When I was a little girl, I used to get so annoyed with my mom for making us perform all over the place… I’m not sure why I would get so frustrated with this, except for the fact that it was like forced family fun and don’t all teenagers hate that??? My mom taught piano lessons out of our home and so of course we were all musical. She would so often schedule performances and recitals and even impromptu musical outings for us that we would grumble but we knew it was no use… She would make sure we would go out and make music for others. And it wasn’t always just us, often she would coax the neighborhood kids out along with her piano students and just about anyone else she could bring out. No matter how annoyed I would get at her for scheduling these musical outings, afterwards, I always felt humbled and grateful.
And now, like all daughters of great women, I find myself doing exactly the same thing…
I get it now though… And recently, I understood even more than ever, that as a musician and music teacher, I have a duty to society. As musicians, we have a truly free gift that we can share with the world. This gift is one that the world genuinely appreciates and one that makes a real difference in the lives of others. So… this winter, I scheduled about a billion performances with my own students (and just about any other musicians I could bring out)… We performed at malls, in book stores, in a nursing home, and for the special needs students at our school.
One of my students was exactly like teenager me, except she didn’t have the oversized glasses, intrusive bangs, and horrid fashion sense that I did… We’ll just call her “MiniAmms” for now… Anyways… What she did have was this massive grudge about having to go perform at all of these places. She was so mad at me for making her miss the last day of school before break one day that she just about dropped out of the events completely. Luckily, for both of us, I was able to talk her into coming after all…
Our first stop was to visit one of the middle schools. This. Was. AWESOME! We performed a really fun set of music for all of the orchestra kids in the entire school. My students felt like total ROCKSTARS!!! The middle school kids LOVED our concert and were so jazzed that they couldn’t stop cheering for us! It was pretty epic if I do say so myself. MiniAmms wasn’t yet convinced that the trip was worth it, but her bad attitude changed completely at this point…
BRINGERS OF JOY…
Then, we went back to our own school to perform carols for our special needs students. I asked a few students to be in charge of encouraging the special needs students to get involved, to sing and clap and dance. When these students walked and wheeled into the room, they were quiet, just a few lilting sounds, shuffling feet, a few soft voices asking for instructions on where to sit and what they were doing. Then, we started playing… And the students came to life… They were so excited by the music that they couldn’t stop moving. One student was moving so much that others around him had to slide out of the way so he had plenty of room to do his thing!
I saw a change in my students. For just a few moments, they went from self-absorbed high school students to bringers of joy. Doing everything they could to get more smiles, more laughter, and more singing. And it worked. My students didn’t even need me at this point. They were watching the students so closely. When the special needs students weren’t as vocal, my students turned their volume up … When the special needs students weren’t clapping, mine left their instruments and walked out to encourage clapping (on the off beats of course). Once we had the whole room buzzing with song and spirit, it was time to go. Everyone was a bit sad when they realized it was time to go, but many of the special needs kids left humming, whirring, and throbbing with the joys that live music brings. MiniAmms finally had broken a smile, a real smile… Until I looked at her, then she switched back to that typical teenage “I’m not smiling…I’m still mad at you…” forced frown. I was perfectly happy with that …
We then had to go to the nursing home. My students were so pleased with their performances with the middle school students and with the special needs kids. They were thriving on the positive feedback they had received all day and couldn’t wait for their next performance. So, we arrive at the nursing home.
As is somewhat normal, we get to the nursing home and there are all kinds of strange protocols in order to get in and out of the building. This causes a bit of unease in my students immediately. I mean, where else do you have to hit a buzzer in order to get in and out of a place except Prison? I could see the mood shift significantly… Then, we got into the performance space and there was just silence. We were going to be performing for the Alzheimers patients. And many of them were gone… The majority of the patients were in rolling beds, much of their own physical functionality dissipated long ago. My students went from cheerful, proud, and happy to solemn, respectful, and even grave. I was amazed at how seamlessly this transformation happened.
It was so powerful that before we started playing one of my students whispered to me “Mrs. Ammerman, should you tell everyone to play at like, half our volume so we don’t stir them?” I said “No. Absolutely not. We are here to do exactly that… We will stir and push and prod… We are here to bring them love and love, it stirs, it churns, and it inspires and breathes life. Stir away!”
And so they did. To give you an idea of what this particular visit was like, you should know a few things:
- The only clapping happened from the staff members in the room. The patients did not clap, not once…
- The patients didn’t ever focus on us. You never saw their eyes directly on ours, not on us, not on our instruments. Mostly, they were focused on some distant spec on the floor, invisible to us, but captivating to them.
- Many of the patients were covered in blankets in extremely limited states of functionality.
After the first piece, my students were stunned by the lack of clapping… They didn’t know what to do or think… But we kept on… We performed Christmas Carols and asked the patients to sing along… But most of them didn’t sing.
We handed out lyric packets anyways… And one of them finally started humming along and waving the packet. The music was stirring her right out of the silence. This happened on Silent Night. And I noticed my students gain a level of confidence and an equal level of maturity.
Then, we started to play Jingle Bells. My students LOVE this rendition of Jingle Bells for a variety of reasons, but mostly because one of my incredible students conducts it. Although it is rarely important to note the race of the student, in this case it is… Because this particular student is black. And the only black patient in the entire room noticed that a black student was conducting the orchestra. She suddenly sat up straight. Completely focused on this student conductor. She was so proud and was now thoroughly interested in our program. She joined us in singing and waving her packet. And we saw the life come right back into her eyes. Beautiful.
Then, we played this wonderful spanish piece full of triplets, showy arpeggios, and two solo musicians. And one gentleman in a wheelchair was suddenly fascinated with the piece. So fascinated, that he kept moving his feet to scoot closer and closer to the musicians. So fascinated and joyful that the staff members kept having to pull him back, away from the musicians. He couldn’t get enough of the music. And we saw him pushing. Pushing for more life, more music, more love. And my students gave it.
By the end of the hour, we had many of the patients moving and humming or even singing. As we were leaving, my students were so kind. More kind than I have ever seen them. We were just about to leave when one of them asked me to come back. “Yes?” I asked. “Mrs. Ammerman. This man used to be in marching band! Can we bring a drum next time for him? I think he wants to make music with us?”
And my heart melted. “Of course. Of course we will.” We said goodbyes to the patients. We assured them we would return soon. And we saw such a transformation in them in just that one hour.
As soon as we got outside, my students started formulating plans to return with as many students as they could find.
We continued performing that day but the best moment happened at the end of the day when everyone was reflecting on the day. There was this newfound appreciation from these students and an incredible enthusiasm to go out and spread more love. One of my favorite moments, though, was when MiniAmms said to me “I guess it was pretty awesome to go on this trip… Actually, this was way better than staying here for holiday parties… Did you see ….” And she went on and on and on and on noting all of the beauty that we had seen that day as a result of sharing our musical gifts. Then as she left for her winter break with violin in hand, she said “We need to do this more often.”
It was an incredible way to end the last day before Winter Break. I suppose Mother really does know best 😉