End Note: Measuring Success

Mike Lawson • Commentary • December 16, 2013

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There are many relative measures of achievement in education. This is particularly evident in the responses supplied by those educators who participated in this year’s edition of the “50 Directors Who Make a Difference” report. When asked about their proudest moments, some directors singled out successes of an ensemble or group. Many others shared anecdotes of a single student who they helped to some remarkable or unexpected achievement.

While common knowledge among school music teachers and school band and orchestra directors (in other words, the readers of this publication), the hard truth is that the vast majority of young music students will not turn out to become the next Dale Clevenger, this issue’s cover subject. The odds are stacked heavily against any particular student going on to become the principal chair in a major orchestra, and then, say, holding that spot down for 47 years. And to be clear, like so many other high achievers, Clevenger was in fact a proud member of a public high school marching band.

However, regardless of musical aptitude and future success down the road, there are singular opportunities that the music room should afford to all those who grace its presence. Clevenger, a world-class musician who performed with some of the greatest players and conductors in the most acclaimed concert halls around the world, refers to the high school band room as “an oasis of culture.” During our interview for the cover story of this issue, he was quick to recount with great fondness memories of his time marching under Albert Richard Casavant at Chattanooga “City” High School in Tennessee. That someone who has racked up the assortment of musical experiences that Clevenger has can still recount his high school triumphs is a pretty solid indicator that every single student who enters the band room is a slate upon which similar successes can be etched.

There is ample research regarding the ways in which studying music can prove to be beneficial in all manner of occupations – “medical schools love music students,” says Clevenger, “so do law schools” – but perhaps this issue’s most poignant indicator of the power of the music room comes from Ken Turner, the band director of Lexington, Kentucky’s River Bluff High School, and one of the 2013 “50 Directors Who Make a Difference.”

“Band literally saved me from a life of mediocrity,” writes Turner. “I was a very average student academically in high school, mostly because I was lazy. But, in spite of my average academic performance back then, I excelled at band and chorus. My high school band director was the first person to say to me, ‘You are really good at this; you should go to college and major in music.’ It was right then that my life changed.”

Sure, having a student go on to play under the baton of a Georg Solti or Daniel Barenboim must be pretty cool. But that’s no match for reaching that one student who will later look back and cite your class as the turning point in his or her life.

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