March 15, 2011

Practice Makes Better

Per my brother, March is Music in Our Schools month. Given that, I wanted to share a little bit about a music teacher who had a great influence in my life.

I first met Lee McMillan in seventh grade, or 1987. He was the guest conductor for my first All-County Band experience, which meant he was responsible for taking a group of semi-talented, but unfocused, junior high school kids and molding them, over the course of a few days, into a performing ensemble. A daunting task, I now realize.

What I remember from those rehearsals is that, first of all, Lee was a funny guy. Not in a clownish, broad sense, but neither in a nasty, overly sarcastic sense, either. He had a natural way with people under his command and knew when to lighten the mood. The other thing I remember is that, when he made a threat, he kept it.

The opening number for that concert was Block M, a march by Jerry Bilik. Like most marches, it starts out in a way that requires everybody in the band to come in at precisely the same moment or it sounds sloppy as hell. We had severe problems getting it right. At one point, after running through the beginning several times, Lee said that if we didn't get it right that night, at the concert, he would stop us and we'd do it again. Most of us, self included, figured he wouldn't do something so obviously embarrassing.

You can see where this is going - we fucked up the beginning that night. He stopped us. We did it again. We nailed it on the second attempt. I can't remember if he explained that oddity to the audience or not, but it didn't matter to us. Point made.

Sometime after that experience, Lee, a clarinetist in his own right, became my private teacher.  I studied with him until I graduated from high school and, largely, put the horn down for years to come. Although I'm sure he taught me all sorts of technical things that became second nature so that I can't remember them, I remember more his general approach to music, as a player and a listener.

For one thing, there's the phrase that is the title of this post. The usual formulation is "practice makes perfect." Lee didn't like that, as it assumed there was some end point to practice. It came up in a lesson one time while we worked on the Mozart clarinet concerto, the cornerstone of the instrument's solo repertoire. It's the kind of thing that a player, like Lee, would return to and struggle with again and again through his life. I was lucky enough to play a passable portion of it to use as an audition piece.

I'd like to think I internalized the idea that "practice makes better." Not just because it's gently contrarian (although it helps), but because it recognizes that learning how to do something - anything - is an ongoing process. I'll never be the perfect lawyer, perfect writer, or perfect autocrosser. But I can keep working on each of them and keep making progress. That seems infinitely more hopeful that reaching some dead end somewhere. Of course, I hope I can say the same thing about practicing to be a better human being overall.

The other thing that I think Lee helped me out with, when it comes to being a consumer of music (or art in general), was to leave behind concerns about what other people thought of it.  Although I generally blame my brothers for introducing me to prog, the really weird outliers of the genre - Present, Magma, Thinking Plague - are Lee's fault. He not only fed me some cool and obscure music, both to play and listen to, but championed the idea that music is what you make of it, regardless of what anyone else says.

As with "practice makes better," I'd like to think that attitude spills over into other areas.I know it's true when it comes to books, movies, and TV. What I like and what I seek out often have little contact with what's truly popular. But I hope it's also true when it comes to things like legal or political arguments. The quality of an argument doesn't come from how popular the person is who says it or how many people buy into it. I try and judge those things on their own merits, as much as possible.

Lee stepped up to the podium as my band director on one other occasion. While I was a high school sophomore, my high school band director robbed a bank. He was arrested one day while we were getting ready for a big festival and had to dodge reporters on our way to the practice field. Lee stepped in a filled the breech until a permanent replacement was hired.

As for my bank robbing director? He was convicted and sent to federal prison. Ironically, he was probably represented by someone working the same office I do now. Small world, and all that.

Lee also directed the Kanawha Valley Community Band up until his death in 2004.  I joined the band a few years ago, giving me not only the opportunity to play the horn again alongside by college room mate, but also along with two of my other music teachers: Bob Leighty, my very first band director (from elementary school!), and Donna Turner, my first clarinet teacher. 

Thank you to Lee, Bob, and Donna for the great influence you had on my life, and thanks to all the music teachers, band directors, choral leaders, and what have you working in the schools today.  Your impact will be greater than you would ever expect.

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