Middle School Musicians Take the Lead

It’s Tuesday morning, 10:15, and the middle school Wind Ensemble is warming up. A clarinet is running scales. The bass drum booms as a percussionist loosens his arms. Trumpet bells are covered in black fabric, a pandemic accommodation, while sun streams through the Ross House windows, shimmering off French horns, saxophones, and xylophones.

Amidst it all, a blue blur crisscrosses the Editha Thomas Music Room — faculty member Steve Toro, appropriately clad in winter flannel, is readying his musicians for rehearsal.

A combination of both wind and jazz ensembles, this large group is meeting for the first time since winter break, hoping to polish up some pieces from their last concert and learn a new selection before their next. “When you’re in the bigger group,” Richard B. advises, “you get a better sound.”

Steve makes sure everyone has the appropriate sheet music — a trumpeter lacks a part, but his neighbor turns the stand to share — then raises his hands. “The timpani are in tune,” he shouts. “Here we go!”

The song is “Blues Down Under,” an easy groove with a relaxed bass walk; it could be the perfect anthem for this laid-back classroom. The students are focused but at ease, nodding along when they have a few measures of rest, smiling and chatting during breaks. Percussionists not playing a specific piece relax on the blue couch up front. “A lot of us are just comfortable here,” says eighth-grader Alex M. After a long career, Steve — known as Mr. T to generations of Moses Brown students — knows how to set the tone of a classroom.

This piece is also an important step for these musicians: when they performed it for the winter concert, it was the first time many of them had played a solo. Today, as they move into the B section of the song, students trade off taking the lead: clarinet, xylophone, snare drum, sax. “That’s a big step for young kids to be playing solo,” Steve says. “It gives them the confidence to perform, and to perform in different situations.”

Steve continues to move around while the music plays — the students know what they’re doing — walking over to the keyboard to turn up the volume a bit, then popping over to the brass, where he waves them to be quieter and let the solos shine.

“Young bands tend to play one volume,” he says. “And when you have a large group it’s always a work in progress to help the kids understand that some instruments are soft or loud, and the softer instruments can be overpowered if the dynamics are not correct.”

The piece ends and Steve asks all the soloists to play at the same time so they can practice a particular line. A clarinet adjusts from F-natural to F-sharp and things lock into place. They run it again.

Steve then calls the name of the next song, “Air Force One,” and the students start moving, some changing instruments, others shifting chairs, all in a casual ease. “Tambourine!” is shouted from the back of the room, and a percussionist jumps off the couch to take his place. Steve sets the tempo, a four count, and a swirling run of notes kicks off into an energetic march.

The bass is prominent in any good march, but at this moment the sun catches the drum rim and reflects onto the band room wall. Every boom of the drum causes the light to shimmer and flow in rhythm, the beat made bright.

There’s a new song next on the agenda, but the students aren’t slowing down. They shuffle their music around, angle their instruments outward, and await Steve’s wave with obvious anticipation.

And why not — “Here, the kids get to be legal noise-makers,” Steve says, chuckling. “They arrive and say, ‘Yes, I can come in here make noise and it’s ok!’”