heard me playing, and had come down the hall to listen. He had never heard me play clarinet before, and told me I had made the Bach sound like a beautiful opera aria  He doesn’t particularly like opera, but he knows I do, so it was a thoughtful compliment.

Other students, mostly young ones, walked by and stopped to watch and listen as I played. Young children are fascinated by people playing musical instruments. It seems to them like some kind of magic whereby the player moves his or her fingers around on the keys to produce the music. Once, I looked to my right where a third grade class had their exhibition set up, and three of the children and their teacher were dancing to a jazz tune I was playing. When the pizza was ready, I took a break and went into the cafeteria to get a slice of pizza. The food service worker who was serving recognized me from seeing me playing in the atrium, and introduced himself. “Are you the music teacher here?” he asked me. We exchanged a few kind words, and then I returned to my piano, pizza and salad in hand. I doubt I would have really met the food service employee if I hadn’t been playing music. I would have just been one of many getting a slice of pizza.

When I was playing piano, my clarinet was carefully laid on my coat under the piano, but not so well concealed that a 2nd grade girl couldn’t spot it. “How does it work?” she asked. “Does it go up when you let go of it?” It took me a few seconds to grasp what she meant, but then I realized she had seen my fingers come off the instrument while hearing the pitch go up. Quite the observer, this second grade child. I explained how tone holes and keys worked, and confirmed that she was right about letting go and the sound going up. She was pleased that she had understood, and merrily skipped off as delighted children do.

When the event was over, I put my things away and headed for the door to go home. Two administrators caught sight of me with my coat on, thanked me for playing, and all said how wonderful it all sounded. Every encounter I had throughout the evening was different, every one was special, and all of them made me realize how much more there is to playing background music at a museum opening than just being in the background. My music meant something different to everyone I came in contact with, and it no doubt meant something to the many more who heard the music but did not stop by to say hello, hum along, or ask questions. Now if only I had thought to have a tip bowl.


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