Bowling for Mozart

I revisited a favorite story of mine from several years ago after talking with a couple of dejected students following chair auditions at Mercer. I had written this story down as part of my portfolio that I presented at Duquesne University. As much of our actual time is building students up, what happens when they get knocked down? And how can it be that when a student experiences a taste of failure, they actually get better? Read on, true believer….
During January of 2003, I sat in my auditorium observing Dr. Robert E. Foster, retired Director of Bands from the University of Kansas, rehearse our District Band Festival. It was truly an honor to host such an esteemed director in our school sharing a wealth of knowledge with a new generation of students from over 40 high schools in our District. It was especially rewarding for one of the students that was involved – the 1st chair clarinet player from my school affectionately named “Bulldog”. As Foster completed working Light Cavalry Overture, I had the opportunity to observe Becky (a.k.a. Bulldog) one more time completely in the moment very eloquently playing the cadenza before the final gallop. During this her senior year, it was at that moment that it struck me how fortunate the program and I were to be able to teach, work with, and share music with a musician of such a high caliber. It was also at this moment that I conceded that it could be a considerable while before a student like Becky would come through our program again. Becky’s resume to that point was well-polished and full of accolades and honors. She had qualified for our District Honor Band four years in a row, two trips to State Band as a sophomore and junior, principal clarinetist of the Youngstown State Youth Orchestra, selected for the MENC All-Eastern Concert Band, and an active soloist with the summer community band in Mercer and in area Churches. She actively took lessons two times a week from two different teachers, and attended master classes and concerts at local universities whenever she had time. She was an honors student in her other “academic” subjects as well. She was a band officer, a section leader, and generally a student who made other feel good about playing their instrument. Every program has a student in their history of this nature that has broken every barrier and grew well beyond the musical limitations anyone (their director included) put on them. But the question of how this transpired continued to puzzle me. As the band recessed from the stage for a 15 minute break, Becky walked over to where I was seated. Our conversation began with discussing the cadenza, that day’s lunch, the new friends she had made, and how the festival was going. I took the time to ask a question that when answered changed my perspective, and it altered my focus and how I teach the students in our ensembles to this day. “Becky, what made you want to do this? To be chair number one? To excel beyond that of every other musician in our program?” “Do you seriously want to know?” “Yes” I replied with eagerness and curiosity brimming in excess. “Eighth grade band.” She stated matter-of-factly. “What?” I said in bewilderment. “Eighth grade band. You put Tina first chair ahead of me.” She said with a smirk. “I remember that year. It was a competitive section. I listened to all the auditions (recorded on tape) at least three times for the clarinets. It was very close…” I reasoned. “Mr. Weller, I am not mad at you. I understood that it was competitive. But you must understand, that was the day I decided to never be second again.” The statement itself completely shattered the impact that I thought I was having on the program. I had spent so much of my first seven years of teaching building the confidence and quality of the program. Positively reaffirming the commitment to instrumental music at every turn became a mantra that the students heard often, and one that any student in any program should hear from their leader. In my evaluation, Becky’s development had come out of this growth around the entire program. Yet here before me lay an interesting answer and form of motivation that I never considered as part of the equation: She decided to get better because she got knocked down. She decided to get better because she failed reaching a goal. Let us never forget that our students need to have long and short term musical goals, and we as directors must do our share to lead them to reaching those goals for themselves. During this process, we must also remind students to learn from every experience – good or bad, first or last, winning and losing. Consider Michael Jordan, who is arguably the greatest basketball player of my (and perhaps) any generation. During his career in professional basketball, he was at the very pinnacle of the sport as a Most Valuable Player (5 times) and Champion (6 times). His teams also lost over 300 games over his career. Over twenty-five times, his team trusted him with the ball to make a winning shot and he failed to deliver. We don’t remember many of these instances, do we? But it happened before he was at the top, on his way to the top, while he was at the top, and after he was at the top of his profession. It would seem that despite the setbacks he incurred, he continued to learn from getting knocked down. Jordan no doubt understood the process he went through, had a good support system around him that understood his level of commitment, and while certain levels of frustration set in and developed – he did not let them discourage or stop him from bettering himself. So to must we recognize when a student has been “bowled over” in our program, and we must not concern ourselves with only why it happened. We must focus attention on how will the student respond, what guidance we can share to help them understand what to do differently the next time, and that out of this process – no matter how big or small to that student – positive growth as a person and musician can occur for the student and the program.

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1 Comment

  1. Hahaha… I enjoy that story. Thanks for the kind words, and for remembering all that. I really appreciate it. Couldn’t have done any of it without your words of wisdom.

    After my senior recital, Tina came up to me and said “I take the credit for all of your success.”

    And now, my response to the Michael Jordan part: ” Over twenty-five times, his team trusted him with the ball to make a winning shot and he failed to deliver. We don’t remember many of these instances, do we?”

    Write a blog comparing sports and music. As a musician, if you are trusted with the “winning notes” and you fail to deliver over twenty-five times (or really even just once), that’s ALL anyone remembers – and you’re fired. In baseball, it’s considered good if you hit the ball 3 out of 10 times. And there’s no crying in baseball??

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  1. Processing adjudication festivals « Composing Like Mad - [...] themselves up, and be active in helping them assimilate and analyze what happened.  You could be Bowling for Mozart…

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