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The Road Forward Circles Around Lessons Learned in High School Can Shape a Career

Matthew C. Saunders | September 2012

   Part of my job as a college music professor is to recruit graduating seniors to major in music or play in the band at our school. This means driving hundreds of miles to speak with students during high school band rehearsals. I see all types of music programs, but one visit recently made me proud of the teaching profession and made me reflect on what one man gave to me over the four years I was in high school.
   Jeff Doughten, who has taught band for almost half a century in high schools and colleges in Oklahoma and Texas, graciously allowed me to spend a few minutes on the day of a football game speaking to his students at Palo Duro High School in West Texas. After I finished my sales pitch Doughten took care of some business items.Then, asking for a show of hands, he asked the band who would attend the study session on Saturday morning. Most hands in the room went up, and he reminded them that he would provide breakfast, but that it would be “a study session, not a doughnut session.”
   I immediately understood the need for a study session: rules about academic eligibility are strictly enforced in Texas, and students who don’t keep up in their other classes cannot perform with the band or play on sports teams. If Doughten wanted to have a full complement on the field later in the season, he needed to get help to students early in the year. After rehearsal I talked with Doughten and his staff and realized that the study session was not just to keep students on the field. Doughten viewed his job as not just helping students make music, but as preparing them for life. He was molding young people into the type of student that I would be fortunate to have in one of my college classes.
   If you ask music teachers why they chose the profession, the chances are good that they will name an influential teacher from adolescence. This person was probably the second or third most important person in their lives, after parents, and had such a profound influence on them that they eventually chose to follow the same career path. For at least some of the students at Palo Duro High School, that person will be Jeff Doughten. For me, it was John Blevins.
   I first met John Blevins in spring of 1987, when I had played trombone for less than a year. J.B., as we called him later, and as I will always think of him, had been the band director at Upper Arlington High School in Columbus, Ohio for a few years at that point. I was in the fifth grade band at Windermere Elementary School, which was one of UA’s feeder schools. I was the oldest child in my family, so I had only a vague understanding that one day I would attend UA.
   For the annual All-City Band Festival, we went to the high school for performances by the bands at UA and the schools that fed into it; all the fifth-graders were put into an enormous massed band that rehearsed once as a group on the night of the concert. It is easy to imagine the sound of this group of at least a hundred beginning wind and percussion players, but our parents were proud. I remember that former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes had died that week, and some of my friends didn’t attend the concert because they were taken to a memorial service for him instead. After the rehearsal, we were herded into the high school choir room and, amazingly, left unsupervised. Our directors all had other ensembles on the concert, and we students did what any group of fifth-graders holding instruments would do and began to play as loud as possible. This went on for a few minutes before the high school band director stormed into the room, yelled at us very loudly to stop the racket and stormed back out. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but we were quiet after that. I remember hoping that he would retire before I reached high school.
   Luckily for me, John Blevins was still teaching by the time I reached my first summer band rehearsal in June 1990. He had been my counselor for Music merit badge in Boy Scouts, and from time to time would visit the middle school band, until, in the end of my eighth-grade year, we were invited to join high school band. I did not really know what to expect because I did not have an older sibling or friends in the band. I knew that I wanted to keep playing trombone, however, and that the music we played in middle school had long ago stopped being difficult.
   A complete description of my high school musical experiences would take volumes. As a freshman, it was a huge benefit to be around upperclassmen (and girls) in a less structured setting than other classes. I sometimes half-jokingly tell people that I teach music now because I fell in love with a girl in band – another trombone player a year older than me. The real reason is that band (and later jazz band and orchestra) helped me feel that I belonged in that cavernous high school. I have no doubt that I would have succeeded without music because my grades were always good and I was a curious, focused student, but I cannot imagine what it might have been like.
