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Charlene Farnham—Giving the Gift of Music

March 12, 2012

I recently was honored to sit down for lunch with an old friend of mine, Charlene.  Except for a bit of graying in her hair (similar to what has managed to creep in to my beard over time), Charlene appears virtually unchanged.  In fact, Charlene is one of the people I have been friends with the longest, and I count her among those people who have always been the most generous and giving in my life.  She is exactly the kind of person you want to get to know, and well.  To be a bit more precise, Charlene continues to exemplify for me all that is good in the field of education today.  She has long served as a model to me in my professional life.  I owe her a debt of gratitude.

Charlene and I met nearly three decades ago.  Her open-door office, we kids would later learn, was just down the hall from the cafeteria where she had invited all those interested in discovering a world of new and exciting possibilities.  On this particular fall evening, Charlene had come back out to town on a special mission:  to meet with parents and students of the Morison Elementary School, where I was enrolled in the fifth grade, to introduce us all to the world of instrumental music.

For some of us, we had already been introduced to music as members of a singing group called the Blessings, led by a wonderful pair of women in our church.  For many of my friends, though, nothing beyond the venerable kazoo had made an entrance in to their existence.  While street performers celebrate that reed-tuned piece of plastic, right alongside the slide whistle and mouth organ, few of us had considered the possibility of learning to play an instrument in a band with other kids.  That’s one of the problems with growing up in an isolated rural area—the lack of opportunities.

Charlene’s presentation wasn’t well rehearsed, but it was genuine.  I am not talking about singing along to an autoharp, or learning to play Michael Row Your Boat Ashore on a $2 flutophone, or even clanking wooden blocks (probably salvaged from some local construction project) together in unison.  Instead, Charlene showed up with some representatives of a local music store.  She and her friends had instruments which we could touch and play (and plans for how our parents could finance such an adventure).  They had even brought with them a trumpet made of nothing but a garden hose cut some four and a half feet long with an oil funnel on the end, just to show us what really physically made up the instrument.  Together, since they were all musicians in their own right, they gave us kids a taste of what it would be like to be a part of a group; to be a part of something greater than ourselves, and to make music!

I knew I had to be a part of all of this, and I was going to play the trumpet.  I had long been fascinated with Herb Albert and his Tijuana Brass—my father had an album of his which he had bought in 1966, when it first came out on the market.  I could hear little more than Tijuana Taxi in my head as Charlene rattled off a compelling chromatic scale on her own trumpet.

My sister, who chose to learn to play the flute, and I joined the fifth grade band.  Charlene gave lessons once a week at the high school, a short walk up the hill from my elementary school, because we didn’t have space available where we were.  Sectionals, as she called the lessons, for each instrument met privately until we reached a point where we had learned the rudimentary basics—we could count out a rhythm and play all the notes of the scale.  At some point, we were put together all in the same room and taught to play our parts of a piece of music as a band.  Our first concert on the floor of the high school gym went stunningly well, at least until Amber Buck lost control of her trombone slide and saw it go sailing across the urethaned playing surface.  We tried to snicker at her misfortune and keep on following the conductor as though nothing had happened.  We were a very professional group after all.

Melissa and I continued to play with the band through Middle School and High School.  At CMS, it was very exciting to be among the first kids to use the newly constructed music room—everything seemed to sparkle.  No one had ever been assigned the locker in which I stored my trumpet, and the music stands still had that fresh black powder-coat on them.  At CHS, music was rather confined to the lunch hour so that we could all meet at the same time.  There seemingly was no longer time for sectionals.

We learned not only to play in a concert setting, adorning black pants and white shirts with black bow ties, but also to march for parades in red wool uniforms that could have really used a good dry cleaning, if not replacement.  We weren’t necessarily a marching band—we were a band which had been forced to march.  We played our instruments under penury of failure at soccer games, field hockey games, and even more dreaded basketball games, because sometimes those teams went all the way to tournaments, really screwing up a good spring vacation.


What is unfortunate, though, is that Charlene and her music program were never well supported by the administrations of the various schools in the District, and certainly not by those sitting in the Superintendent’s office.  Every time a “financial crisis” hit the town, her program, unlike any of the sports teams, was one of the first to see cuts.

