Wednesday, March 11, 2009

American Band

American Band: Music, Dreams, and Coming of Age in the Heartland
Kristen Laine (2007, Gotham Books)

"Max Jones woke ahead of his alarm." And we're off! Who is Max Jones? One of the top high school band directors in the band-mad state of Illinois. His Concord Marching Minutemen are perennial contenders for the Class B championship title of the state. And why is he out of bed before six o'clock on a quiet July morning? Because seventy kids, mostly ninth-graders, are coming for their first taste of life as Marching Minutemen; the culture of the group is such that a hundred and twenty returning band members come a week before the full band convenes, to show them the ropes. Mr. Jones has an extensive band room complex, and a vast resource of parental volunteers, but his budget is modest, running to only seven assistant directors (who also work in the feeder schools) for a band that will eventually number two hundred and forty-three students. The season will ride or fall on the quality of the leadership exercised by the veterans.
Kristen Laine spent the 2004 season at Concord High School, in the residential suburbs between Elkhart and Goshen, Indiana, a few miles from the Michigan border. American Band is the story of Concord's quest for another state championship trophy, as they are led by a group of senior section leaders, some of whom have had those roles in their sights since sixth grade band. They're a special bunch of kids--and they are utterly ordinary. They are going through an ordinary American high school in an ordinary American suburb, with perhaps a few more honor students, and fewer problem drinkers, than any similar group of teenagers anywhere.
From time to time, Laine pulls back for a wider view of economic and social conditions, both the particular and the universally American: Elkhart has lost its once-storied position as a leader in the manufacture of band instruments; the land nearby is more valuable for single-family houses than for farming, though the cornfields have not yet disappeared entirely. The descendants of Mennonite farmers worship in giant auditoriums to the strains of Christian rock music, and the nearby Catholic church needs a Spanish-speaking priest.
At other times, Laine zooms in. She gives fly-on-the-wall accounts of baffled freshmen being taught how to march, and how to stand at attention the Concord way, with chin held high. She's there when the moms are passing out uniforms, and bottled water, and hugs. She spots the peeved expression on the face of a senior for whom Mr. Jones's encouragement crosses a line into nagging. And she's there with the class superstar as he parses the balance between excellence and humility, between self-abnegating faith and the call of his heart.
The blurbs are comparing American Band to Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, the classic story about high school football in the oil fields of Texas. Laine is in that league, but I am reminded even more of the West Point story I reviewed in 2005, David Lipsky's Absolutely American. In both books, the suspense revolves around how the young people will master themselves and become effective leaders; and whether the adults can better help them do this by exhorting them face to face, or by presenting a gigantic challenge and getting out of the way, with all the risk of failure either course entails.
Whether or not you have ever picked up a trumpet and tried to walk down the street (as Laine did in one parade), American Band will keep you turning the pages.

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