I’m a mediocre flute player; I’ve been playing for quite a while, but I’ve never prioritized practicing and due to this have never had the kind of skill that dedicated musicians earn. Making music was something I enjoyed but didn’t move my life around. I stopped taking band after my freshman year of high school in order to make room for the STEM classes I wanted to take, something I now regret. Similarly, while I was aware of Illinois Tech students’ opportunity to take VanderCook classes, I didn’t do so my first semester at Illinois Tech, reasoning that I should focus instead on getting adjusted to college life and classes directly related to my major.
My second semester at Illinois Tech, I enrolled in both band and private lessons, playing flute for each. I was initially quite nervous; here I was, someone who enjoyed making music but by no means prioritized it, entering a space for people who loved it so much that they were dedicating their lives to teaching others about it. I was intimidated and expected to feel like an imposter. It was nothing like I expected.
VanderCook students are expected to learn 19 different instruments during their time there, and many choose to play a secondary or even tertiary instrument in an ensemble. This means that while the flute section contained extremely masterful players, it also contained beginners, students who were only just learning how to hold a flute. The environment was nothing like the competitive, solemn one I had been expecting. It was one wholly devoted to learning, to becoming better musicians and learning how to better teach others to be better musicians. All the while, I had the opportunity to study with Professor Mary-Christine Stingley, an extraordinarily skilled flautist and also just an amazingly sweet woman. I learned some pretty sweet tricks like alternate fingerings, added some pieces to my repertoire, and genuinely had a lot of fun. I believe that semester made me a much better flute player, but it was also an important stress relief activity that allowed me to express myself creatively and take pride in doing something that I was skilled at.
Now here’s the part where I get really emotional.
My high school band, in which I only participated my freshman year, did not have a French horn section. I had only the most cursory appreciation for the instrument. I knew it as the “swirly boy.” I knew it was responsible for that beautiful solo in the beginning of the 2009 "Star Trek" movie, but that’s about it. During my first semester at VanderCook, I heard a beautiful sound coming from the brass section.
If you're not familiar with the instrument, let me give you a brief description. The sound of the horn is all at once full and powerful but also gentle, delicate, and sweet; it's a critical ingredient for those epic action movie scores, but it also has an incredible capacity for conveying softer emotions.
After nearly a semester of nearly non-stop gushing about what an amazing instrument it was (and some serious amounts of YouTube searching), one of my friends said to me, simply, "If you love it so much, why don't you learn it?" This brought me up short. Well, why don't I? This was one of those moments where I realized that I had the responsibility of filling my life with things that I enjoyed. And so I looked up rental prices for a French horn, had one delivered to VanderCook's campus, and that next semester I signed up for private lessons not on flute, but on horn.
I had and still have the opportunity to study with Peter Jirousek, who is not only one of the most patient people I have ever met, but also an extremely talented and accomplished musician. He very calmly and very patiently listened as I struggled to make my very first sounds out of the horn (which, I cannot emphasize enough, were horrendously unpleasant), and has molded me into the player I am today. And I have to say: I’m by no means the most talented horn player on the planet, but I am quickly gaining confidence and skill. I now have some measure of independence and am really beginning to hold my own. I can’t tell you how much this process of identifying an instrument I wanted to play, being lucky enough to have the opportunity to relatively easily pursue this wish, and slowly but surely gaining skill has positively impacted my life.
At no other college would I have the opportunity, as a physics major, to so easily integrate myself into an ensemble of the level I did as a complete beginner. I had difficulty playing a chromatic scale, but I was welcomed with open arms into a group that played pieces of college-level difficulty. I have the opportunity to learn in an environment filled with others who are also learning secondary instruments; the trumpet player sitting behind me in band might hear me play an atrociously wrong note, but they likely know firsthand how difficult it is to predict and play the correct partial on horn. On either side of me are future music teachers, so it's not hard to ask for help on a particular note or rhythm.
VanderCook students need to be prepared to teach music to a wide variety of ages, and as such need to have a wide variety of band pieces in their pocket in terms of difficulty. As a person playing an instrument entirely new to them, this was a huge benefit. I was able to gain confidence by playing middle school level pieces, but also experience the thrill of performing in a college level band and playing flashy, difficult pieces: even if I did have to skip a few notes.
Another thing I hadn't expected was how much of a group experience playing horn would be. Because horn playing relies so heavily on being able to hear the note you need to play, I became incredibly reliant on my section to listen not only to intonation, but also simply the notes themselves. As a flute payer, I was used to listening to my section, but was generally more focused on myself. Now I cling to my section like a lifeline. If my stand partner isn't there for a day, I'm completely thrown off. Bless my section, they're incredible musicians, and I would be so lost without them.
In addition, being in the VanderCook band has let me peer into the life of a music teacher. I’ve performed in two student conductor concerts; I’ve had VanderCook students conduct the ensemble I performed in and watched firsthand as they improved. I got to hear the tips and tricks that the directors offered them and learn a little myself about how to conduct a band. And man, that’s just neat.
I’ve had the privilege of taking band three different semesters and experiencing the expertise of different directors each time. This semester, I’ve had the opportunity to meet two new assistant directors, Professor William Jastrow and Professor Charles Staley. They’re some of the most positive and encouraging band directors I’ve ever interacted with; they always seem to be in a good mood. They have both made it a point to explicitly say that there was nowhere else they’d rather be on a Wednesday evening than directing our band, and that kind of attitude means more to me than I can say. To encourage students who were frustrated with misidentifying pitch problems, Jastrow said warmly, “My ears are no better than yours. Mine just have more experience.” As someone who has always struggled with training my ear, this really meant a lot to me, and encouraging comments like this are frequent in the classroom.
My lesson and band class are always the highlights of my week. It’s a time to relax, take a deep breath (literally, many deep breaths are required of me as a wind player), and make music as a group. It’s a beautiful thing, to dedicate your life to teaching others how to create music. I consider it a major privilege to spend the hours that I do in VanderCook buildings, and I don’t take a single second for granted.