Opening Letters

Behind the Music Articles

you know what they say – those who can’t be in a band ... write about it

Ken Szymanski, illustrated by Luke Benson |

With back-to-school season rolling in, allow me a moment to publicly complain about my older brother, Don.

Rewind to the late 1970s. Don is struggling through trumpet scales in our basement. He’s acting as if his junior high practice charts are ruining his life. The toil! The grind! One day he stops playing, looks at me – his little brother playing with toys on the floor – and imparts this grave warning: “Don’t ever take band.”

Fast-forward to Delong Junior High, where I’m required to take some type of music class as an incoming seventh-grader. I sign up for chorus. No practice charts. No complaints. And when other kids grumble about the rigors of band practice, I’m thankful Don helped me avoid at least one junior high land mine.  

Fast-forward to North High School. Kids stop complaining about being in band. Now it’s all pep rallies, parades, and tales of behind-the-scenes hijinks. Oh, and it’s a fundraiser for a trip to Florida. Then it’s nonstop you-had-to-be-there stories about the ultimate field trip. And the only way I can join this exclusive club is to borrow Doc Brown’s DeLorean, go back in time, and not follow my brother’s advice.


Now, as a teacher at South Middle School, I see the bigger picture with band class. Students who learn instruments also learn self-discipline and dedication … skills that transfer to academics and sports, where I could’ve used some help.

Thanks, Don.

I also see how these kids who acquire self-discipline and dedication in band get loosely tracked together for a lot of other classes, too. Looking back, I had a suspiciously large number of classes in which I was surrounded by underachievers. We were the non-band kids.  

Thanks for the advice, Don.

On the first day of journalism, Mrs. Heywood read us the First Amendment from the United States Constitution. Freedom of the press. Whoa, I thought. This isn’t a class; this is reality.

Even without band class, though, I surrounded myself with music. If I wasn’t watching MTV or blasting a mix tape, I was reading a music magazine or debating with friends about the best and worst of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. Eventually, I wanted to do more than just appreciate music – I wanted to participate. In college, I lacked the time. After college, I tried taking guitar lessons. As a busy adult, I couldn’t wedge in enough practice time to make the lessons worth it. And the notes, chords, majors and minors were like a foreign language to me … one that would’ve been much easier to pick up when I was younger – say seventh grade – in a free band class, Don.

Now, I know that chorus is a music class, and the voice is an instrument. But I wasn’t sophisticated enough to know that in junior high. And I don’t think they got into the real serious music terminology until Chorus II.

I couldn’t take Chorus II because I saw a more appealing elective: journalism. I wanted to write for the school newspaper. With the whole Day 1/Day 2 thing, I couldn’t take Journalism and Chorus II, so I dropped music altogether.

On the first day of journalism, Mrs. Heywood read us the First Amendment from the United States Constitution. Freedom of the press. Whoa, I thought. This isn’t a class; this is reality. With the Founding Fathers on our side, we created and distributed a real school newspaper every month. We even took one day each month to staple all of the issues. Kids actually read it. They told you if your article was good, or if it sucked. For my first article, I wrote an album review of Synchronicity by The Police. I predicted a bright future for the band. Then they broke up.

Still, I picked up some Writer of the Month awards in my second year with the paper, and as one of the few people to take the class two years in a row, I became editor-in-chief. Status-wise, it wasn’t captain of the football team, but it gave me a niche, and every kid needs a niche.


Over a decade later, I leaned on that junior high experience for the confidence to cold-call the Leader-Telegram, asking if I could write a concert review. They turned me down, citing a tight budget. I offered to write for free. They turned me down again. Didn’t they know who they were talking to? I was a three-time Writer of the Month award winner! The former editor-in-chief of the Delong Knight Times! Come on!

I finally pried their door open (metaphorically) with a review of a Sting concert. This led to regular gigs covering Country Fest, Rock Fest … and access to more concerts than ever imagined, plus laminated backstage passes. Then it was interviews with the stars. Am I really talking on the phone with George Thorogood? Ted Nugent? With Mike Reno of Loverboy?

Not understanding music’s technical details didn’t hinder me much. In fact, it may have helped. It kept me from writing over the heads of readers, and it forced me to search for other story angles. This gave me practice for other writing assignments, and what started in a junior high elective continues through this very sentence.

Back then, when I dropped out of chorus to join the newspaper, my parents didn’t say a word. But I can’t imagine that they would’ve let me quit band after one year, after investing in an instrument. And I might have missed my niche.

Apparently, Don works in mysterious ways.