Charlene taught music at the elementary schools (of which there were five) and both the middle school and high school.  She was generally stretched so thin, that she hardly had a chance to get her coat off and get comfortable before having to work with us.  Her budget was almost non-existent.

When one seriously thinks about the conditions under which Charlene labored, one has to question though what is wrong with our educational system today.  How could her job be considered anything but essential in today’s curriculum?  How are the arts always the first on the chopping block when their benefits are so numerous?

To expand upon Frank Crawford’s popular internet list, here are a few of the things that Charlene’s classes taught the rest of us.

Music is a Science

Music is exact, specific, and it demands specific acoustics.  While a conductor’s full score is a chart, a graph, which indicates frequencies, volume changes, melody, and harmony all at once and with the most exact control of time, the students of music have to understand that they are playing transposing instruments—an instrument for which written notes are read at a pitch different from the corresponding concert pitch, which a non transposing instrument such as a piano would play.  The music student has to learn that an A clarinet and a B-flat trumpet or an e-flat saxophone all need to be played in the same range (thus transposed).  Students in a band need to learn about tuning their own instruments, knowing whether or not to make the instrument longer or shorter in order to make the pitch go sharper or flater, in order to avoid unnecessary dissonance with their neighboring instruments.  Students learn about the magical quality of overtones in music; overtones are those wonderful sensations of depth in music which we perceive when a frequency of sound higher than the fundamental frequency of a sound ring out at the same time.

Music is Mathematical

Music is rhythmically based on the subdivisions of time into fractions which must be done instantaneously, not worked out on paper.  Student who learn to read music can quickly distinguish halves, quarters, eighths and sixteenths; they can split a single element in to thirds by chanting the word “strawberry” in their head.  Some, such as the pianist, can even break these elements into their smaller parts in many different patterns at the same time.  88 keys, ten fingers, no problem.

Music is a Foreign Language

At first glance, some will say that the very musical terms which are used to describe music are in Italian, German, or French, and the notation is certainly not English – but a highly developed type of shorthand that uses symbols to represent ideas. The semantics of music is the most complete and universal language.  What many curriculum designers fail to understand is that the link between music and language is actually much stronger.  Language was described by the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure as the mix of acoustic and visual images.  Music is essentially a different way of processing the same information as in a spoken language.  It is all about sound.  Studies show that those children who are musical also see great benefit in language development as a result.  How many times have I as a foreign language educator recommended sight singing lessons for students struggling in French and Spanish phonetics?!  The struggling language scholar simply isn’t hearing and perceiving sound efficiently, and music is often the key to getting over the insurmountable hurdle.

Music is History

Music often reflects the political and social atmosphere of the time in which it was created.  People weren’t any more happy about Mozart or Beethoven making changes to the way things had always been done any more than prudish souls of the 1950s were excited to learn about Elvis and Rock-and-Roll.  Given the opportunity, a student could also learn about how music under the Queen Elizabeth I was fundamentally different than the music of her father’s court simply because of the difference in religious expression at her time.  Who could underestimate the effect of two World Wars on contemporary classical music?

Music is Physical Education

It requires fantastic coordination of the fingers, hands, arms, lips, cheeks, and facial muscles, in addition to extraordinary control of the diaphragmatic, back, stomach, and chest muscles, which respond instantly to the sound the ear hears and the mind interprets.  I sat through lessons on facial isometrics in order to learn to play the trumpet well.  Good posture is essential.  And try to march in time with a group of people while playing and instrument and tell me that you don’t get a real workout.

Music is all of these things, but most of all… Music is an Art

Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness of self and others; cope with symptoms, stress, and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of making art.  The use of music can effect positive changes in the psychological, physical, cognitive, or social functioning of individuals with health or educational problems.  Musicians instinctively assess emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication abilities, and cognitive skills through musical responses; they use to their personal advantage, and to the benefit of others, music improvisation, receptive music listening, song writing, lyric discussion, music and imagery, music performance.

What is unfortunate is that Charlene and her music program were never well supported by the administrations of the various schools in the District where I grew up.  And she certainly was not supported by those sitting in the Superintendent’s office.  Every time a “financial crisis” hit the town, her program, unlike any of the sports teams, was one of the first to see cuts.

