Thursday, September 1, 2011

Musings on My Music Teacher

This might be a departure from my normal posts, which generally about my life in the classroom. Tonight, I wanted to, in a way, pay tribute to one of the most inspirational teachers in my life, my high school music director Warren Torns.

A few weeks ago, I attended my first rehearsal with the Cuyamaca Community College Concert Band, which is Warren's newest directing gig. He had announced the opportunity at the end of summer band this summer, and I was immediately considering joining, but the fact that CCC is pretty far from my house was nearly a dealbreaker for me, not the mention Wednesdays being my really long days with no prep and often a 1-2 hour department chair meeting after school. But it was a conversation with several of my lady friends -- and something that Bethany said in particular -- that clinched my decision to join the band. Granted, I missed the first rehearsal because of the first day of school, but I signed up and have spent my last few weeks worth of Wednesdays there.

It's a small-ish group, at least compared to the last couple years' worth of summer bands, but it had a fairly decent instrumentation mostly, minus some french horns, bassoons, and a bass clarinet. I don't really know anybody -- I know almost all of the clarinet players by sight, but not well. Warren picked some decently challenging music, I would say, for the group -- I think Persichetti's "Pageant" is pretty challenging because it's like musical pointillism, so you never get a sense really of how your part fits in unless everyone plays their part correctly (heh...).

But I'm sort of digressing from my point, which is that Warren is an amazing teacher of music. What's always been sort of a weird thing for me to realize, now that I'm a long ways out of high school, is that this is a man who spent his life teaching high schoolers to be musicians. High schoolers! I know I teach high schoolers, too, but I look out at them and can't fathom doing what Warren did for so many years. I always felt like Warren treated us like adults, at least as much as he could, which I guess is why it's mindblowing to me that in actuality, he was dealing with the same teenagers that I do everyday. Plus, he's a stickler for detail and commitment, and I mean that in the absolute best of ways. He might have gotten frustrated with us and lectured about practicing and not expecting to pull an amazing concert out of nowhere, but he praised us when we did well and molded us into not just the musicians that we were (and some people continue to be), but really, into the humans we became. Warren's high expectations absolutely affected my obsessive need to be early to important things, my appreciation for hours of practice of anything that's important, and my additionally obsessive need for perfection (though I think I had a healthy dose of that before being a Marching Sundevil....). But ... high schoolers! I put up with HUNDREDS of high schoolers every year! This just blows my mind every time I think about it.

Some have complained that Warren was too hard on us, or yelled too much during rehearsals, or had expectations for us that were too high. But those complainers just clearly didn't appreciate the life skills Warren was instilling into us. And really, with a band of over 400 high schoolers, how do you control that without yelling? Cattle prods? Land mines? Many of my high school friends I'm sure would agree that whether we play our instruments still or not, we still embody the values instilled in us by Warren and our experiences as Marching Sundevils. We all still recite the motto that "to be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late, and to be late is unthinkable." And this is why I always have a book in my car...

Anyway, I have been reflecting often during the last few weeks, after it has been clear that a fellow bandmate who didn't know me didn't know that I've been playing the flute for a long time, that I started playing the flute 19 years ago this fall, and that I first joined the Mt. Carmel band 15 years ago. I realized in a nearly-blinding flash on the drive home after my first rehearsal that I have probably spent more time under Warren's influence than any other teacher in my entire student life. I've been a part of three music groups besides my high school band that Warren has conducted; it's almost like I'm a groupie, I guess. But between four years of high school direction (and in the fall, this was two periods a day), four years of Wednesday night rehearsals, trips to Scandinavia, Indianapolis, and Sacramento, community band in Grossmont in the old days, and more recently what I think is five years of summer band, I have watched Warren teach more than any other teacher I've ever had.

