Thursday, April 10, 2008

Mr. Smith: junior high band teacher

In Junior High I played the flute in the band. Students were required to participate in the band, orchestra, or choir for a year in 7th grade to fulfill the music credit. For some reason I chose the flute. I don't remember why. And for another unremembered reason, I played through my entire junior high career.

Junior High teachers have a thankless job. And, sadly, are often a thankless lot. The kids they teach and supervise are old enough to think for themselves, thank you very much, (not that they think very clearly) and are pushing the age when adults are the grand barriers on the horizon to what the kids are attempting to become: adults themselves.

My band teachers were interesting to put it politely. I was relieved to make it past the one who I'm sure was a nice man but, to a 12 year-old who though she knew a little bit, resembled one of the bumbling seven dwarves more than an accomplished musician. My other teacher was Mr. Smith. He taught the more advanced classes, including an after-school band I participated in.

Mr. Smith had a temper. It was legendary and whispered about in giddy and ecstatic tones by those of us who had grown up in a fairly mild-mannered community abounding with mild-mannered guardians. He once threw a tuba across the band room. And. He drank coffee.

I know, coffee hardly seems anything to get excited about, but this was in Orem, Utah, home of many Mormons, and Mormons don't drink coffee. Junior High is the age where the realization begins to bud oh-so-slowly: there are people who may be unlike you, and as scary as that is, they may be nice anyway. So we accepted the smell of fresh coffee brewing in his office in the mornings for what it was: proof that a philistine or a rebel was living among us and that he was our band teacher.

Looking back, I realize that Mr. Smith was probably, in part, a frustrated artist. A man stuck teaching unappreciative children and dealing with their unappreciative parents. But he loved music. Or why would he be there at all?

He could play all of the instruments. And not only that, he could arrange music. He brought his own arrangement of a song from a movie soundtrack with parts for everyone. It may have even been Star Wars. The Thrill! We loved it. And we completely failed to appreciate what kind of time and energy he would have spent in writing that out for us to play.

The after-school band he ran participated in a competition against other bands, most of them high school level. While we couldn't technically compete we could be judged, and we got the highest marks. It was an experience with this band that I wrote about this week for Just an Orange.

Mr. Smith did have a temper. Along with the tuba, he threw a clipboard across the room and probably other things I don't remember. He stormed through the doors when the kids in his class were being rude and insolent. He left us speechless at times. But he did more than that. He really gave of himself, and he gave us an experience with music that has stayed with me. He left my junior high music department not long after I went on to high school. I hope he found a job somewhere that let him accomplish what he wanted; that let him be more than a frustrated musician in an unfamiliar world. I hope somewhere he was able to settle in to being an un-frustrated musician in a world that appreciated him.


  1. Whenever I go to one of my kids' band concerts, I think "there's a special spot in heaven for jr. high band teachers. They don't get the payoff as much as the high school band teachers.

    Loved your piece on Just an Orange. There's nothing like making music together!

  2. Despite piano lessons and a 10 year struggle to learn to lead music, I must admit that I cannot keep a beat. But this post and the one on Just an Orange encourage me to keep on encouraging my children in stepping stones like junior high music, not only so they can keep a beat but so they will ever be able to feel that beat through a lifetime of music.

  3. I had exactly such a teacher in high school - a drama teacher, probably gay, and very much alien to me, but such a creative, stimulating person!

  4. Can you still throw tubas if you're a band teacher? I think we had some band teachers who did that as well. Maybe that's what happens when there's nothing but out-of-tune, out-of-rhythm music running through your head all day. At least in English most of the reading is silent. (Do poetry teachers throw busts of Shakespeare across the room from time to time, I wonder? Especially during recitation weeks?)

  5. The reason you kept playing the flute was because your parents said you had to do something musically and if you didn't keep going with piano it had to be an instrument in school. Am I remembering correctly?

  6. Well, mom, that's probably right. Although I should point out I still played the piano, I just didn't take lessons!

  7. It's good to get to know someone who has a few differences and it's great when we grow up and really know what's up we remember to be thankful for all the people who gave us amazing experiences along the way.

    And, giving up coffee is a good idea for a guy who throws things.. just say'in.. this is years of Diet Coke talkin' :)

  8. Another flute player here, loved it and all the interesting teachers that taught more than just making music. It is important that teachers walk to the beat of a different drummer and stimulate students.
    My third grade teacher, an artist, wore a sari to school upon her return from a trip to India. The allure of being unique, being creative and being true to your passion struck a "chord" with me. My daughter plays the flute now, 3rd grade!