What A Favorite Teacher Taught Me
I hear voices murmuring behind me, dappling the air in gently shifting color; they fill the empty hall, moment by moment, with the subtle whispers of life. Before me, shifting lights come forth to embellish the soft darkness, twinkling through points of silver on restless glittering keys and glints of gold on shining brass. Each of them gathers here with their eager, hungering ears, anticipating the delicate taste of silence broken.
Stepping up to the podium, the voices cease, and an electric silence surrounds us. As I raise my baton, the musicians eyes look up, and their faces open like blooming flowers.
For just a moment, the world is gathered in one tight breath...about to begin.
I have the great honor of inhabiting this world every now and then through my work with a local community band. This is music: the stuff of life gathered into one moment to be experienced, released, and then carried back into normal life where it hovers in one's memory like a secret jewel, decorating the mundane world with sparks of joy and color.
The stories presented below come from my memories of a man who was instrumental in introducing me to this world. In subtle ways, his thoughts and his actions live on in me as I move through my life and do my work. He taught music, but his lessons whispered of the secrets of life. This is the gift of a mentor.
Lesson 1: Challenge
"Hey, Greg," I said, calling down the line. "I think I'm getting it!" We stood by side in a six by six block of trumpet players on the first day of marching band camp. We had rehearsed our music together in the band room all morning, being pushed ten times harder than we ever had before, and now we were working on marching basics: toe up, heel down, roll through the step...left, right, left, right, left. Over our heads, we could hear Mr. A's voice: "Keep your backside in! Pinch that penny! I don't want to see any corn-cob butts. Keep your eyes front, and your horns parallel to the ground. Stay in step and keep in line!"
It was a lot to process all at once, but we were feeling pretty solid on the marching basics at the close of the very first day. This is gonna be a piece of cake! Or so I believed until the following morning.
"Seriously!?!" I cried out, stumbling over my own feet and falling briefly out of line. "This is impossible!" Marching is easy. Marching and playing together? Not so much. Here's what's supposed to happen, all at the same time: keep your eye on the back of the head in front of you, hold your instrument parallel to the ground, step left and right on the beat, don't bounce--roll, stay in line with the people beside you and the people in front of you, move your fingers in time with the music you memorized (kinda), blow through the horn with everything you've got, don't play early, don't play late, listen for balance and use dynamics...oh, and, when it's done for real, it will be in the upper 90s and you'll be wearing a full band uniform--heavy wool from head to toe. "This is gonna be great!"
Or a complete disaster; it could be that, too. This guy is insane.
The frustration of that week was staggering. And yet, by the close of the week, after much hard work, sweating, relentless encouragement, and no small amount of yelling (Mr. A hadn't stopped smoking yet), we got it. We actually got it. We achieved the impossible. We had transformed from a collection of uncoordinated, gangly teenage kids into a band. The music sounded like music. The band looked like a band.
Life Lesson: The impossible is quite possible. Be patient. Persevere.
Lesson 2: Commitment
I was nervous walking into his office. My request was completely reasonable, but I knew how strict he was. He looked up from his desk as I walked in and said, "Hey Mr. A." He smiled back at me, and I continued, "I've been thinking I'd like to go to the Thespian retreat."
"That's a great idea. I've heard that's a really fun trip."
"Great!" I replied, excited that he was in favor of the idea. "We're supposed to leave early Friday afternoon, so I'll miss the half-time show for the football game--just this once."
"Wait," his said, his smile fading. "When is this supposed to be again?"
"Friday," I said flatly, feeling the ground beginning to give way beneath me.
"You can't miss that." He did not say this in anger, he was merely stating a fact. "We have a performance and we need you to be there."
Immediately, my heart began to churn with adolescent rage. What? I thought. I'm just a third part trumpet player. Who's going to miss me? This trip only happens once a year. Stupid band director. He's completely unreasonable! "Yeah," I said glumly. "Fine. I'll be there."
As I was marching on the field that night, the guy next to me was missing. I noticed that night how hard it was for me to stay in line with a guy who was not there. His absence had left a hole that created very real consequences for me.
I'm part of a team here--a link in a chain. Maybe I really do matter after all.
Life Lesson: You matter. Commit and do it--no excuses.
Lesson 3: Lighten Up
I knew. Greg knew. But Mr. A? He didn't know. He didn't need to know, and that made everything just fine. At least, it was supposed to. I walked in to class and sat down, feeling just fine. Yes. Fine. A quick warmup. A few quick glances at that flute player across the way. I was ready for rehearsal to begin.
