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Band Students Not Planning Music Majors

Teacher Tries to Motivate His Seniors to the Finish

By Christina Pino-Marina
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 29, 2003; Page VA03

All 16 of the graduating seniors in Alex Robinson's music classes at Washington-Lee High School have been accepted into colleges and universities. For the moment, however, none is planning to major in music -- the subject Robinson has devoted his career to teaching.

The veteran teacher said he is not surprised.

Band teacher Alex Robinson helps student Patrick Lyon, 14, with an assignment at Washington-Lee High School. (File Photo/Stephanie K. Kuykendal For The Washington Post)

_____Class Notes_____
Exhausting is Robinson's Only Way (washingtonpost.com, Sep 25, 2002)
Teaching All the Time (washingtonpost.com, Sep 26, 2002)
For Veteran, Open Dialogue Gets Results (The Washington Post, Sep 26, 2002)
For Educators, a Year Of Challenges Awaits (The Washington Post, Aug 29, 2002)
Alex Robinson: Marching to His Own Beat
Hannah Pfoutz: A Return Home Yields a New Beginning
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"A lot of kids are turned off by the book side of music, the theory," said Robinson, director of bands at the Arlington school. "A lot of them just want to play, and many of them will continue to play, either for their college bands or on their own.

"I've seen students change their majors later on, because they think, 'Hey, you know, I'm really good at this, and I love this.' But there are a lot of sacrifices that come with it."

Ben Jessup, an 18-year-old senior and alto saxophone player, said that despite his decision to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Virginia, he hopes to continue playing the instrument that won him top honors in a jazz festival. Because he did not choose music as his major or minor, he had to turn down the $500 scholarship that came with the outstanding soloist award at the Chantilly Jazz Invitational in March.

"I see it as a hobby, but I'll probably play for the rest of my life," Jessup said while relaxing in a blue plastic cafeteria chair after an evening practice session at the school. "Hopefully, I'll be able to find other people, a small group of people to play with."

In the weeks that remain before the end of the school year, Advanced Placement tests, International Baccalaureate exams and the statewide Standards of Learning (SOL) tests have changed the nature of Robinson's everyday classroom dynamics and forced rearrangement of practice schedules.

For many students, especially seniors, classes feel like an end-of-the-year formality now that the big tests are winding down. But there is still work to be done. Concerts in June, student presentations about historically prominent musicians and a performance at the school's graduation ceremony are among the top priorities in Robinson's classes. Despite the lure of summer and other distractions, he is trying his best to keep the students in the moment.

"Sometimes, it feels like school is just a chore," said 17-year-old senior Martha Coello, who, like Jessup, plays alto sax and plans to attend Virginia. "But in band, we're still busy, and there is still something to work for. I've really enjoyed my time at W-L, and band was one of the most enriching experiences. I'll miss the music, and it will be hard to start up again. I'm afraid I'll lose what I've learned."

Before Jessup, Coello and the other students finish the year, they will hear about the life experiences of a former W-L student who graduated in 1952 and made his career playing virbraphone in the professional jazz scene.

German-born Lennie Cujé, 70, is well acquainted with the pull of music and the sacrifices that come with choosing music as a career. In a continuing effort to build connections between students and professionals, Robinson has organized a concert with Cujé, other local musicians and the students at the school in mid-June.

"I'm established now, but it took almost 50 years," said Cujé, who played in U Street jazz clubs during the 1960s and later performed for presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. "To be a jazz musician, you have to be willing to bare your soul, to dig up more and more truth. You have to love it so much [that] sometimes you have to be willing to sacrifice everything else."

Robinson said he plans to immerse himself in the world of professional music during the summer as a way of continuing his own education and improving his skills.

A jazz pilgrimage to New Orleans is in the works. Bass lessons are a possibility. Percussion gigs in local clubs might be thrown in for good measure. For now, he knows that there are presentations to grade, concert preparations to be made and a graduation performance to perfect.

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