A few weeks ago, Lily, our fifth grader, told us she wanted to quit band.
To most parents, this kind of announcement would be met with a shrug. OK. It’s not your thing. Onward.
But to me and Joe – who MET solely because we were both part of the Michigan Marching Band’s trombone section (after playing for years in our respective schools’ bands) – well, to say the announcement has knocked the wind out of us is an understatement.
I will say that part of the problem is clearly the way Lily started on her short-lived band journey. When I was in school, you started from scratch in sixth grade, when it was an elective class in middle school – so it was simply integrated into your regular school day.
In my daughter’s school, you instead start the process in fifth grade by arriving at school an hour early on Mondays and Wednesdays and learning some basics on your chosen instrument, by way of the local middle school’s band director (godspeed, brave soul, godspeed).
Lily chose trumpet last fall (because, you know, there are only about four trombones in our home, so why pick that?); she went uncomplainingly to practice for several months; had one “talking too much during class” incident; and then, a couple months later, made her decision to quit, citing her annoyance at getting up early; her dissatisfaction with the director (though, again, hardest job in show business, as I tried to explain to her); and the fact that “all her friends had quit.”
Not great reasons, to my mind, especially since the before-school thing is temporary, and the issue of her friends having quit would be mitigated when several schools feed into her middle school band next year, thus giving her a whole new set of people to befriend. But here we are.
“It just makes me sad,” I told her. “Your dad and I got so many really cool opportunities because of band. We got to travel to lots of neat places, and be part of things like the Rose Parade, and so many of our closest friends came from band.”
“I know, Mom,” said Lily. “But that was you, not me.”
Yes, sweetheart, I thought. It was. But I also can’t help but feel like you’re shutting the door way too quickly on something that could provide so many wonderful things in your life, and you’re doing so at age 10, by way of pretty flimsy logic.
“It’s different when it’s a class,” I tried explaining to her. “I loved that instead of sitting at another desk working, I got to play on an instrument, and learn about music.”
“But I don’t,” Lily insisted.
Oy with this one.
But this is the parenting Bermuda Triangle we all fly over regularly, isn’t it?
When exactly do we put our foot down and say, “No, you’re doing this, whether you want to or not,” and when do we let our kids make their own choices?
Making the call by feel is less than satisfying, to say the least. You fear that if you make them stick with it, you’re sentencing yourself to an ugly, drawn out daily battle with your kid; but you also fear that if you give them agency in things like this, they’ll get in the habit of quitting when the going gets tough, thereby building zero resiliency.
And maybe it’s a generational thing, but I’ll confess that it never even occurred to me to quit band when I was a kid. Once I signed up, and my parents started payments on my starter Holton trombone, I figured I’d made a commitment, and I immediately put down roots. Yes, some of my peers certainly quit band over the years; but to a rule follower like me, that seemed about as exotic as getting a tattoo. I mean … quit? That seemed so decisive and final. I was more of a people-pleasing, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of kid.
But Lily’s different.
And Joe’s solution to Lily’s argument was this: OK, but music education is important to us, so realize that if you’re quitting band now, you’re committing yourself to stay in choir for the coming years.
Lily agreed. End of conversation.
But a ghost of the older version of Lily that had lived in my imagination for years, without me even realizing it, has relentlessly haunted me since. Part of it is selfish, I know. Band kids are, let’s face it, mostly good students who almost never get into super-serious trouble in high school. They’re the antithesis of the “bad crowd,” you know? So I’d hoped that Lily would benefit from spending her adolescent days among similarly ambitious, disciplined, and just-plain-nice kids. And yes, it would likely mean less worrying about her on the parental side.
But another part of my Sturm and Drang over this band issue likely stems from narcissism. The whole “having children so that part of us lives on after death” is a real thing – a hard-to-deny impulse. So although we rationally know that our kids, from the get-go, are not Mini-Mes, and that they are self-contained people with their own sense free will – otherwise, wouldn’t we all have slept much better in those early years, for God’s sake? – there’s still always a part of us, I think, that assumes our kids will, in significant ways, follow our lead.
That they’ll take cues from us, and gravitate toward the road we’ve already mapped out.
I mean, yes, Lily’s always stridently been her own person with a strong, unassailable will, so this shouldn’t surprise me. Yet in a strange, irrational way, her band decision feels like some kind of rejection of me – of us – given how band played such a pivotal role in both of our lives.
And this goes far beyond learning how to read music (and consequently hearing it differently, too). To me, band was about learning to handle pressure; and showing up even when you didn’t feel like it; and learning to work with both the intimidating musical prodigy senior on one side of you and the socially awkward guy who tries way too hard on the other; and screwing up the courage to play out on that solo, even if you’re pretty sure you’ll crack the high note; and listening closely to each other; and it’s about the thrill of discovering you can be better than you thought possible.
It’s about learning to simultaneously watch the director, and your place within your rank, and your music, and your specific place on the football field – which is a pretty damn solid metaphor for what adulthood feels like upon arrival (and ever since).
It’s about being in situation where you depend on the people around you, and they all really need you, too.
Because you’re a band, not a solo musician.
This mindset tends to launch you out into the world with a communal “us” mentality, where you see yourself as one of many players, and your main job is not to just think about your part, but the success of the whole.
There’s value in that kind of humane thinking. And through things like U-M’s alumni band, it’s something I still get to revisit and enjoy, even at age 48. Just last week, for instance, I played with the band at a U-M women’s softball game; and though a freezing, hard wind made it kind of unpleasant in the latter innings, it still felt wonderful to put air through the horn again, root the team on to victory, be with others’ who shared my band experience, and help the band’s sound be that much bigger and stronger. (And back in the day, of course, my involvement in band led to expenses-paid trips to Rose Bowls, Final Fours and more, and was the sole reason I crossed paths with a certain loud, Jewish honors history major whose heart turned out to be as big as his laugh.)
So yes, I’m still sad that Lily is walking away from this thing that brought (and continues to bring) so much that’s positive to Joe’s life, and to my own.
I can only hope that in the next few years, she finds a pursuit that offers similar life lessons and gifts.
But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit more worried now.
It so sad that the school treats music education like this. It does a tremendous disservice to the students. But it is what it is. At least Lily will continue to experience music through choir. Because every child needs to learn something about music.
And maybe, just maybe, she will come back to the trumpet.
Instrumental music is a great place for high school students.
I’ve been in band for five years now. I joined when I was in 5th grade and now I am a freshman in high school.
I started playing the drums in elementary school, and I learned how to play the saxophone in 6th grade.
I switched to the bass clarinet in 7th grade, and then I quit that instrument because it was a pain to put it together and take it apart.
I played the tenor saxophone when I was in 8th grade because my friend played that instrument in band.
now as a freshman: I am in concert band, jazz band, and marching band. I will learn how to play the trumpet for jazz band when I go back to in person school.