My junior high band director, Mr. Wilson, taught me more life lessons than anybody else ever did. One lesson he taught me was: Be sure you want what you ask for. You just might get it.
Fifty years ago, Mr. Wilson was forced to deal with a narcissistic cheerleader coach. Mrs. Gundershoot thought the school existed to serve her, and through her largesse, the cheerleaders, and through them, the football team.
Mrs. Gundershoot didn’t politely ask people to do things. She demanded it. You didn’t demand things of my band director. If you did, you might get exactly what you asked for—on HIS terms.
One day, Mrs. Gundershoot marched up to Mr. Wilson and demanded, “We have a pep rally in the gym in a half hour. I want your band in there, and I want them to make a LOT OF NOISE. Got it? Your band’s job is to get the kids all riled up by making a lot of noise.” Out she marched.
Now first of all, music is not noise. Music is the antithesis of noise. Even music by Paul Hindemith. Music has structure, rules, logic. Music is mathematically beautiful. Even music that sounds like cacophony has an underlying structure.
Telling my band director that his band is supposed to make a lot of noise was equivalent to telling Gordon Ramsay, “Put some crap on the table.” Chef Ramsay wouldn’t take kindly to that, and when you came to the table, you’d find a steaming pile of horse manure garnished with a sprig of parsley. Crap you want? Crap you get.
Noise you want? Noise you get.
Mr. Wilson rounded up his band. He had an enormous brass section that year: 16 trumpets; 9 trombones; 4 baritones; and 4 tubas. Big boys. Most of them ninth-graders. We’re talking HEAVY on brass.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “Mrs. Gundershoot wants noise at the assembly. She told us to ‘make a lot of noise.’ We are going to give her what she wants.” Then, “Brass, I want you to STRAIGHTEN THE TUBES.” Translation: “Blow so hard that you unfurl the twists and turns in your horn.” All 33 brass players grinned from ear to ear. “Oh, yeah.”
The he said, “Play March Grandioso.” The band understood the subtext. Think about the name. March. Grandioso. March Grandioso is a Sherman tank. The idea of straightening the pipes on March Grandioso is the equivalent of Patton blasting his way through Bastogne at the Battle of the Bulge.
The band entered the gym and Mr. Wilson lined them up at attention in block formation. The drum major gave a roll off. And the room exploded in sound. Kids in the bleachers shrieked and covered their ears.
Mrs. Gundershoot ran up to the choir teacher and screamed, “That band is too Goddamn loud!”
The choir teacher yelled back, “You told him you wanted the band to make a bunch of noise! Well, you got it!”
That’s when the fun started. The first gym light popped and went out. The band played louder. The second gym light exploded. The twists and turns on the trumpets began to unfurl. The third gym light popped. The drummers pounded till they split their drumheads. The fourth gym light went out. By the time the tubas finished hurling their grenades, the filaments of 16 gym lights had exploded, and Mrs. Gundershoot was purple with rage.
I don’t know whether the football team won or lost that game. I do know that nobody learned anything at school that day except that the band could blow 16 lights out in the gym.
So what was the lesson that Mr. Wilson taught me from that story? The Story of The Day the Band Blew 16 Lights Out of the Gym Ceiling? Be careful about what you ask for. You just might get it.