   At age 36, one can look at paths not taken and wonder what might have been. After my first year of teaching public school, having seriously considered going to law school, I gave teaching another chance. I kept coming back to music because it inspired me. Every morning and every summer for four years in high school, I came to rehearsal expecting to leave feeling good about myself because J.B. cared enough to make it happen. He wasn’t just there for the paycheck or to pursue his own musical dreams. His overriding passion was to help his students become thinking, feeling musicians and thus be thinking, feeling humans.
   John Blevins was still human and lost his temper at least once every marching season. He occasionally preached in class when an expert in music education might say he should have just let us play our instruments. He tended to get bogged down over details in rehearsal so that we sometimes did not have the big picture in place for performances. When I came to observe his rehearsal as a college senior, he seemed worn down, teaching a piece again that we had played when I was in high school but not as enthusiastically I as remembered.
   After that year, he retired from high school band, taking over first-year band instruction in the district. A few years later, I taught private lessons to one of his fifth-grade trombone students and realized that changing job assignments was the best thing he could have done for himself and his students. He reflected on his life and made needed changes. I know that in even in the darkest times he never stopped caring about students or the music. His passion inspired many of us to be just as passionate about whatever our own work ended up being. He never stopped showing us how to be good people who did the right thing instead of the easy thing, or the profitable thing, or the popular thing.
   I left high school thinking my band experiences would become mere memories. I had played in All-State Orchestra and been accepted into a top music school. I was convinced that I was heading toward more important things. I did well and learned a great deal from some very good teachers, but none of them really changed who I was.
   My dream leaving high school was to compose, but I majored in music education for what some would say is the wrong reason – because it offered a better chance at a steady paycheck, and made my parents feel more comfortable about supporting me in school. I had a terrible first year teaching band, general music and physical education in an inner-city school in the south. I probably studied too much music and not enough life in college: I could write 16th-century counterpoint, but could not relate to my students. I worked as hard as I could, haunted by my expectations and those of my mentors. I remember having dreams that year where J.B. would ask me how things were going and I would try to put a positive spin on things. He indulged my pride, and then sometimes offered suggestions.
   When the year mercifully ended, I moved to another position back in Ohio, where I could relate better to the students and teach high school band. Within a couple of years, I had decided to return to graduate school, at Ohio State, to pursue composition with the idea of eventually teaching in college. Years before, Blevins taught us not just how to play music, but how to put it together. When I took his Computer Graphics and Sound class in my sophomore year, I learned to use a computer to notate music, which I hated at the time, but could not live without now. Even though I hit the wrong button one day and ruined my final project, he still decided that I had learned enough to give me a grade. If he had given me a grade based on completing the project, I might have never become a composer.
   Because of J.B.’s catholic approach to music, nothing ever surprised me, not even twelve-tone music, or the strange folk-song settings of Grainger, or the most avant-garde jazz. Because he taught me to like good music (music that is beautiful, well-crafted, meaningful, permanent, expressive, sincere, and not pandering), I was able to seek out good music and experience it and now I write good music (I think). I try to share my tastes and teach my students how to find good music on their own.
   During my last year of graduate school, 2007, J.B. and I sat down for coffee a couple of times. We hadn’t kept in touch since I graduated. J.B. and my parents are about the same age, and all three were approaching retirement, my parents from the jobs they had held for decades, J.B. from his second career teaching first-year band. As he spoke, I was astonished to hear so many things that are the core of my approach to life. I realized that this man had been the most influential person on my character other than my parents. I had always thought that I left UA and J.B. behind when I graduated, and that I was making my own way in the world. Sitting across the table was my teacher, telling me things that I believed because he believed them and taught them to me. That is the power that we have as teachers.
   Every adolescent needs a John Blevins or a Jeff Doughten. For some, it may be a classroom teacher who goes the extra mile, or an athletic coach, or a religious or Scout leader. When that person is good and true and passionate, the young person will be to an extent inured against some of the terrible things that may lay in store in adulthood, and will be ready to help someone else in turn. This is what I learned from John Blevins. I carry his lessons with me always.