Band Practice

“ETIENNE, James Archie. Born May 23, 1917. Archie passed away peacefully on Thursday, April 27, 2006 at the age of eighty-eight…” So begins a simple, loving obituary for a good man.

It continued, “… Archie served during W.W.II in the R.C.A.F. After graduating from McGill University (1940), he taught music at West Hill High School in Montreal for 30 years. Here he inspired many young musicians, and toured Europe several times with his award-winning concert bands.”

Well. In my day, we never got to tour Europe – in fact, we traveled no farther than Drummondville. But had I seen this notice in the paper at the time, I surely would have gone to Mr. Etienne’s funeral. When I knew him, he was my instrumental music teacher for four years, from 1958 to 1962, at West Hill. I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I was not one of his prize students. I wheezily played clarinet as best I could, barely hanging on to the last chair in the third row.

Girl playing clarinet
Clarinet player. Not me, but could’ve been me… hair included.
Photo (cc) by TomD.

Archie was a stern but fair taskmaster. His amazing ear allowed him to pick out the one band member out of 30 who was sharp or flat. Sure, he put us through our tiresome drills with the dreaded scales and triads, but I can at least say I learned some appreciation of music. And I did look forward to our nicely blended harmonies in some lovely pieces.

I don’t think Archie ever knew – at least I hope he never knew – that the only reason I chose instrumental music as an elective in the first place was because I wanted to be in the band. They had cool uniforms. There, I said it. 🙂

The cruelest thing Archie Etienne ever made me do was also the kindest. By my senior year, he had, in his wisdom, bestowed upon me the title of Assistant Band Manager. This meant I had certain responsibilities, none of which I remember now, but probably they involved keys, the organizing of sheet music and the like. Administrative stuff. Right, so anyway, the cruel thing was this. He told me in front of everyone at practice that for the upcoming spring concert, I was to do the welcoming speech. To all the parents. And teachers. And guests. In the (large) auditorium. Into a microphone. Shy little me.

I begged, pleaded with him to ask someone else. But he wouldn’t budge. “Oh,” he said dismissively, “you’ll do fine,” and turned to other matters. Meanwhile my stomach was somewhere on the floor and my pounding heart was echoing in my ears. I thought I’d pass out.

But on the night of the concert, after a stuttering start – “Louder!” yelled someone in the audience – I was okay (notwithstanding my trembling knees), reading my short speech, barely tall enough to reach the microphone. It went fine.

One of Archie’s students was Boris Brott, who became a top-flight orchestra conductor and violinist. Me? With relief, I ceased being a clarinettist right after my matriculation exam – in which I managed to eke out a 70%.

But I love music. And I’ll never forget Archie Etienne, an excellent music teacher.

11 thoughts on “Band Practice

  1. I thought this sounded familiar, and I see I liked it when I first read it. Thanks for sending me the link so I could read it again. I’d say a very important result of your playing was finding that you loved music. You can also appreciate anyone who plays the clarinet well. I played alto sax in the band because I inherited the instrument from my brother. Now I have my daughter’s flute which I still intend to practice. I’ve only put it off for three years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oops, haha, lately I forget who said/wrote what when and to whom! 😀 Glad you liked it a second time, though! Yes, it did give me an appreciation for ANYone who can play any instrument well, since I know it’s not easy. You played sax?! And now learning flute?! Good for you Anne!!


  2. I went on the overseas band tour in 1975 on a scholarship. All was well until I was sexually harassed by Mr. Etienne. It took me over 25 years to tell someone about the episode. I was 16. I hope we can support our kids and grandkids so that they are more equipped than I was to do something about people like him. Shame on you Archie.


      1. Thanks for your post, Ellie. I appreciate your shock.

        I remembered in vivid detail the whole thing when a friend from band shared a file of photos of the trip a couple of weeks ago. I posted a few of them on IG with a message about what happened to me. The number of reactions was outstanding and one from a band member who reminded me of how was harassed by Etienne (in a non-sexual way in this case)). How many times did she land up in the bathroom crying after class — too many to recall, she says.

        I remember that about him: he got a real kick out of making kids feel sick to their stomach when they weren’t up to scratch or when he just had it in for them on a particular day, month or year. My generation saw many kids succumb to his words and actions in tears or the jitters; others, probably because they were somehow more resilient, figured it was healthier not to put up with the b-s-ard and simply quit.


        Liked by 1 person

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