Sunday, December 11, 2011

"Russian Christmas Music:" A Requiem

About a week and a half ago, a student from the middle school where I teach band was the victim of a homicide. The entire campus was shaken to its foundation as we grappled with the loss and its meaning. Although he was not currently enrolled in my program, he was in my beginning brass class last year, so I knew him pretty well. In my teaching career, I have lost students before in wars and car accidents, but the intentional nature of this one made it different. In situations like this, teachers are in the unique and often difficult position of sorting through feelings in real-time front of students.

He had the most direct relationships with the students in my upper-level group. When they came in for rehearsal, the mood was somber and mournful, to say the least. Many students were openly weeping while others despondently looked on. Despite the emotional tone of the room, I thought it would be most therapeutic, for me as well as them, if we went ahead and played. We were in the midst of preparing for our holiday program, though, and the joyful intent behind the majority of our music seemed incongruous with the solemn feelings that we were all working though.

We were, however, working up Michael Story’s new arrangement of Alfred Reed’s Russian Christmas Music for our upcoming performances. This is a beautiful, haunting piece that, in addition to being important band literature, provided a vehicle for all of us to express what was going on inside without resorting to the clumsy inaccuracies of language.

This video is of the original, full version of Russian Christmas Music, not Story’s arrangement. His version is quite good for younger players, though. It captures a lot of the original and carefully edits the sections that require a more mature musicianship than is usually found in middle school. If you are in the market for such specialized things, I recommend it.

I talked relatively little during this class, and when I did I found myself emphasizing musicality and mood over correct notes and sound quality. I wanted to capture something of the emotional tumult that we all were feeling and inject it into the aspects of this incredible piece that lie beyond the black dots on the page.  When the period was over, it was not as if everyone was “cheered up,” but students seemed to have regained their composure. Those formerly sobbing had stopped, and conversations between students seemed less uncomfortable. The feeling of the group had transformed over the course of that 45 minute period. I can’t speak for all of the students, but I felt a bit better.

Since then, at all of our holiday performances, I have dedicated Russian Christmas Music to the memory of this student, and many of these performances have been incredible.   Perhaps seizing the opportunity to take a dreadful, disastrous act and turn it into something meaningful and positive for the students was worthwhile.  The piece also took on a new meaning for me, as well.  I doubt that I will ever have an experience with the song again that will not bring that student back to my mind.

One final note: This is my 100th entry in the blog.  Perhaps a little different than normal, which seems appropriate.

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