From the archives, here's one of my earliest conducting experiences, leading the Berkner Mighty Ram Band in a performance of Morten Lauridsen's "O Magnum Mysterium" in the winter of 2006 while I was student teaching under Mike Brashear and the other fantastic teachers of the Berkner cluster. I will forever treasure this special moment in my life.
I thought I'd dig this up because I have been doing a lot of thinking about student teaching this fall as I now find myself supervising a few members of the next generation of band and orchestra teachers in my role as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music and Director of Orchestras at Susquehanna University. In addition, my student teaching placement—LV Berkner High School in Richardson, Texas—has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this weekend. This makes now as good a time as any to reflect on student teaching, and what student-teaching at Berkner meant to me.
My tenure with the Berkner cluster was utterly minuscule by comparison both in length and impact on students to the many outstanding teachers who have worked for years at Berkner and spent this weekend celebrating; I was a mere student teacher just barely beginning the journey myself. But, my fondness for Berkner is anything but minuscule. It’s a very special place and my time there impacted me as deeply as anything in my career. With 5 bands and 4 orchestras, Berkner had one of the most comprehensive instrumental performance programs in the country (and still does), something it has been honored for many times, including with the prestigious Sudler Flag, perhaps the most exclusive award for a high school concert band.
For me, the question becomes: why was this place so special? Richardson is not the poorest, but it is certainly not the wealthiest suburb of Dallas. Visiting the middle schools and elementary schools on a daily basis made it clear that many of the students were coming from average or below-average homes socioeconomically speaking, with large populations on free and reduced lunch. If economic resources alone were not the key, what has made it stand out?
There are many factors, but one that cannot be ignored is the outstanding history of excellent teaching dating back almost to its opening. Richardson already boasted an impressive commitment to arts dating back to at least the 1960's. Two very important mentors in my life, conductors Paul Phillips and James Klein, both attended Richardson Junior High School during an era when virtually any repertoire could be tackled by the youngest students. If you can believe it, I have heard recordings of the Richardson Junior High School Band (now closed) convincingly tackle Karel Husa's tour de force, Music for Prague, 1968. Klein grew up just blocks from what would later become Berkner High School.
However, even fine instruction is going to get absorbed into a pit of mediocrity without community buy-in, so why has Berkner managed to thrive? Going back, with this commitment to performing arts firmly implanted in the minds of the community through the longer history of the district, it makes sense that they could then open a high school that was built from the ground up with a special reverence for the important work that happens in the band, choir, and orchestra rehearsal halls in the high schools of America. And, it makes sense that the school would host a 50 year run of impressive successes.
At a more personal level, it was truly an embarrassment of riches, with 5 or 6 full-time band directors, 2 orchestra directors, and an army of other instructors and parent volunteers. I was placed with the band program, but was fortunate to also get to spend time with the orchestras; it's difficult to describe what it was like to get to learn from Mike Brashear and Jerry Brumbaugh, Pete Tolhuizen and Bob Straka, Robin Owens and Mickey Owens, Fred Sampson and Danielle Alice, Michael Reed and Craig Needham. Just one or two of these fine teachers would have enough wisdom to fill volumes, but I somehow had the opportunity to spend time with all of them (and the list goes on). I also had the privilege to be there the day Frank Troyka interviewed for what would become his outstanding tenure, watching both the end and the beginning of an era, which I think adds to my sense of the longer arc of this school's history as we all look back and consider the impact of 50 years of the very best in music education.
Lastly, I cannot help but reflect on the terrific students and parents I had the chance to work with, all of whom welcomed me into the Ram Band family with open arms and from the word go, treated me like a longtime member of the family. They put up with my complete lack of experience, and they even indulged me when I tried to put together a small ensemble for extra performances. Every day, the entire staff would do things large and small to communicate to me that I was a part of the team, even though I had done absolutely nothing to deserve it. I learned a great deal about music and teaching that year. I also learned a lot about generosity of spirit.
I'm beyond grateful for the legendary Berkner teachers who helped to shape me at such an important point in my young career. I think on these times particularly frequently and fondly this year as I supervise some of our terrific student teachers at SU.
I wish I could have been there this weekend, but I look forward to seeing the Mighty Ram Band under Jason Schayot at The Midwest Clinic in December!