I recently had a chance to review Mr. Clark's Big Band, a book about an unconventional music teacher and his middle school jazz band as they navigate the grieving process after the sudden death of a classmate from an undiagnosed heart condition.
This book hit really close to home, having gone through this as both student and teacher. My freshman year in high school, one of our jazz band's trumpeters was killed in a car accident the week we were supposed to go on tour. Our band director had the challenge of walking us through the often messy process of grieving at such a young age. I am now a teacher, and have witnessed first hand the power of music in helping grieving students.
It's a well-written book by an author whose son is in the jazz band and had the opportunity to observe them over the year after their loss. She captures the highs and lows, the elements of rehearsal that are part of every group's learning process, and the pieces that are unique to students working through a very emotional experience.
In the end, it's the power and celebration of music that really bring the students together.
I had a chance to interview the author to learn more.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I wanted to figure out what’s behind the magic that is Mr. Clark. I wanted to learn how he could help these very young children overcome their grief at the loss of their friend, their embarrassment about their overwhelming adolescent feelings, their fear and their self-consciousness about everything to deliver such stirring and emotional music. The story of this band, the 2012-2013 band, I believed, would be a story of hope, of love, and of moving on.
Since I have never been a member of a musical group and do not play an instrument, I did not understand the dynamics of such a group, of how its members cleave together so fiercely, how they close ranks and have one another’s backs. Watching this middle school band for a year helped me understand this protective, nurturing process.
What did you see were some of the most helpful ways for kids to deal with the grieving process?
Mr. Clark gave students the opportunity and space to freely unleash their emotions, from the goofy and moronic, to fear, sadness and anger. Mr. Clark role-modeled authenticity in the classroom and allowed himself to process these sometimes difficult emotions in front of his students, which isn’t something with which many teachers are comfortable. If Mr. Clark felt comfortable crying in front of the students, that gave the students license to cry and get emotional as well. If he was willing to be silly and taking creative risks, the students felt empowered to do the same.
One of the biggest gifts he gave these students was the opportunity to just be in the band room, to have lunch there, to be with friends there, to seek refuge there when the rest of the world made no sense. He gave these students a safe place. He called it a sanctuary for a reason. In that room, the kids were family.
What were some of the biggest surprises for you?
I was surprised by how much Mr. Clark shouted at the students but was equally surprised by how many of them sagely brushed it off as “Mr. Clark’s just being Mr. Clark.” If, say, a math teacher shouted, “Add better!” at her students, I imagine disgruntled parents would form a long line in front of the principal’s office door to complain.
But with Mr. Clark, the parents afford him a lot of room, give him the benefit of the doubt, much like people often give athletic coaches latitude during practices and games. The parents with whom I spoke said because Mr. Clark so clearly loves the students, that he runs himself ragged for them, they are willing to support him, to volunteer for him and to give him permission to prod his students to excellence.