Experiences That Made a Difference

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • December 6, 2017

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This issue of SBO Magazine is the 20th annual salute to “50 Directors Who Make a Difference.”

Which, given the nature of my field, got me to thinking: what are the experiences that have made a difference for me? What were the adventures that, in big and small ways, shaped who I became as a musician, as a teacher, as a travel and event planner, and as a person?

Was the first one that week at drum major camp? Most definitely. That week spent in Wisconsin probably did more to propel me into the field of music education than anything else. I kept coming back year after year…first on the counseling staff, then as a band director bringing my own students. It helped me develop my philosophy of leadership, discover talents I didn’t know I had, learn from the masters in the wind band field, and form lifetime friendships.

How about that high school band trip to Washington, D.C.? Absolutely! So much so that the photo of the 84 of us taken in our uniforms that July 4th morning still hangs proudly above my desk. It took a kid from Iowa whose idea of the big city was Des Moines and opened up a wider world, going places only read about in textbooks or seen on television. When I entered the travel field, I was given opportunities to experience that same sense of wonder and adventure so that I could recreate that magic for the groups I served. The beauty of the Grand Canyon. The spectacle of a rocket launch in Florida. The magnificence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Even something as seemingly mundane as riding a New York subway for the first time.

Or that first trip to the Midwest Clinic when I was in college? That qualifies. I can’t remember exactly when my college music education advisor suggested I go, or how I came up with the money to do so, but being immersed in that wind band culture for four days was priceless and revealed the excellence to which I wanted to aspire. Not to mention the growth leap of going to a place that large, where I’d never been before, completely on my own. Even though I had a weird dream about being mugged in a Chicago alley a week before I got to the city. And now I live there…and get to go to Midwest every year.

It wasn’t always related to going somewhere. Being given a job as assistant to my college band director, for example. The on-the-job training of helping teach drill, creating and running a recruitment booth at the music conference and freshman orientation, or the glamour jobs of uniform inventory, setting up chairs and music stands for rehearsal, and painting the percussion storage sheds. It was a workshop in responsibility and awareness of the part of being a band director they don’t teach you in methods class.

Every now and then it was an opportunity to be in the company of greatness. Like the time Timothy Reynish was in town for an honor band, and the university director of bands hosting him offered to bring him to work with my wind ensemble—because he knew we were working on the Holst Suite in E-Flat and thought a British wind band conductor might be able to teach us a thing or to. I accepted the kind offer…even though I was scared to death. And it ended up being the best two hours of rehearsal of my entire teaching career.

The common threads to all of these? They were formative experiences that pushed me to grow and broaden my horizons… whether that meant venturing out on my own to strange places, stretching myself and my ensemble musically, or risking taking a leap of faith professionally or personally to achieve a higher goal.

They were opportunities that were centered on substance and meaning, and those learning experiences are what have stayed with me over the span of years. While of course there was fun that accompanied these events, in retrospect the fun was merely the wallpaper of memory. The experiences are the structure of who I am.

The other common thread: each of these experiences was brought to reality by a teacher who made a difference in my life. George Parks, Charlie Menghini, Tim Lautzenheiser, Lisa Preston, and countless others at multiple summers of Bands of America camps. John Aboud, my high school band director. Jim McKinney and Darwin Walker at South Dakota State. Allan McMurray at the University of Colorado. Kathy LeTarte, who hired me into the travel industry and—before owning a student tour company—was also a teacher.

This is what teachers who make a difference do. They see a growth opportunity and create something meaningful for a student who needs exactly that, finding a way to make it happen. Whether in a rehearsal room or Carnegie Hall or anywhere in between, they see the potential for the remarkable to occur and create a wave effect that continues to ripple beyond their expectations.

To all great teachers who make a difference—and particularly those to whom I personally owe an unpayable debt of gratitude— thank you for the lives you touch and the magic you create every day.

Tom Merrill is the Executive Director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.

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