Then Mr. A stepped up to the podium, and my entire facade crumbled. I'd seen that look before, and it was not a good sign. He didn't even pause to open with the usual pleasantries, "You know, the lack of responsibility in this band is shocking sometimes. I've been doing this for a long time, and, year after year, time after time, it keeps coming back to this. Do you recognize how important it is for every one of you to follow through on your responsibilities? If a single one of you drops the ball, then the whole band suffers. Fifty right notes can be destroyed by one note out of place. You folks need to get serious about doing what you say you're going to do, and the time is now." He let us sit in silence for a moment, raised his baton, and began the rehearsal.
That hour was like ten days in solitary confinement. I heard music around me, but I didn't really listen. My mind was consumed with thoughts about me, a pathetic excuse for a band member. I respected Mr. A so much, and now I'd let him down. I was a leader in the band, and I was pulling this kind of lie? No one can look up to me now. He thinks I'm horrible. And the worst part?
An hour later, I step into his office. "Mr. A?" I inquire quietly.
"Yeah," he says, not angry--just busy.
"Can I talk to you?"
"Sure." He turns to look at me.
"I'm so sorry I didn't go to the All-State Band tryouts. I just didn't practice. I didn't make it enough of a priority and I'm sorry about that. The band means so much to me and I'm going to step up and make this right. I'm not going to let this happen again. You can count on me." Mr. A looked at me with a blank stare, neither angry nor happy--just listening.
Finally, he chuckled a bit. Confusion bubbled up from within as I stood, mouth hanging open, trying to figure out how to react. "I wasn't talking about you, you know," he said simply. "I didn't even know you hadn't go to the tryouts, but I'm not worried about that." He smiled. "Sure. You need to practice and follow through with what you say you're going to do, but that's small potatoes compared to the laziness around here lately. You're doing just fine."
We laughed together, and I went on to my next class.
Life Lesson: Everyone makes mistakes, and forgiveness is divine.
Lesson 4: Respect
Band class had just ended, and we were chatting with Mr. A. He was a fun guy, and we loved to just spend time in his room. It was a tough time of year, so I dropped this line conversationally, "Well, you know how it is, life's a headache, and then you get married, right?" Looking to him for the conspiratorial wink of confirmation, I was surprised to find his expression completely flat.
"Actually," he replied, "I sincerely hope that every one of you has the opportunity someday to know the kind of relationship that I have with my wife. She's the most wonderful person I've ever known. She's made me a deeper, stronger person, and there's no joy in my life like the time I share with her." Stunned embarrassment bloomed on my face. He said this with such simple honesty. What a weird thing for him to say. I wonder what it would be like to have a wife like that--someone that was so dear to your heart that you were ready to just lay it out there anytime the subject came up.
Now I do. And I've told whole classes full of children the same thing he told me.
The Lesson: Relationships bind us together--grab one and hold on.
Lesson 5: Purpose
Here is a story he told all the time:
The band was marching in a solid block out onto the field for competition. At a certain point, the block was to shift left, causing the entire band to rotate towards the audience and move forward--all in unison. It was a highly effective visual maneuver when done correctly.
On this particular day, however, the tuba player on the upper left-hand corner missed the cue, but instead of freaking out and running back into his place, he just kept right on going! Eight steps out, he did an about face, returned to his proper line position, faced front, and marched right down into place with the rest of the band. The move was so effectively performed that the judges all thought that it was planned--a kind of lighthearted humor.
Life Lesson: Move with purpose, and people will be convinced you know what you're doing--even when you don't.
Lessons Learned: Together Again
"Good evening folks," I said, standing on the podium before my community band. "It is my great honor to introduce to you my dear friend and long-time mentor, Steve. He will be hour guest conductor on the Rhapsody in Blue. It's been seventeen years since I played under his direction, and I can't tell you how exciting it is for me that we're back together again."
Steve took the podium, and the years fell away. As his baton lead us through the music, all these memories flooded my mind. Once again, I got to share the joy of making marvelous music with good people, and, this time, I got to share it with him, too. Good men do not change.
Life Lesson: Life is a circle from my hand to yours. Hold on, and the Lord will do his work to complete it.
Final Lesson: The Words I Remember
- Play with both lungs!: Heard on the first day I met him when I was playing trumpet with a weak sense of commitment. Translation: "Get serious about what you do."
- Don't paint gray spots on a gray wall.: When our playing was bland and uninteresting. Translation: "Make your mark."
- We will be a class act every time, all the way.: Spoken every time respect and responsibility became a part of what we needed to do. Translation: "Life is as much about how you do it as it is about what you do with it."
- Be Great!: Spoken before every performance--every time. Translation: "Be Great!"
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