Defining the Difference

Mike Lawson • MAC Corner • December 5, 2019

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As this issue of School Band and Orchestra celebrates 50 Directors Who Make A Difference, it raises the question, “What makes the difference?”

Every teacher we had made a difference in our lives; some greater than others. I had several teachers who literally changed my life and there were others who showed me exactly what not to do. We all aspire to make a difference in this world, our classrooms, rehearsals and performances. But making a difference can be illusive, like trying to catch the butterfly. If we consciously try to make a difference, we may fall short. When we allow ourselves to be who we truly are, we have a better chance to make that connection with students that defines making the difference. The hardest part of teaching is to find our voice. Our teaching toolbox is full of things we acquired along the way but have yet learned how to use. Although we experienced them in action, we may not have fully comprehended the entire scope of how best to adapt it and use it to our advantage, in our voice.

I had the privilege of being a student of Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser in college. Lautzenheiser was my first college marching band director at Northern Michigan University. After my first two years in college, he left Northern and assumed the assistant director of bands position at the University of Missouri-Columbia. I transferred to study with him a semester later. After his successful career at Missouri and then New Mexico State, he became (and is) one of the most powerful voices for music education, music advocacy and the importance of student leadership.

After having taught for nine years I received a call from a colleague who asked if I could do a “Dr. Tim style” leadership workshop for his students. Having been with Lautzenheiser for five years and knowing him for nine more, communicating with him almost every week and having often attended his workshops, I said, yes. I had seen it so many times, it could not be that hard! We set the date and I was to speak for three hours. Nothing to it. The evening came and I was ready. Fully prepared as I entered the room overflowing with band members, I began my presentation.

It was electric, it was perfect – well, almost. Just as I was ready to give my final wrap up, I glanced at my watch and realized 17 minutes had gone by. I had two hours and forty-three minutes to fill and did not have a thing to say. In looking back many years later, I have no idea how I was able to stumble, stammer and fill up the remaining time. I realized this night (nightmare) happened because I was trying to be someone other than me. I had not yet found my voice as a teacher, and consequently, certainly did not make a difference in the lives of those students that evening. Lautzenheiser and I talked a lot about that night and we continually laugh when one of us mentions the “17 minutes” that I had prepared. But this evening signaled to me that I really needed to find my own voice. I needed to allow myself to be myself and in order to bring my best self to my students, I had to find out who I was, what I believed, and what truly mattered to me as a person, a musician and a teacher. In those times of soul searching, I discovered a few things that I believe are important for anyone, in any profession, and especially teaching music.

Know Your Strengths

Think about the things you do well. Understand they are things you do well, not perfectly. They are your building blocks. You continue to build on your strengths and must refer to them often as they will help you succeed.

Realize Your Limitations

We all have limitations. Limitations are a limited knowledge or skill base and should not be thought of as weaknesses. As we identify and are aware of these areas, we put ourselves in a position to learn more. Over time, the limitation begins to become a strength.

Understand We All Feel the Same Way

We sit among a group of strangers at a state clinic or in-service. We look around and think everybody here knows more than I do, and if they realize I do not know all of my alternate bassoon fingerings, they are going to think I am a fraud. Understanding that everyone is insecure allows us to relax, and to be who we are.

People Do Not Have Time to Think About You

Just as we are all insecure, everyone’s favorite person is themselves. When people look at a group picture they look for where they appear in the picture. When a list of names is produced at an event, the first name they look for is their own. Realizing that everyone is too busy worrying about themselves allows us to not worry about what others think of us.

The Little Things Are the Big Things

We often think a major trip or performance will have the biggest impact on our students’ lives, but I have come to understand the little things, things of which I may have been unaware were really the big things.

I received an email from a former student (we will call him Bill) about a performance we had with our jazz band one Friday evening. The lead trumpet player was ill and could not make the performance. Bill got the chance to play the feature trumpet solo that night. He inquired about the piece of music that he played and mentioned that he was feeling especially strong and took the last note up an octave. Now that meant instead of playing bottom line “E,” he played top space “E.” He writes in his email that he never forgot the smile I flashed him, that it was his most memorable moment in band. He wanted to know the piece of music that had “his solo” because his son was beginning to play the trumpet and he wanted him to hear the music dad played.

