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I need to write more letters! Emails and positive social media posts are good, but there’s still a need for words written on paper.
When the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated in-person visits, I wrote a few letters. One was to Wendell Evanson, who had been my teacher through college and beyond. I knew his health was declining and did not expect him to be in any condition to respond. What I didn’t anticipate was the satisfaction I felt in knowing that I’d said to him very clearly how much his influence meant to me, musically and personally. Mr. Evanson died on November 3, so I’m thankful I shared my thoughts in June.
Another person I wrote to was Dr. Wes Branstine, who taught low brass and jazz band at Henderson State University. These guys, and others, invested themselves in their students and the relationships they built didn’t end at graduation. In the letter to Dr. Branstine, I shared one example of the continued learning I experienced through his generous giving of time. He wouldn’t accept payment for the extra instruction that made a big difference in my teaching.
Some might know that I think of blogging as an online scrapbook. So, what follows is my letter to Dr. Branstine and a portion of his response. It was a thrill to reconnect with someone who made a positive difference in my teaching and my overall approach to life.
A few years ago, I posted about the influence of several music teachers on my learning. We can probably all point to teachers who made a difference. Is there someone you need to thank? I definitely need to write more snail mail!
I met Dr. Francis McBeth when I was a senior in high school. I made a phone call and set up a time to meet with him in his studio on a college visit day at Ouachita Baptist University. He gave me advice and spoke to me in a way that made me feel comfortable, eliminating the fear I should have felt in the presence of a world-famous composer and musician.
I ended up at Henderson State University, across the street, but continued to watch Dr. McBeth for years, enjoying the privilege of playing some of his compositions in manuscript as he listened and consulted with Wendell O. Evanson, Director of Bands at Henderson. Watching these great musicians’ friendship and professional respect for each other was a lesson in itself.
Well into his 80s, my wife and I saw Dr. McBeth and his wife at a restaurant in Arkadelphia. I introduced myself and Becca and then we enjoyed the same relaxed and friendly conversation I’d had with him years before.
He was not only a world famous musician, composer, and conductor. He was a great teacher! The following story from Dr. McBeth illustrates his influence and how he valued relationships with students.
W. Francis McBeth in 1997:
Some years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee I stepped into the hotel coffee shop following a concert and saw Wynton Marsalis sitting with his high school band director, Peter Dombourian. Because I knew Pete well, I thought it a great opportunity to meet this trumpet virtuoso.
As I approached the table Wynton Marsalis got up, walked toward me, and called me by name. I was so surprised and asked him if we had met before. He replied that he was in the Louisiana All State Band in Shreveport when I was the guest conductor.
Marsalis proceeded to list the entire program that we had played, piece by piece, and during our visit quoted many things that I had said. It was after this visit that I began to reflect on the seriousness of every comment in front of an ensemble. Here was a world-class performer who remembered what I had said when he was in high school. It brought home to me that anything I say in front of an honor band had better be correct, especially the criticism, because those students will never forget it. That’s a heavy responsibility.
That responsibility to use words carefully with others was something Dr. McBeth took seriously, whether he met you in an honor band or at an Arby’s Restaurant. When I praise a child for good work or give corrective comments, I often think of Dr. McBeth in hopes that my words will honor his legacy as a teacher who spoke with care, knowing that some of our words might influence children’s lives for years to come.
Dr. McBeth is pictured here with some of his musician/conductor friends and peers: L to R: Dr. Jim Buckner, David Rollins, Dr. Bill Clark, Wendell Evanson, Dr. Francis McBeth
Here’s a musical sample: Masque by Dr. Francis McBeth
Recently I attended a school principals’ conference in Hot Springs. Heading home up Central Avenue, I saw Bailey’s Old Fashioned Hamburger and couldn’t resist a quick stop. I enjoyed visiting with the owner who had grown up in the area. He said Bailey’s was built in 1938, but my first memories went back to the 1980s when I attended an Arkansas Bandmasters’ Association conference just a few blocks away.
Following a day of workshops, Dr. Don Kramer, John Webb, and I walked up Central Ave. to Bailey’s. Dr. Kramer taught trumpet at Henderson State University. John was my supervising teacher during my internship. A highlight of Dr. Kramer’s career must have been teaching me in brass methods class. One day he looked kindly at me and sighed, “Thank goodness you play percussion.”
As we approached the front of Bailey’s, we gave a friendly greeting to the elderly lady behind the screen window. There was no response.
Dr. Kramer ordered something like a burger, fries, and a soft drink. The response to his order was a scowl and statement laced with profanity, asking why in the world anyone would order in such a way. Dr. Kramer laughed until he had tears. We were confused but laughed along. The lady flatly told Dr. Kramer what he should have ordered, and he agreed, still teary eyed.
John ordered next. His order drew the same response. He had not ordered as she thought he should have. By now we were all howling with laughter. John ordered as she dictated.
Having watched the two previous attempts, I had it figured out. I wanted something that was just slightly different than the special the lady was recommending. I received the same critical comments and gladly agreed to order as she indicated I should. Dr. Kramer and John enjoyed laughing at my ineffective attempt.
We sat at a picnic table and enjoyed our burger and fries. I don’t think we made any more attempts to converse with the elderly lady crouching behind the little screen window. The combination of her verbal attacks and Dr. Kramer’s response made for an entertaining dinner at Bailey’s and some special memories with good friends.
Don Kramer was a musical giant and John Webb was one of his best students Here’s a recording of Dr. Kramer performing with John Webb’s Camden Fairview High School in April of 1978. I was Dr. Kramer’s worst trumpet student in brass class, but he was kind and encouraged my drumming. I was honored to know him.
“That-a-way, Bo!” Those words meant a lot to this freshman, unsure about his chances of success in college. The memory of his high school counselor’s hesitancy about his college plans were still fresh and caused strong feelings of doubt.
Now, with the words “That-a-way” from the greatest musician he’d ever been around, the possibility of success seemed real – he was going to make it! There were some discouraging times during college, but this professor helped many students perform better than they ever thought possible.
He set high expectations and was relentless in holding to them. He had the ability to move toward goals in spite of distractions. He was a learner with his students even as this great man taught them. He loved his work with such enthusiasm that the lines between work and play were often blurred.
Now, as a school principal and teacher, I am thankful for his influence. He never set out to provide instruction on how to be a principal, but he taught many lessons and gave me confidence that I benefit from today.
When I am doing my most satisfying work, I sometimes feel like he’s looking over my shoulder saying, “That-a-way, Bo!” There is no greater satisfaction than knowing you have done your best. Mr. Wendell Evanson, my band director at Henderson State University, taught me this lesson. I hope we can help every child learn the joy of work and a job well done.