While we as students were unaware of her working conditions, since Charlene was a true professional and accepted whatever was thrown her way, we most definitely suffered the consequences of the decisions which were made on her behalf.  The effect of those decisions generally translated in to missed opportunities for learning and growing, and that is the real problem.

Here are just a few of the things that have long troubled me about our schools’ priorities when it comes to learning.  (No one in a modern school in the United States can question the primordial nature of sports education for a select few—the teams can only be so large, and only in limited circumstances is there a distinction made for Junior and Senior Varsity.  Sports programs touch so few students in reality, one does have to wonder why they are always given priority over all other forms of learning.)


  • While we as band students were forced to sit through endless sporting events in order to support the teams, not a single sports team member was ever told that in order to play in the next game, they had to attend our next band concert.
  • While sports teams always had all the resources they needed for new uniforms every other year, why did the band have to beg the home economics teacher to make reparations to the already 20 year-old wool jackets and horrible polyester pants of their marching uniforms?  Why weren’t students in band issued new concert going clothes at the same level of sports teams and their uniforms?
  • While students in one of the sports programs were ferried around the state several times a week to play with kids from other schools, why were busses and opportunities to interact with students from other places so limited to those students in the arts?
  • Why didn’t the school district hire a music teacher for each of the schools, not one teacher for all seven schools, so that classes in music appreciation could be held?  So that sectionals could be taught to improve the quality of student’s playing?
  • Wouldn’t it have been nice if Charlene could have worked with those students who struggled in writing or research skills to compose a true concert program with notes about the pieces being played, biographies of the soloists, and more?
  • Wouldn’t it have been educational for students to have enjoyed music appreciation classes so that they could understand how without Beethoven there would be no Justin Bieber?
  • What benefits to a community would there be if students learned to care about the arts and creativity in general?  What sort of advanced thinkers would we be training in our schools if students were able to take composition classes and learn to express themselves in ways other than strange clothing choices or colloquial speech?

( When I met Charlene, I was eager to learn–plaid coat, bad hair, crooked teeth, and all!)

In short, what makes me hold Charlene Farnham up as one of my models for teaching in today’s educational environment is the fact that she did her job and did it very well.  She was able to do that because she took the time to get to know her students and really connected with them.  She was concerned with more than just their fingering techniques, but also whether or not they were under performing in their other areas.  In some cases, she even held herself out there as a counselor for those in a difficult home-life.  She is dependable and reliable, and yet grotesquely undervalued by her employers, the tax payers and parents of her district.

What makes Charlene Farnham an excellent teacher is that she still cares.  Shortly after I graduated from Central High School, Charlene moved to a new school district to work.  There, she encountered many new challenges and has seemingly weathered them very well.  At her new school, she was suddenly thrust in to the role of Choral Director also, despite her lack of experience in choral music.  She found herself confronted with students eager to learn to play the guitar, so she taught herself to play and now offers classes in that instrument as well.

I recently was honored to sit down for lunch with an old friend of mine, Charlene Farnham.  I was delighted to find that she has remained virtually unchanged after all these years.  She still loves music and helping others to discover it.  She still cares enough about her craft to learn new instruments and to teach aspects of her art which she had long avoided.  She is a consummate student and that alone makes her a fine educator.  .  Charlene has understood what many educators have not:  those who wish to lead or teach must never cease to learn.


I was delighted also to donate some of the instruments upon which I had studied the art of music-making.  I had in my childhood bedroom an old snare drum, a trumpet, and a guitar which were sitting unused.  (Years ago, I had already given her a Sousaphone for a marching band.)  Those instruments were doing no one any good and today, Charlene uses them to share her passion for learning and for music with young people.  If you should have an old instrument that is just collecting dust in your attic and would like to find it a home, contact me, and I will tell you how to get it to Charlene who will certainly know how to make the most of it!

But most of all, I thank my friend, Charlene, for the gift of music.  I am forever indebted.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Mindy permalink
    March 12, 2012 11:41 am


  2. October 18, 2012 12:32 am

    An excellent tribute to a wonderful person who loves music and loves sharing the joy with her students.


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