Musical Mentors Make Memories
by Tim Hill
“Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast.” So goes one of the most oft misquoted sayings around. Originally penned by William Congreve as the first line in his play The Mourning Bride (1697), the phrase, or a variation of it, is frequently used to describe the calming effect that music can have on a listener – Death Metal not withstanding. But what about the benefits that music can bring to those who play or sing it? If you’ve never tried singing in a chorus or learning an instrument, take it from me, there is the potential for life enhancing enjoyment to be had.
Notice I said potential. Like anything else, the pleasure we can get from learning to play an instrument or to sing depends a lot on how we go about it, and on the people from whom we learn. A good teacher can inspire us to dive right in and keep going, a bad one….not so much. The person most instrumental (pun intended) in starting me on the path to a lifetime of making music was my high school band teacher, Mr. Boggan.
Dean Boggan was a character. Nearly deaf from thirty or more years of conducting and teaching in front of loud ensembles, he was famous at our smallish country school for turning off his hearing aids just before raising his baton to lead a song. One time the brass section got the idea to test his auditory acuity by only pretending to play a certain passage in a run-through of a march. “Horns, you were a little too pianoforte (quiet) after bar 32,” came our leader’s critique. To this day I’m not sure who was pranking whom.
As helpful as he was an instructor of music, Mr. Boggan was even more influential as a mentor of young people. Having taken over a band that was bleeding members due to a less-than-inspiring predecessor, he was determined to rebuild the ensemble by instilling a pride of ownership in the students. He encouraged leaders to step forward and help him in this effort, by inviting us to go with him on the 100-mile road trips to shop for sheet music – ventures that always included a hearty lunch, always on his dime.
As part of his empowerment scheme, Mr. Boggan gave us free reign to choose much of the material the band would learn. A classical music lover himself, I can only imagine how painful it must have been for him to lead us through pieces by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and the Doobie Brothers, but he never complained. The contemporary choice of repertoire and the obvious fun we had in playing it soon brought back kids who had left the band. We grew by 50% in a few short months!
When a few of my buddies and I decided to start a rock group, he let us use the school’s equipment to practice and even to play a couple of outside gigs. Kids today might have a hard time believing that there was ever a time or place where, if we wanted to rehearse on a Sunday afternoon, all we had to do was knock on the band teacher’s door and he’d drive out to the school and let us in!
The only time I ever remember Mr. Boggan refusing such a request was when he got wind that an older former student wanted to merge our band with his. We were naive and didn’t know this guy’s history of trouble with the police or his known heavy drug use, but Mr. Boggan did. He informed us that if he ever heard that we were hanging around with this dude the party was over – no more easy access to the school’s equipment. Needless to say, thanks to our instructor’s tough love, we declined the older kid’s offer.
It’s been many years since he passed away, and I have met other wonderful musical mentors over the years – church choir directors, pit orchestra and choral directors in musical theatre, band leaders who also play, but there’s never been a more influential mentor to me than Mr. Boggan. In the spirit of his commitment to inspiring others through music I offer three documentaries that speak to similar efforts.
The first is Thunder Soul, about a reunion concert held to honor Conrad “Prof” Johnson and his work at Kashmere High School in Huston, TX. Through discipline, dedication and a demand for excellence he built a perennially award winning funk and soul oriented stage band that would rival many professional ensembles. The intense loyalty that spans the decades to bring alumni back to honor their mentor is very moving and reminds me of my experiences growing up.
The second is a series of videos collectively called The Choir, starring Gareth Malone, the London Symphony Orchestra Choir Master. In them we see Malone going into schools or communities where there is no choir, or where singing in the meager existing choir is the last thing on most peoples’ minds. These are downtrodden places, struggling with economic hardships or bad morale. His primary tactic is to start with the toughest “nuts to crack,” people who may be the most resistant to the idea of joining in, but who, if they can be won over, have the most potential to influence others. If you can get past the reality TV vibe, watching this series can be very uplifting and inspiring.
The last example of musical mentorship in action is a documentary film called Landfill Harmonic. It is the story of an impoverished community in Paraguay that is literally built upon a landfill. When someone happens to find a piece of garbage that can be crafted into the body of a violin, an idea is hatched to outfit an entire orchestra with instruments likewise fashioned from refuse. Though I have to admit that I have yet to see this one (it is soon to be released as of this writing) Mrs. Bee and I were happy to have joined the crowd-funded effort to complete the movie.
How about you? Do you have experiences with a musical mentor that you’d like to share? Please feel free to leave a comment below. Until next time, happy music making!