Now I am not sure if the smile was because I was proud or amazed, and it really does not matter. What does matter is a smile directed his way was his favorite moment in band; better than a cross-country trip, better than a first place trophy. For him, at that moment, I was the teacher that made a difference. Then I thought, how many students were there along the way where I missed an opportunity to flash them a smile.

Reflect About the Lessons You Learned Along the Way

Recently I was reminded of some great lessons I learned and observed along the way. The director of bands at the University of Missouri-Columbia while I was a student there lost his battle with cancer a few weeks ago. Dr. Alexander L. Pickard was a giant, a hero in my life. He was one of those directors who conducted the wind ensemble and directed the marching band. I had the honor of being his student and band office assistant for two and one-half years while I completed my undergraduate degree at Missouri. Though he has died, he continues to be an influence in my life.

Pickard always had a smile and something positive to say. Regardless if a rehearsal or performance did not go as hoped, he always found a positive, something we could build upon the next time. He loved his students; they were his children. He always wanted to know how they were doing, how their parents and siblings were doing. He had genuine care for others and was careful never to meddle in anyone’s personal business. He built relationships with others outside of his discipline. He would routinely share a cup of tea with personnel who worked in the university administration building. He had an infectious laugh and was quick to let others know when he liked something.

Teaching brought him joy. Although he was director of bands, he always found time in his schedule to teach some trumpet lessons to a few of us who benefitted greatly. He was able to help me make a complete embouchure change without ever losing any of my range, technique or endurance. In fact, his work helped me improve all of the above.

Receiving attention or accolades never mattered. If he received honors or attention from professional organizations, he never let any of us know about it. He was happy doing what he was doing. His joy came from knowing he did good things with his life and this played out in a story he shared with me. While I was at Missouri, he completed his doctoral dissertation at Eastman in trumpet performance. His dissertation was “A Practical Edition of the Trumpet Sonatas of Giuseppe Jacchini.” A year or so later he traveled to Jacchini’s home area and went to the San Petronio Basillica in Bologna where Jacchini had served. He talked about meeting someone who would help him look at some of Jacchini’s works and recalled walking up a lot of old, broken-down stairs. When he arrived at the area, the gentleman took out a stack of Jacchini’s works and at the very end, placed a book on top. It was Pickard’s doctoral dissertation. In telling me about this experience, I remember him taking off his glasses and wiping his eyes. “Menghini,” he said, “this guy didn’t know me from Adam and when I saw my dissertation, I was speechless.”

Pickard taught me the word “good.” He told me the word “good” would never get me into trouble. Instead of becoming a critic or passing judgement, it was better to just use the word “good.” For instance, when you hear a concert and someone asks what you thought, and you would like to be critical, just say, “It was good,” and leave it at that. Then, you never have to explain yourself.

Pickard, Lautzenheiser and so many others made a difference in my life. I will never be able to repay them. As I publicly thank them, I also offer congratulations to this year’s 50 Directors Who Make A Difference as well as those directors who have been honored the previous 21 years. Whether you were one of this distinguished group or not it is important to remember we have all had many teachers who made a difference in our lives. It is time to remember who they are and to reflect on what they taught you.

If you have never let them know, or not yet found a way to say “thank you,” now is the time. Send a note, make a call or stop by for a visit. Letting them know they helped make you a better person, musician and teacher, one who is doing their best to make a difference in the lives of others will allow you to make a difference in their life too! Don’t wait until it is too late, do it now.

The Music Achievement Council (MAC), an action-oriented nonprofit organization sponsored by the National Association of School Music Dealers (NASMD) and the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) wants to help you make a difference in the lives of your students and in the schools and communities where you teach. MAC has a series of resources to help you succeed. These resources and many more can be found by visiting:

Dr. Charles T. Menghini serves as an educational member of the Music Achievement Council. He is president emeritus of VanderCook College of Music in Chicago and served as professor of music and director of bands from 1994 – 2017. Prior to his appointment at VanderCook, he spent 18 years as a high school band director in Missouri and Kansas where his bands earned national acclaim. He is co-author of the Essential Elements Band Method published by Hal Leonard.

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