Should black music students be required to learn 'the classics' or 'THEIR classics'?
How the Jackie Robinson Parade molded my take on saxophone, piano lessons
When he walked into the classroom, I rolled my eyes. The last time I’d seen him, he was one of a group who ruined the Jackie Robinson Parade. He was swinging a golf club around, fighting with a rival gang. Both gangs were constantly ruining that parade for me, from the time I was a Girl Scout and marching in the parade until my high school years when I attended to support my fellow scouts and enjoy the music.
He waved. I glared at him. I was still pissed off, primarily because this wasn’t just a random guy in the park. I knew him by name and face. In fact, before the fight started, he’d scooped me off of the bleachers to say “hello.” I felt like a disappointed mom, seeing him participating in what would constantly ruin that annual celebration. So, I ignored him.
I’m not quite sure why he cared so much that I pay attention to him, but I was sitting at the piano, messing with a few keys. And he sat down next to me. I wasn’t supposed to be sitting in front of the piano anyway. My instrument of choice was the alto saxophone. I’d already learned to decently play the piano in elementary school, so I wanted to try being Black Lisa Simpson this go-round.
The problem is I was bored with both instruments. The Jackie Robinson Parade had black high schools coming together to dance and bust out the latest hip-hop and R&B hits. But our high school music teacher, even though he was the leader of one of those marching bands, wanted us to learn “the classics” first. It was dull and reminded me of dreadful piano classes in elementary school. While both schools had a sizable black population — actually my elementary school was all black — they both insisted on teaching classical music. I would never be joining Kenny G and Lisa Simpson in my musical Hall of Fame, if that was the requirement.
When my classmate sat down next to me, I didn’t expect him to do much. Then, he put his fingers on the keyboard. My eyes lit up as soon as I heard the first few notes. He’d started playing the opening to the Michael Myers’ “Halloween” song.
Silent treatment be damned. I blurted out “Teach me! Teach me!” And just like that, the two of us were cool again.
When I think back on it, of course he of all people would know how to play that song. I never knew the man could play any instrument. He usually just wasted time and talked to everybody in the class. He started playing a soulful song (forgot what it was), and I was in awe. It was like that scene in “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” when James Avery (popularly known as Uncle Phil) realized Will Smith (the character and the real-life rapper) could actually play the piano. That was not in the TV script. When James Avery came around the corner, that was his genuine reaction. In the memoir “Will” by Will Smith, he brought that piano scene up again.
But in my case, I wanted to learn to play R&B and hip-hop classics, not just classical music or horror theme music. After all, I was not going to the Jackie Robinson parade to hear Beethoven!