Around the country, the school year is coming to a close. For high school students, spring break is fast becoming a distant memory as students complete projects and write papers, cram for end of course tests, Advanced Placement exams, and finals.
Performing arts programs, too, are in the last stages of preparation for the final performances of the year: in many cases, a Spring Concert is the traditional event for youth choir, orchestra, and band programs. These culminating events showcase student achievement over the course of the year and provide an opportunity for students and parents to come together and share what has been accomplished.
The Spring Concert can also be an emotional event, as students who have completed their time in the program prepare to move on to the next stage of their lives and say goodbye to their friends and their teachers. In many cases, the relationships students make in their arts programs are the closest and most impactful relationships they make in high school, and these provide cherished memories that last a lifetime.
Like many music teachers, I used a simple ceremony at each Spring Concert to mark this passage to the next phase for my students: The Cards.
I never experienced The Cards ceremony myself as a student – I witnessed a band director do it at a Spring Concert as an adult, and adopted the practice into the traditions of my own music programs. This simple ceremony provides an opportunity to spotlight every graduating senior, honor them for their participation and the unique contributions they have made, and share as little or as much (within predetermined boundaries) as they wish with those present.
The week before the final performance, I would remind all seniors graduating from the program that The Cards would be distributed to them shortly, and that they should be begin thinking about what they wished to write. I gave them the following guidelines:
Each graduating senior would be given a 3” x 5” index card. On The Card each was to write:
- His or her name.
- How many years he or she had been in the program. (With a program that included multiple ensembles it might also include which ensembles the student had participated in.)
- Plans after graduation (college he or she or she would be attending, intended major, etc.).
- An anecdote, memory, quote, gratitude, or anything else appropriate that the student wished to include.
No matter how much they wrote, everything had to fit on only one side of that 3 x 5 card.
A day or two before the performance, I gave a stack of index cards to the concertmaster, choirs student president, or other student leader, whose responsibility it was that year to distribute The Cards to each graduating senior and collect them back again once they had been written.
On the evening of the concert, this student leader would then give me The Cards backstage shortly before we began the performance. I would place them in my pocket without looking at them so that I had them with me and could read them at the end of the night. Traditionally, reading The Cards was the penultimate activity of the Spring Concert presented after the program had been performed and all other awards and recognitions. After The Cards ceremony, the orchestra would play a final selection or the combined choirs would sing a short encore, and then everyone would say goodbyes and go home.
My programs’ annual Spring Concert ceremonies usually included acknowledgments to student officers, parent volunteers, and students who had achieved recognitions on the regional and state levels. Often these included the gift of a flower, certificate, or both.
After all of these acknowledgments were complete, I would ask every graduating senior to line up at the front of the stage, and to step forward one at a time from the line of their peers as I read his or her Card.
I think that for the students as well as myself, there was a heightened sense of drama to this ceremony knowing that I had no idea what was written on The Cards, and I always told the audience that I had not read them before I began.
The Cards was always an emotional part of the Spring Concert, and usually there were tears involved for some on stage and in the audience. While some students wrote perfunctory Cards that only addressed the first three bullets I listed above, many expressed gratitude, or described a funny or touching memory of something that had happened in choir or orchestra that revealed how much the experience had meant to them. It was clear in what many students wrote on The Cards that the friendship and community they experienced in my ensemble programs meant as much or more to them than the actual artistic experiences.
Some wrote inspirational quotes, or even jokes. A few comments from The Cards that stand out in my memory are:
- “I plan to continue playing music forever.”
- “I broke a string at every concert!”
- “I am going to X to study being awesome. I am going to life to study being a good person.”
- “When life gives you lemons, suck on them and make funny faces!”
This brief, simple ceremony provided the opportunity for every senior graduating from my programs to have a final moment in the spotlight at our last concert of the year. I came across a stack of these Cards in a drawer I was cleaning out recently and was touched by the memories they evoked. If you are a high school music teacher, I strongly encourage you to consider doing something like this ceremony with your students each year, and if you do, save those cards and keep them in a safe place.
Walter Bitner serves as director of education & community engagement for the Nashville Symphony. He writes about music and education on his blog Off the Podium at walterbitner.com.