Wednesday, December 12, 2007

American Band Rocks!

If you care at all about music, American values, high school, teenage angst, the rise of fundamentalism or high school bands, read "American Band" by Kristen Laine.

First of all, it has nothing to do with the song by Grand Funk Railroad or anything connected with rock n'roll. It's a stirring portrait of growing up within the confines of a high school band program. I know this may bring sighs and propel you to the next blog or youtube, but consider this: there may be no finer tableau of the changing American landscape.

It's about teenagers, loss, coming to terms with God, love, winning, the healing nature of music and Middle America. The Concord High School band program is the setting. It's situated in Elkhart, Indiana, once the musical instrument capital of the world that has seen better days. Focusing on the leaders of the band from the legendary director Max Jones to kids who are struggling to fit in, the narrative takes you on a six-month journey from the beginning of the band's season to its competition to defend its title as state champion.

The kids in the band are starkly human. They range from being "perfect" to barely managing to step off correctly when the band marches down the field. We've all grown up with these people, seen them mature and blossom.

I know this book captured a slice of my life. I learned french horn to get into my high school band, eventually winning first chair after two years of playing (my native instrument is violin). I wanted to wear the uniform, be a part of something big marching to a definite goal. Our band director was a driven man (Wayne Erck), who eventually became a general in the Army Reserve. We traveled, played football games and went to contests, although we didn't place very highly.

My dad was a band director for more than 30 years, leading a band that had the fortune to play for a sensational basketball team that won the Illinois state title two years in a row (the awesome Thornridge). One of my first recollections was holding a banner in a 4th of July parade for his band. I grew up with Sousa before I even knew the Stones, Beatles or Beach Boys even existed.

The most penetrating truth about this book is how it captures the essence of the American experience. Two Hispanic girls are working hard to assimilate. A cadre of the top students are part of a fundamentalist Christian sect. The band's student leader is dealing with his mother's illness and beloved sister's death. Does this remarkable group of achievers take the state championship again? Read the book. It's worth your while. The music of life can be such an uplifting and heartbreaking tune at times.

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