Panache - with a beat

An offspring's ascension to fifth grade can be hard on parents' sensibilities. I'm not talking new assertiveness or burgeoning homework loads. I'm talking woodwind instruments.

Fifth grade, for most American youths, is when you can join the school band. That means access to the town parade, to the gleam of brass, to a lot of societally sanctioned noise. And, at least at my daughter's school, to a certain cachet that comes with hauling around an instrument that pairs well with sunglasses.

Those sunglasses are important. For the most part - forget Liberace and Elton John - pianists don't venture beyond black tie. Cellists rarely get more flamboyant than some snazzy palazzo pants. But the sax? The clarinet? Style pops right out of the case.

The band director in my town understands this. Last week, at the winter concert, the band played last, following the more-experienced glee club and strings.

That didn't worry the band. After a tune-up run, they slipped on their Ray-bans and charged into "Jingle Bell Rock." It was loud. It was - off-key. And everyone loved it because it was fun.

The director boasts that many of his students continue to play beyond high school. Perhaps that's because he shows them early on that music can be fun, something worth having in your life, if only informally. The fun is hardly limited to winds, of course. Just about any group of players can make music - and have a great time. They know: It expands the world. It can be spontaneous. It keeps people from saying the wrong thing because they're too busy playing. All they need is some heart and soul.

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