Tuesday, December 14, 2010

To Sirs, With Love

It’s been over thirty years since I last played my alto saxophone. That was when I was a teenager, playing in the school band. I had played consistently for eight years throughout my public schooling in Colorado. I was pretty good, and I will always be grateful for the many opportunities that playing music afforded me, even though I didn’t pursue a career in music. I grew up to be a visual artist and an arts education activist. I started a nonprofit organization in southern California to give kids the same arts education experiences that I had growing up.

We raise money and donate music programs to low income elementary schools. We buy the instruments and pay for the weekly instruction during the school day. Our graduating fifth graders move on to middle school with the ability to read and play music (unheard of in the Los Angeles Unified School District today). For existing middle and high school music departments, we raise the funds necessary to purchase much needed materials as well as offer assistance towards the costs of competitions and other expenses. We also produce a number of different arts festivals.

A couple of years ago we created a Battle of the Bands for middle schools as a fun competition to win cash prizes. It also gave teen rock bands the opportunity to get more public exposure, as well as give parents a chance to meet different music suppliers and program providers in an exhibition area. As the RSVPs started to come in from different band directors, and as we got to know more and more teachers through the production process, my own memories of playing in such festivals and competitions started to come back to me. I realized, on a much deeper level, just how lucky I was to not only have had such music programs offered to me in the schools I attended, but that I had the best music teachers around. I appreciated them as much as any kid could at the time, but now, as an adult with over eleven years experience of running an arts education nonprofit against all odds (dealing with the bureaucracy of the LAUSD and steering a public charity through the high seas of the recession), and getting to know more art and music teachers who are dealing with the same challenges, I have grown to appreciate my former band teachers all the more.

We invited every single public middle school teacher to participate in our Battle of the Bands. About half of them declined, not wanting to give up a day on a weekend to do it. The rest of the teachers accepted our offer happily, which insured that our festival would be a rewarding and successful event. The school bands that won reminded me of my former school bands. We seemed to win everything. We won because we were good, but how good could we have been were it not for great teachers?. After the festival, I reflected more on how fortunate I was to have had such incredible support and guidance. I wanted to find my old band teachers and thank them.

I will never forget C.J. Shibly from Isaac Newton Junior High School, or Ross McClure from Evergreen Junior High School. Because of them, I got to be in a marching band, a concert band, and a jazz band in junior high school. We played in parades and performed at school sporting events. For three years at Evergreen High School, I had the good fortune of having Jim Stranahan as my teacher. He was straight out of college - young, energetic, and very, very optimistic. He was cool. He was also an incredibly talented musician in his own right. In the three years that I played in his bands, we cut two albums (one in a studio and the other live at a national competition in Miami, Florida). We played every competition he could get us in to. He even got us gigs playing private parties (one was a gig at McNichols Sports arena for a pro basketball game). All of those weekends and evenings…..he gave up a lot of his own time (and money, I’m sure) for us.

I started searching for my old band teachers so I could let them know how much I appreciated what they had done for me as a teen. I decided to look my former band mates up, too, to see if any of them had pursued careers in music. I found some: Doug Jackson went on to play guitar for well known rock bands like Iron Butterfly, Kenny Loggins, and Ambrosia. Our pianist, Willie Hammond, is a working musician in Boulder, Colorado, and Nate Birkey is a successful trumpet player with his own jazz quartet in New York City. We were just ordinary kids, going to public school. We took the music classes that were offered to us. What would have become of Doug, Willie, Nate and me if we hadn’t had those music classes and those incredible music teachers?

As a parent myself, I argue that music education is vital and necessary, not just because it improves academic scores and keeps kids in school, but because no education is complete without it. Every kid should know how to read and play music, whether they grow up to be musicians or not. The experiences and rewards derived from playing in school orchestras and bands last a lifetime. If I hadn’t taken band for eight years, I may never have met my best friend, Greg Ruland, or traveled to Florida, or set foot in a recording studio, or had a chance to really listen to others, or take so many risks by working through stage fright, putting myself out there so I could bust through my own teen fears when it was my turn to play a solo. I would have been denied the opportunity to honor my deceased father by playing on his silver plated sax, or to give my grandfather (a retired jazz musician) a reason to be proud of me. On top of all that, I would have missed out on the rare opportunity of having an adult outsider validate and show concern for the problems I was having at home. My family had been torn apart by divorce, death and alcoholism. Very few adults dared get involved, even my own family members. Most of them looked the other way. Jim Stranahan did not. He couldn’t fix anything for me, but he could let me know that he could see me, and that he cared. I’ll never forget the day he took me aside to ask me if anything was wrong. I told him. My secret was out. Nobody else had ever done that for me before. He was a true artist, connecting to me and all of his students, not just through music and his training as a teacher, but through his own heart.

I never did find C.J., Ross or Jim. I presume they are all retired from teaching now. I hope they’re all happy, healthy, and playing music. Wherever you are: Thank You.