Upgrade Your Sound for The Ride of Your Life
By Dr. David W. Vandewalker
For most of my childhood I had two passions: music and bikes. I would wake up excited to go to school because I enjoyed hanging out with my friends. I would jump on my bike riding to my friend’s house; together we would zoom off to school. It was always a race to see who could get there first! I spent many days daydreaming about my imaginary adventures on my bike until it was time to go to Mrs. Bear’s music class. We would sing, move, and play all kinds of instruments. For the rest of the day, I would stare at the clock waiting for the bell to ring so my pack of friends and I could race off on our bikes for the next adventure.
Middle school was even better. I got a Schwinn® bike for Christmas and was part of a band class taught by my grandfather! I remember telling Mrs. Bear, that I was nervous about learning an instrument because my aunts, uncles, and cousins all played instruments. I was convinced I was going to be the family failure. I can see her smile when she said, “David, you are going to be great. It will be as easy as riding your bike. You will start slow at first. Then before long you will be zooming around on the clarinet for the rest of your life!”
Of course, Mrs. Bear was right! I started on an intermediate wooden clarinet. It was challenging but fun. When I became a freshman in high school, I had the opportunity to play one of my grandfather’s professional-level Selmer® clarinets. He knew the importance of having an instrument that would allow me to elevate my practice efforts. I progressed to second chair in the all-state band by my sophomore year. Interestingly, the other clarinet players in band played on Buffet® R13s. Every time there was an intonation issue in the section, people would look at me because I played the “Selmer®”. When I asked my band director about it, he explained that my instrument was fantastic and I had a dark, resonant tone, but the pitch tendencies on instruments vary and can vary by brand because of the way the manufacturers make the instruments. So, even though I loved my tone on the Selmer® clarinet, I saved up my money and bought my own Buffet® R13 so that I had the same instrument to match my peers.
Developing excellence is hard work. Whether an athlete or musician, the quality of our equipment and resources has a strong correlation to achieving excellence. Sound or tone and intonation are at the heart of every evaluation process. As a band director, I’ve seen students work extremely hard only to find their progress inhibited by the limitations of their instrument while also finding students excelling much more easily (and often with less effort) on a quality instrument. Thus, I determined early in my career that I needed to be aggressive in providing my students with the best quality instrument possible to help facilitate their learning potential.
When talking to parents about instrument purchases, I remember Mrs. Bear’s analogy of riding a bike. Every parent wants their child to ride a bike, right? Kids don’t start riding on a
two-wheeled Schwinn® bike rather a tricycle. Then, they progress to a “big kid” bike with training wheels that ultimately get abandoned. Many parents buy at least one more upgrade bike on the journey. I vividly remember asking my mom (relentlessly) for a new bike because I couldn’t keep up with my friends who had newer bikes. It was so frustrating because I had always been able to keep up but I couldn’t compete with them on their Schwinn® bikes. And when I finally got my own Schwinn®, I bolted back up to the front of the pack!
Every parent wants their child to succeed regardless of the endeavor. When it comes time to purchase an instrument for band or orchestra, we as teachers need to take some time to educate the parents on the educational value of choosing the proper instrument for their child and purchasing the best instrument for their child on their musical journey. I always use the analogy of bikes when talking to new band parents. I ask them to raise their hand if they have ever purchased a: 1) tricycle; 2) bike with training wheels; 3) big kid bikes; 4) five or ten-speed bikes. Then, I explain: Band [Orchestra] is just like bikes, you buy a bike to help your child at each stage of their development in bike riding so that they can be successful, find fulfillment, and maybe even be competitive with the neighborhood kids.
Purchasing musical instruments is very similar to the bicycle progression. An entry level instrument is manufactured so that a novice performer can achieve success at an affordable price for the consumer. Then, a step-up or intermediate instrument provides the opportunity to begin refining one’s performance achievement as the quality of materials and specification of the instrument provide more tone resonance and performance agility. Finally, the professional line instruments are likened to the 10-speed bike made of a special light weight alloy that is aerodynamically designed with performance efficient wheels. A professional instrument allows one to fully elevate one’s potential in tone, tuning, and technical facility along with the ability to do so with less effort.
As you begin to refine your students’ performance opportunities this school year, I encourage you to have thoughtful discussions with your students and parents as you guide them in their journey of musical excellence. Are students performing on the instrument that provides them the opportunity for them to explore and realize their full realm of possibility and success for where they are on their musical journey? As they reflect, it may be the perfect time to upgrade their sound with a “big kid” instrument. Students taking honors or AP math classes are probably not using their original calculator from the dollar store. They might want to consider upgrading to a college level instrument worthy of empowering their comparable academic musical achievement. In a similar way, instrument upgrades should be considered as musical skills increase.
Making music really is like riding a bike. Once you learn, you possess skills worthy of a lifetime of enjoyment. When we provide students with the proper equipment and instruments for achieving musical growth in tandem with inspirational music making experiences, students can, indeed, have the ride of their life!
David W. Vandewalker serves as the executive director for the Servant Leadership Association for Music and the principal conductor of the Georgia Wind Symphony. Additionally, he served as the Coordinator of Performing Arts for the Fulton County Schools (2016-2020), assistant director of bands at Georgia State University (2012-2016) and Director of Bands at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia (2000-2012). Dr. Vandewalker earned degrees at Baylor University, Central Michigan University, and Boston University. He is a recipient of the Sudler Flag of Honor, ten-NBA Citation of Excellence Awards, three National Wind Band Honors Awards, and is an elected member of the American Bandmasters Association. David and Pamela reside in Marietta, GA where she serves over 800 children in music each week.