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The Oddly Hopeful Sound Of High School Bands

The consistency of my reaction year after year surprises me. At the annual "festival of bands," the floor of the gymnasium is jammed with hundreds of teenagers and their instruments, music stands, and sheet music. The rising bleachers on each side of the gym are equally crowded.

The room is noisy. The air is thick with a mixture of pride and anxiety.

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Six bands are performing separately, but the first piece is for all 500 musicians to play together: the "Star-Spangled Banner." The students are alert, their instruments raised and expectant. The audience stands, the conductor lifts his baton. For a full two seconds, everyone and everything freezes. All eyes are on the baton. Then the conductor's wand drops, and the first notes wash over us like a dam.

I am neither sentimental nor patriotic, but my eyes tear, as they do at no other time for this national song.

We applaud at the end of the anthem and resume our seats. Paper rustles, muted voices rise and fall, and children dash for the bathroom.

One school's percussionist, six feet in front of me, smirks, pokes his neighbor with a drumstick, looks quickly away and then, tiring of this charade, begins beating the air in a fast, nervous rhythm with his sticks. The female tympanist, smiling, has her eyes on him. The adults behind, in awe of such energy, are riveted to his manic performance. The music teacher, alert and relaxed, occasionally glances at the percussionist. The boy is oblivious to his diverse audience.

The pieces to be performed by the bands are different from the pieces we played 30 years ago. Less classical and more "Lion King" and "Louie Louie." A few other things are different as well. Some nose rings, a few buzz haircuts with designs etched in them, three or four heads of temporary purple or green hair (my daughter's included).

There is a greater ethnic richness here than I remember from my youth. Band uniforms haven't changed much - black slacks and skirts with white shirts. Although outfits tonight are topped with bow ties, sparkly cummerbunds, and vests unique to each band.

The first performing band's conductor, off in the far corner, raises his hands for the downbeat. The sound that comes out of this smaller group is a key off. Woodwinds bleat. Horns blurt. Saxophones honk. Flutes warble. The rhythm is slow and almost painfully cadenced. Half the players are just to one side or the other of the beat. All told, the collective sound is not dissimilar to the early-morning noises of a country farm: contrary, dissonant, and deliciously awake.

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The piece, an overture of indistinguishable vintage or style, seems to go on forever in this charming, awkward performance. The conductor occasionally shushes his lips at the band, shrugs his shoulder tightly, and makes a downward calming motion with his hands, asking for a somewhat gentler sound for a particular section. His efforts are to no avail, and his smile indicates that he knows it and was asking for the moon. We applaud wildly at the end, and the players look up, expectant. Our relief matches theirs.

And so goes the evening. Twenty minutes this band, 15 minutes the next. Some bands better, some worse. Fidgeting increases with time; children climb up and down the bleachers; parents rise between numbers to get a break from the hard wooden seats; a blonde six-year-old sneaks up behind her trumpet-playing brother, pokes him in the head, and quickly runs off, delighted with herself. Her brother ignores her.

The percussionist is increasingly frenetic. He can barely stand to witness the performance of the plodding but competent drummer in the band next to his, and intermittently pokes the fellow percussionist to his left, rolls his eyes, points his finger, and jabs at a phantom drum with his sticks. When he accidentally hits the snare drum, half his band turns around to gape, smile, shake their heads, and nudge their neighbors. They know his entertainment value.

Two hours later, at last, it's over. By the end, I am tired and thankful that it's done. But the evening is a memory that will remain with me. When next year's concert rolls around, I will undoubtedly complain about going. But I can predict my reaction to the concert with remarkable accuracy.

I will look at these young people and their fresh faces and will hear the faulty sound they make. My eyes will tear. Maybe it's the momentary relief I feel that our national soundtrack consists of more than just electronic beeps from computers and video games, the barrage of high-pitched ads, the bustle of traffic and jackhammers, and the intermittent staccato of television gunshots.

Or maybe it's the hope that always gets me. The renewed belief that disparate parts can come together in something that is not yet music but that is pure and hopeful.

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