The Instruments of the Orchestra
We went to the Hylton Center a while back to hear an orchestra concert, and it occurred to me during intermission that I could identify all the instruments in the orchestra by sound, which might have been because I couldn’t see the oboist, bassoonist or trumpet player until they stood up for a bow. I knew they were there, though. Now, being able to identify instruments in an orchestra is no big thing, especially if you are semi-musical as I am. But it got me to thinking about how proud my elementary school teachers would have been of me if they had known I could do this. It was part of their mission, after all.
If my elementary school had a mission statement, which it didn’t since no one had thought of such a thing at the time, it would have been something like “to prepare boys and girls for further education and to make them civilized, cultured, and contributing members of society.” The school worked not only to improve us intellectually but also culturally. I remember our sixth grade teacher telling us repeatedly, “You will not grow up to be a burden on society. You will be ladies and gentlemen who will contribute to the good of the country and the world.” Well, I have tried.
An important part of culture for our teachers was, of course, music, and music was an important part of school. There was no such thing as musical specialists then (who, by the way, do a wonderful job in our schools today) and so the classroom teacher led music, with singing and theory, music history and so on. Part of this curriculum included listening to orchestral masterworks and learning the instruments of the orchestra. Almost all the teachers seized on Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf to do this.
Unless you have lived in total seclusion for most of your life, no doubt you have heard Peter and the Wolf. If you’re like me, you had to listen to it several times a year. The main musical feature of Peter and the Wolf is that each character is represented by an instrument and has a musical theme. Peter’s is played by the strings. There’s also a bird (flute), a duck (oboe), a cat (clarinet), grandfather (bassoon), the wolf (French horn) and hunters (woodwinds, timpani and bass drum). Once you’ve heard the work a time or two, you’ve got those instruments. We knew them well by the time we went to intermediate school. It could have been worse, I suppose. Some teachers had an “instruments of the orchestra” record and forced their students to play what my wife calls from her music degree days in college “drop the needle.” (Attention younger people: this was done with something called a record player which produced sound by running a special needle over a disk of vinyl. I am not making this up.) I did get to play drop the needle with the instruments of the orchestra record in seventh grade and was not very good at it. Thank goodness for Peter and the Wolf.
Unfortunately my eight grade music class was taught by a lady who hated students and I think hated her job. She made fun of the boys because our voices came out in unpredictable ways and was in general surly and irritable. I sat in class hoping we would be invaded by aliens and taken off to other worlds where my teacher wouldn’t be. I think I managed to survive by fixing my attention on a large chart on the wall of the music room showing the instruments of the orchestra. I looked at it so long and so desperately I learned their names and eventually their sounds. I suppose it’s a good example of finding something useful in even a bad experience. It took me about eight years, but I eventually got back to loving and appreciating music. That helped me not be a burden on society, and for that I am grateful.