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Saved by the (sax's) bell

Band members were off-limits to schoolyard bullies.

March 16, 2011|By Daniel J. Levitin

When I was 8, we lived in a small, dusty Northern California town built around pear and walnut orchards. The town had no library and no bookstore but two stores that sold barbed wire and three that sold liquor. Being 8 in that rural, conservative town meant playing football and getting into fistfights because that's what boys did. With a 5-foot-tall mother (and a grandmother at 4 foot 10), I didn't get the brawny, muscle-bound genes that many of my classmates did. I was always the loser in the fistfights, and it had been years since anyone chose me to be on their side for school sports.

I would have become a bookish, antisocial mama's boy — or worse, some sort of misanthropic sociopath — if it hadn't been for the old custodian's son, a music teacher named Mr. Edie.

Mr. Edie was, by anyone's definition, a man's man. He rode motorcycles. He shot guns. He not only collected cars, he repaired, renovated and rebuilt them from the torsion bars up. And he had a working knowledge of the rock music that my friends and I loved, music that most adults thought was so much noisy nonsense.

In September of the year we entered third grade, Mr. Edie stopped by all the classrooms and told us that he was the school's band teacher. If we got permission from our parents, he would pull us out of class 20 minutes a week and teach us to play an instrument. My parents didn't have much money. I got a cheap pair of shoes at the beginning of every school year, along with a warning that they had to last all year. So buying an instrument was out of the question. But we had an old clarinet that my father had played back in the 1940s, and Mr. Edie thought that was just fine.

We met 20 minutes a week for a year, just the two of us. Mr. Edie taught me how to put the clarinet together and take it apart, how to condition reeds with sandpaper so that they would play more easily, how to clean the instrument. He showed me how to replace worn pads and to adjust the intricate metal key bars. He taught me how to play it too, how to coax a pleasing tone by breathing from my stomach, how to read music and finger the instrument, how to make a heartbreaking vibrato and a playful staccato. And in so doing, he taught me to respect the instrument, to feel a deeper connection with it.

When Mr. Edie put together a rudimentary band two years later, and we played the first school basketball game of the season, the bullies respectfully declared the musicians off-limits to their fistfighting.

I continued private lessons alongside band. Between lessons, Mr. Edie and I would see each other at school and we talked about cars, motorcycles, about the music on the radio that we liked. One day during my lesson, Mr. Edie went to a closet in our lesson room and pulled out a large wooden case. "Open it," he said.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Open it," he said, "and you'll see."

The case was like nothing I had ever seen. The outside had strong, masculine black leather all around, and brass buckles held it closed. I released the buckles and looked inside — purple, tufted velvet held a battered, dented, dull and rusty brass instrument. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

"It's a saxophone," Mr. Edie said. "I'm starting a school jazz band, and I'd like you to be the lead saxophone player."

I was taken aback. I didn't know anything about saxophones, how to play them, what they sounded like. He turned on the old record player and put the needle down.

"Boots Randolph, 'Yakety Sax,'?" he said. "That is what a saxophone sounds like."

That jazz band got pretty good after a few years, and we were asked to play at the opening for the town's first library and its first post office. Being in Mr. Edie's band taught me to be a team player — the importance of listening to others, and of coordinating what I was doing with what they were doing. It gave me a social network and something I was good at that was, thankfully, valued by the surfeit of fistfighting machismo maniacs in our school. And it also awakened in me a curiosity about how things work in general, which is what eventually led me to become a scientist who studies the workings of neurons in the human brain.

We now know through neuroscience research that playing a musical instrument confers a number of advantages to cognitive development, especially in training attentional networks. But it also makes for a lifetime of pleasure and companionship. A child with musical ability is never alone and can engage with many of the greatest minds of all time — Bach, Beethoven, Berlioz. We can make our fingers trace the same positions and patterns Chopin did and come to know a little of what it was like to hear the world as he did.

When I was 13, Mr. Edie taught me how to conduct, how to write and arrange music (he bought me a college arranging text) and, on weekends, how to do a tune-up and a valve job on a 1948 Plymouth. Today I think of myself as part artist, part mechanic, part music maker and part music explainer. I've learned all those ways of being from him. And from a California public school system that valued the arts as a way to instill social skills and curiosity, and to form more complete human beings.

I hope the next generation of public school kids gets the same opportunity the state of California gave me to discover things about themselves and the world through music.

Daniel J. Levitin is a professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and the author of, among other books, "The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature."

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