13 year olds know everything. I don’t know about you, but I definitely knew everything about everything. And then some extra stuff on top of that.
I knew that when my orchestra teacher handed the 6th – 9th grade orchestra the score of the blockbuster movie, “E.T.”, my orchestra was in trouble. Al Deitz was in his first year of teaching at Amityville Junior High and he admitted to us that he had never actually played a string instrument before. I’m pretty sure I facepalmed to that information. How in the hell was a band teacher going to teach MY ORCHESTRA?!
Orchestra, my violin, music – was the only thing that got me to school every day from about 7th grade until I graduated. It was literally the only thing that tethered me to the concept of showing up to school every day and doing well enough in the rest of my classes to be able to participate in concerts and go on trips to perform. I knew that most of the rest of the kids in the orchestra did not take music nearly as seriously as I did. Definitely none of the other violinists noticed that the first violin parts included notes in 5th position when they were handed the music. They were just excited to play a song they recognized for the spring concert. I noticed.
I informed Mr. Deitz of the absurdity of his asking us to play this music. “We are going to sound TERRIBLE. Please don’t make us do this!” Because I knew everything and had taken a few private violin lessons, I knew that positions on the neck of a violin meant moving our hands from the safety of being crammed up against and anchored to the scroll. If you could feel the scroll against the edge of your left pointer finger, you were very nearly guaranteed to land your finger on the exact, fretless location on the string that would deliver the intended note. The second you left that scroll and started moving your hand up the neck, all bets were off. Without frets, your fingers were free to land wherever they pleased. And, much to the chagrin of so very many parents and siblings sitting in so very many public school orchestra performances, they were very nearly guaranteed to do so.
Mr. Deitz ignored me.
He frantically waved his baton at us, desperate for just ONE of us to look up and see what tempo he was keeping. Each of us, including me, were far too concerned with those notes on the page that had all those additional lines on them, indicating how high, and how high up the neck, they were. Keeping tempo was the least of our problems. We ALL cringed at how horrific it sounded.
It wouldn’t surprise me if there were a few flasks being passed among the parents in the auditorium as they fake-smiled their way through our performance. I certainly wouldn’t blame them if they did. Anything to ease the pain of 20 12-15 year olds screeching out something that bore a faint resemblance to the famous John Williams musical phrase that said E. T. is flying across the moonscape.
How could he do this to us… how could he humiliate us like this, making us play 5th position when no one else even knew second position?!
Flash forward 30 years.
I am sitting in the auditorium of Walt Whitman High School – an affluent North Shore public school compared to our South Shore ‘hood school. I am flanked by classmates, some of whom remember Mr. Deitz’s attempt at E.T. We are all sitting in absolute awe as his jazz band and then his full wind ensemble band master complicated note phrases and intense tempos. These kids are killing it. He’s got alumni sitting in his bands next to high school students, and they are all equally enthralled with this performance that marks the retirement of the man I had butted heads with at the ripe old age of 13. They are playing complex music, filled with dissonance and variations, moving through it with ease. He has taught them to play this music… they have learned it.
And suddenly I get it.
Yeah, E.T. was hard. It was complicated, it was way over our heads. Or so we thought. Mr. Deitz had a dream of our potential. He didn’t see what we didn’t know or what we were lacking. He saw the opportunity for growth. He saw something in us that said if I can push these kids out of their 1st position comfort zones, they could actually pull this off. He wasn’t trying to embarrass us or give us a complex about our limitations. He was pushing our limitations, trying to encourage us to believe in ourselves – to stretch for that 5th position, even when we didn’t even know what that meant. To strive for something that seemed out of reach and to not be afraid to be squeaky and awkward and uncomfortable. In fact, he wanted us to be uncomfortable to force us to grow.
As a classmate said, TOOK YA LONG ENOUGH!
Yeah well… it’s hard to believe that someone might know more than you when you’re 13!