Making a Wonky Noise Unto the Lord
I have been a teacher for more than 30 years. I once taught To Kill a Mockingbird to a junior class of mostly boys, where one kid in our culminating discussion muttered at me, “Nobody even got to kill a mockingbird.” I have pleaded with fifth graders to stop ignoring punctuation (except the exclamation point. They really like the exclamation point). I have even covered the Old Testament in seventh-grade Sunday school. Interpreting Levitical law with a bunch of thirteen-year-olds will stretch your pedagogy and your patience. I’ve seen things.
But in my opinion, it takes a really special weirdo to teach middle school band.
When I was in fourth grade, I had a band instructor named Mrs. Funkhouser. If you could conjure what you think a Mrs. Funkhouser looks like, you would be entirely correct. Her name exactly fit her. Mrs. Funkhouser was very tall, with clunky glasses and comfortable loafers, and she wore brown a lot. She had one of those hairstyles that stayed upright and nobody knew how. She visited our fourth-grade class one day with a large box of instruments, and she let us squawk and blow spittle all over the place. I selected a delicate silver instrument, the piccolo, so tiny that I could fit it in the pocket of my Jordache jeans. After many attempts, I was finally able to emit one shrill peep, and she eyed me with triumph and said, in her singsongy vibrato, “It’s the NEATEST thing! It REALLY is! To play in the BAND!”
Mrs. Funkhouser was not afraid of a good exclamation point.
Our band practices started with simple scales that were honky and desperate, but she would smile and nod and start to bounce with the notes, as if our disaster of the C scale was causing her to shimmy a little. We would come up for air and look on in alarm. Later, Minuet in G Major had her fully grooving up and down, grinning, her Naturalizers squeaking along with the clarinets. She reminded me of a sort of musical Julia Child, awkwardly wedging us into the music, and always with such joy.
It was the joy that got you. She wasn’t cool at all. But she just really loved band, and she loved us.
Practices were every Tuesday and Thursday in a badly lit basement room with cavernous acoustics. Its main decor element was air ducts. We would sleepily find our seats at 7 a.m. and blast the living daylights out of Mrs. Funkhouser. After a few months, Mrs. Funkhouser announced that we were going to have a concert, “And in it, children, we will be playing BEETHOVEN!” She drew out his name in her breathy tremble, as if this should thrill us as much as it did her. We were unsure. We didn’t really know him all that well. But Mrs. Funkhouser did, we could tell. And so we dove into a really simplified form of Beethoven’s ninth symphony, and we practiced.
Just so you know, the practicing did absolutely nothing. On the day of the concert, when Mrs. Funkhouser raised her baton and smiled at us, eyebrows raised in anticipation, we were quivering with readiness. We were ready to dazzle. And within four notes, we eviscerated Beethoven, as well as any scholarship dreams of half the parents in the audience. The other half just wanted to leave. We played on. Mrs. Funkhouser gleefully led us through the chorus and finale as if nothing was wrong, as if we were all virtuosos and this was Carnegie Hall.
I wonder sometimes about Mrs. Funkhouser, after all these years. She is right here in my mind, rocking back and forth on her heels and smiling at us.
It was because of her joy. She was our leader. We would have followed her anywhere.
I have always lacked leadership skills. I follow well, or at least that’s what I’ve been told by nearly everyone but my husband. But to truly lead? That is a difficult thing. Yet that’s what the church is asked to do, every day. Be shepherds of the church, Peter tells us. Encourage the fainthearted; help the weak, Paul directs. And not only that, we’re asked to lead with joy, to loudly proclaim, maybe even with an overflow of confidence that might sound wonky to others around us, that we think it’s really NEAT! It’s the NEATEST thing! To be in the CHURCH!
And this is why I want to be more like Mrs. Funkhouser.
I know that they shall know us by our love, but maybe, they shall know me by my goofiness. They shall know me by my awkwardness? If I were following the Funkhouser way, perhaps they shall even know me by my bliss. Bliss is a tough thing to sell these days unless you’re talking about spa retreats or Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. But maybe, in all my efforts to not offend, I forgot the joyful permission of exuberance. Beethoven wrote an entire ode to it, after all.
I have two pastors at church who are Funkhousers. Their leadership is authentic and vulnerable and often very goofy. When they preach, I feel as though they are preaching for themselves, too, and I have watched our little church thrive because of them. The pews are full of families and kids and older generations and random new folks who are promptly surrounded by all of us in what I bet is a little overwhelming but still nicely enthusiastic way. We are not weird. Okay, we are a little weird, but we are weird about Jesus and that is okay. All churches should have this—this Funkhouser special sauce—that is alive and exuberant and bounces. It’s leadership through continued cheerfulness.
At my husband’s work, the leaders require monthly whimsy with something creatively called Hawaiian Shirt Day. This demonstrates that their corporation is enthusiastic and has a sense of humor. But I think Hawaiian Shirt Day still has just a bunch of super stressed-out people racing to their next super stressful meeting while wearing bright colors. For Mrs. Funkhouser, her joy wasn’t on the outside. It wasn’t dress-up. It wasn’t even in the music we produced. Her joy was in making the music together. Exultation seemed to start in her toes and overflow from her baton. If she could have, I think she would have rocked right off her pedestal and bounced over and conducted us from our seats, smack between the clarinets and the trombones. She was right with us.
And it was an ode to joy.