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Missing a good instructor

Last month, a former high school band and percussion instructor of mine died. He was too young, of course — and in fact, looking at the age printed in the obituary, many of us were surprised to realize he wasn’t nearly as much older than we were as we thought he was, at the time. Maybe getting a little older ourselves made the difference.

Here’s the thing about Buddy (that wasn’t his real name … but I never heard a single person call him his real name): He was the kind of truly good teacher who understood how to use tough love to bring out the best in us. Plenty of us who became better musicians and people under his watch reacted to his death with a sentiment something along the lines of “Man, I really hated that guy…until I realized what he’d done for me.”

Buddy was not our primary instructor. He was an assistant. He was bad cop.

He is forever seared into our memories with a cowbell and drumstick in his hand, banging on that thing and yelling until we learned to march and play in step. Some people have dreams their whole lives about forgetting to study for a test, or wearing the wrong thing on stage…many of my musical classmates STILL wake violently out of vivid dreams about having forgotten to do something Buddy required of us during practice or a performance.

You’ve seen marching bands stand at attention before halftime shows or during parades, I would guess. A friend of mine, nearly two decades after having graduated high school, awoke once to find herself standing rigidly at attention beside her bed, and the fading remnants of a dream in which Buddy was yelling at the clarinet section to stop fidgeting.

If you are thinking to yourself, well that just sounds awful, don’t. The vast majority of us look back on those years and what they helped us become with great fondness. Stories told about that time are accompanied by smiles and laughter.

Very, very few of us thought he was unfair. In fact, the negative sensation that came from one of his grumbling spells was usually more a result of us knowing very well we had messed up, or could do better.

Buddy told me I did something smart once. He was grinning when he said it. THAT feeling stands out to me more clearly today than any of the…teachable moments.

Buddy is also the reason I was able to slide easily into the West Virginia University Steel Drum Ensemble, surrounded by people who were pursuing music degrees, and perform just as well as they did. He’d been that thorough about teaching us at the high school level. Man, was that a fun year.

I’m told Buddy mellowed a bit as he advanced in his career and had his own family. I saw him only a few times once I was out of school — and there was always the same big smile; the same questions about how I was doing, what I was up to. He didn’t have to yell anymore, but he still cared about us all.

One of the most important things he did for us was make us understand we were worth someone expecting more of us; we were worth someone understanding we were capable, even if we did not, yet. He pushed us. He got the best out of us, and showed us our own limitations were garbage.

I know I and some others found a way to say thank you to him over the years; but many hundreds more probably didn’t get the chance.

Goodness I hope he realizes how much he did for us. But just in case:

Thank you, Buddy.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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