But besides really loving music and being able to play my flute in a group and having that kind of relaxing and transcendent experience when I'm playing, I love being a part of Warren's bands because of his insistence on practice and perfection. Warren expects a lot out of his musicians, and having played in other groups run by other directors, Warren can somehow get more out of his groups than other directors. I mean, maybe I'm biased, but I've worked under at least seven or eight other directors in my 19 years as a musician, and I never feel like the group is as successful under anyone else. Warren runs a tight ship during rehearsals, something I've learned is not always the case, and this is why this most recent band experience has been weird and why I am finding myself deep in reflection on every late night drive home.

See, during most of these rehearsals, Warren was in "teacher" mode. Which is a total trip for me, because it has been a LONG time since I've seen him that way. Maybe not since my last band camp in 1999? I don't know. I don't feel like he even did some of the things he did last night with Wind Ensemble, but I could just simply be revising history. But given that he's brand new to this particular band, it's only natural that he would have to establish his norms for class, norms that I've been familiar with for fifteen years. But as he was explaining/lecturing about the need for a pencil on one's stand, the need to practice the hard parts, I was paying attention (really, Warren, I was!) but I was also thinking about how jarring it was to see him doing the kind of deliberate teaching that I do. I don't often think of Warren doing the same job I do, or of having worked with the same age demographic that I do.

And then, of course, I started to wonder how much of who I am as a teacher is because of Warren. Most of the time, when teacher friends and I are comparing notes about our biggest influences in why we became teachers and the models we follow, I tend not to think of Warren first. I think about all four of my English teachers, and I know that I use elements of all three of them -- heck, I use their LESSONS. I've borrowed (er, stolen) many lessons from Bob Pacilio and Karen Harkins (9th and 11th grade respectively), I've stolen content elements from Scott Currie, and I certainly borrow elements of Jack Mosher's approach to teaching text. So for me, I look to them for inspiration. But like I said, I've spent far more time under Warren's supervision and direction than any of these others, probably combined, and so I have been looking critically at my practice and methods over the last few weeks to see whether or not that influence has translated into my own work.

Now, methodologically, it's hard to tell, because my job in the classroom is so different than Warren's was/is. I'm trying to teach reading and writing; Warren teaches music. Yet, in many ways, learning to write well is very much like learning to play music well. Writing and music both require practice, even of the things you think you're good at. Once you have the foundational skills of each, you can start to take risks and improve and create art out of both, and so I do try to allow students as many opportunities as possible to practice and refine those skills.

I think the biggest way I see Warren's influence on my teaching is my high expectations for my students, but with the same support I always felt like Warren provided us to meet those expectations. Like Warren, I'm clear with my expectations, and like Warren, I definitely try to find multiple ways to explain what I want -- I remember vividly Warren telling the flute section, after several tries of not playing a section of "Apocalypse" the way he wanted, to play the section "orange." As in, the color. Orange. And, weirdly, this was what clicked. Orange. So I think about that -- about the need sometimes to provide multiple explanations and examples for what you want to make sure that all of the students in front of you know and understand what they need to do to be successful. (In tandem with this particular observation, when I feel like the students are not doing everything they need to do to be successful, I am equally apt to get upset with them and lecture them, a la Mr. Torns, about how they can't expect to pull perfection out of the orifice of their choice the night before something is due...)

Oh, and I also invoke the Warren Torns "No Yuck" rule to texts that I love. I tell the students they aren't allowed to dislike a piece of text we read, especially if it's one of my favorites, until we're done discussing it. I invoke this rule with the following pieces, generally: "Young Goodman Brown," "A Rose for Emily," The Great Gatsby, and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Like Warren, I know what my students can do well with and will "play well." Just like a piece of music, I sometimes think of reading a text with my students as playing a song together -- each of them contributes something to the analysis of the piece that helps the whole class understand the objective of the text.

So here's to you, Warren. Thank you for 15 years of high expectations, amazing musical experiences and opportunities, and just generally being awesome at what you do. You inspire me to be a better teacher every time I watch you direct and I feel so very lucky to have had all of the circumstances of life align so that I ended up at Mt. Carmel as a Marching Sundevil. Every Wednesday night rehearsal this fall has shown me that every single one of us that ever sat under your direction learned more than we probably ever realized, and for that, I will always be grateful. Cheers!