A Balanced Musical Diet

by Nancy Jorgensen

The orchestra assembled on stage, cabbages and pineapples tucked under their elbows. Adolescent boys in yellow raincoats over tuxedo pants. Pony-tailed girls in plastic-ponchoed gowns. The audience chatting in undertones, swishing pages of a xeroxed program. The lights, at half-house, emitting a scent of burned plastic, and then a single spotlight on the director.

Eight months ago, in September, he (students called him Maestro, administrators called him Trouble) conducted Mozart, Barber and Shostakovitch. Violinists bowed in unison, faces slack. Percussionists dinged triangles, spun ratchets and boomed timpani between tacet stints on their stools. The overgrown flute section benignly blended vibratos. He was exhausted from their half-closed eyes and the way their backs slumped in their chairs.

In November, he organized a gamelan concert, students trading violins and trumpets for metallophones and bells. Clarinets sat in cases while their owners paradiddled hand drums.Violists left fiddles at home and struck gongs with leather beaters. He noticed pimply faces, alert to his baton, bodies perched at the edge of their straight-backed plastic chairs.

Parents shouted outrage. Where was the violin so studiously practiced (and paid for)? What good were saxophone lessons if the band played only bells from Java and drums from Bali?

He nodded at their critiques and in February programmed Hoe Down from Appalachian Spring. Mothers said, Yes, a tune to hum. They played O Fortuna and fathers said, I know that! It’s from a movie. But his students had resumed their sleepy-eyed slump.  

In March, the musicians wheeled computers and alphanumeric keyboards from the wings, their steps quick again. Parents perused the program—noise music it said—and rested foreheads on their palms. At the downbeat, clarinetists tongue-clicked arhythmically. Speakers blasted a computerized hiss. The ensemble, minus instruments, improvised. Whistles. Claps. Lip trills. Sirens. In class the next day, his skin grew warm when students chattered about dynamic contrast, sonata form, timbre, genre.

Parents emailed about sacrilege. Tradition. How can we win the marching band competition if our students don’t play band music? A committee collected signatures.

He responded in the local paper with an op ed about contemporary art, citing the Clunker Concerto that used car parts for instruments. He linked to laptop-generated music. He suggested modern music is not so modern—John Cage wrote 4’33” in 1952. Students brought him copies of the paper, adding handwritten notes with a heart at the end.

The school board called a meeting. The committee submitted their petition. A student  held the microphone with two hands and tipped her eyes down, reading a handwritten script. She spoke of the Maestro, music and life lessons. Probation, the board decided.

In May, students assembled on stage with their vegetables, formal wear covered in rain gear to protect from flying melon. Parents fanned themselves with the playbill and then read program notes, scrunching their eyebrows over descriptions of whistling beans, smashing pumpkins, thumping watermelons. Under the spotlight, a drop of sweat slid down his spine as he lifted his baton. Cabbages in rest position. And...play.

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Writers Bio

Nancy Jorgensen earned a Bachelor of Music from Alverno College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a Master of Music from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. A high school choir director for many years, she is the co-author of two music education books, Things They Never Taught You in Choral Methodsand From the Trenches: Real Insights from Real Choral Educators. She has also written several essays and an Olympic blog for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Nancy and her husband, Joel, have two daughters.  Older daughter Elizabeth Jorgensen teaches Creative Writing, Composition, and Journalism at Arrowhead High School in Hartland, Wisconsin. Younger daughter, Gwen Jorgensen, is the 2016 Olympic Champion in women's triathlon, 2012 Olympian, an All-American runner and CPA. Nancy is currently marketing a memoir, Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Battle Cry for Gold about raising an Olympian.

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