Unknowing

I never went to piano lessons as a kid. It wasn’t like I was skipping out on a planned activity or anything — my parents didn’t play the piano, neither more nor my brother showed any interest, so we never had the “traditional” music education.

In fact, until the fifth grade, the sum total of my musical education involved playing the recorder in fourth grade music class. We played simple things, like “Hot Cross Buns” and the like. There were notes on sheet music, sure, but basically we just learned that notes on a specific part of the staff corresponded to a specific fingering.

In fifth grade, though, that’s when band started. A real band, with woodwinds and brass and drums (sorry, percussion). Well, choir started, too, but I didn’t actually know anyone who wanted to be in choir. We all wanted to be in the band.

They held band in the multi-purpose room, it being the only space large enough for anything larger than your average 26-person class. (The multi-purpose room served as cafeteria, assembly hall and general activity room.) We all sat in folding chairs arranged more-or-less like a traditional orchestra and waited for our teacher, Mr. Mash.

Mr. Mash began with the band program in the district where I grew up in 1968 — when I sat down in that chair (in the back, naturally), he was in his 30th year.

30 years of dealing with children — in any capacity, much less teaching — does something to a person. Actually, it’s probably capable of doing several things. He wasn’t beaten down, letting kids walk over him. He wasn’t a disinterested old-timer, coasting until pension. He very much cared about music, and tried to teach children. He was just a little bit … ornery.

Much like the Sorting Hat, one of the things that determined what instrument you played was your choice. Unlike the Sorting Hat, it wasn’t the ultimate determinant. In that respect, choosing an instrument was more like choosing a game piece in Jumanji — you could have a preference, but you were stuck with whatever the game gave you.

Yes, in this metaphor Mr. Mash was a horrifying board game that seemed to strive to kill its participants, unless they somehow survived and grew stronger for the experience. So, pretty apt.

Anyway, since Mr. Mash had absolutely no knowledge of us prior to walking into the “band room” the first day, the way he made his determinations probably amounted to some amount of individual preference, band balance and the Test.

The test was basically the sole knowledge of our musical acumen. It consisted of Mr. Mash taking you into a small room with a tape recorder. With a notepad at his wrist, he’d go through a series of short tests. One tested the student’s ability to determine pitch — which notes were higher or lower. One involved two series of notes, and it was up to the student to determine whether they were faster or slower than the previous sets.

Upon completion of the test, Mr. Mash then would go over what he thought was the best instrument choice.

I sat at the back because I wanted to play the drums (Percussion! Sorry!), so my test came near the end. When Mr. Mash looked over my results, he shook his head.

“You need higher scores to be a percussionist. I don’t think you’re really cut out for it. Maybe you’d like to try the trombone?”

Now I’m sure there were several good reasons: Of our 70-person band, I think something like 12 wanted to be percussionists. And I’m not disputing the scores — they probably were low. In playing the trombone, I had many years of enjoyment and fun all the way through the end of high school. But there was one thing I realized around ninth grade: The test was flawed.

Having exactly zero musical education beforehand, I literally had no concept of things like “higher pitches,” or designating which was faster of eighth notes and triplets. One can argue that knowing those kinds of things were important to playing in the band, but that’s also the point of the class — to learn more.

Basically, a significant portion of my education (and free time, to an extent), was determined by a test that asked questions without ensuring that I even understood the answers.

I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions. I feel like imparting my own takeaway sort of defeats the whole point.