Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Today, I lost a Mentor...

It's funny how little you may recognize or appreciate how important someone can be to the greater plan of your life – even when it's perfectly obvious to everyone else.

Dick Perkins was not a warm & fuzzy kind of man. As my high school band director, he was very proper, professional, and extremely dedicated to his work. Our relationship never went beyond teacher-student to become respected colleagues, as I had hoped. Even as I became a music educator myself, he was just one of those teachers, no matter how adult you get, you could never call by his first name to his face. He would always be Mr. Perkins.

I would see him at marching band and drum corps shows fairly regularly after I had graduated and gone on to instruct, myself. We would make eye contact, walk up and say hi, we would banter briefly about this band's woodwinds, that corps' guard or what some classmate of mine/former student of his is doing what nowadays. Our conversations were always brief, good-natured, but awkward and uncomfortable. I always felt like such an amateur talking music to him, like a 3rd grader talking to a physics professor about how well he knows his multiplication tables. Eventually, I tended to avoid going out of my way to say hi when I would see him at shows to avoid the awkwardness.

I'm bitterly regretful of that now…

Today I received a call from Ralph Biggs. I hardly ever hear from Ralph anymore. I could almost sense what was coming.

Richard H. Perkins died this morning in a hospice of a rare brain disease, as I understand. He went peacefully in his sleep. He had suffered what was originally thought a stroke several weeks ago, and his health had been failing since.

I had just seen him at the DCI Quarterfinals broadcast last August, looking fit as the proverbial fiddle, and exchanged a few awkward sentences.

Of course, it was a great disappointment to me when I heard the news, but to be honest, I didn't feel particularly sad. I was at work, distracted with a million different tasks, thoughts of the coming holiday, and basically shrugged it off with the feeling of, "that's a darned shame."

Later, after grabbing some pizza and inviting our friend, Leigh, whom we were in the band with, I dragged out some old cassettes of our band concerts. We listened through pieces like Holst's "First Suite", some show tune medleys, and such, and toasted him with Jolt Cola (the favorite drink for 7am marching band rehearsal in 1990). Then a lush, gorgeous arrangement of "Danny Boy", played with depth and dynamics rarely heard in a high school group, wafted through the living room. I imagined Mr. Perkins waving his baton in front of me on the podium as I played…and I cried. I finally realized what I had lost. I had lost one of my greatest mentors.

I have always attributed my interest in music and my desire to pursue music education as a career to several teachers in my life, often giving more credit to the ones that used the style of teaching I wanted to emulate: the slightly off-the-wall, exuberance and energy that is magnetic and inspires the same energy in others. Richard Perkins was not one of those teachers.

Richard Perkins was the kind of teacher that didn't need any of that. He inspired great performance and learning by an exceeding love and knowledge of music. Most importantly, however, he never underestimated the talent of his students. He would pull out class AA music for a band of 50 high school kids and have them playing it every bit as well as a university level symphony band. He taught theory, history, multiculturalism, and balanced it all with an unrivaled diversity of repertoire that expanded every student's musical horizons.

I suppose I never appreciated it much, even recently, because it was a standard I felt I could never live up to. Cracking jokes, getting excited, and being a cheerleader to get kids to work – that I can do. But having the kind of depth of knowledge of music and skill and/or knowledge of every instrument, music history and theory, let alone the work ethic to be able to fit it into virtually every lesson plan – that, I feared, I could NEVER do.

And so I distanced myself from him. Not intentionally, but I let his legacy and the greater lessons of his example slip lower in priority in my professional memory. I focused my attention to the teachers that fit more into my teaching style: the fun ones, the ones that cracked the occasional bad (or usually dreadful) jokes, the ones that made the work not seem so much like…work. Many equally good teachers, mind you, but completely different from Mr. Perkins.

After reflecting today on 4 years (plus one season instructing) with Mr. Perkins and the Dondero bands, I came to an epiphany. I realized that my professional development, as with all things, must be about balance. Being a cheerleader and full of energy and enthusiasm for the subject I teach is useful and important, but just because it's what I'm comfortable with doesn't mean I should rest on my laurels by relying on it exclusively.

If there is one major life lesson I learned from Dick Perkins, it was this: The work may be hard, it may be boring or even excruciating at times, but the rewards are far richer when you do it right, learn something from it, and know that you succeeded through your own perseverance.

Thank you, Mr. Perkins. You will forever be a part of me, and your legacy will live on through every student I teach and ever note of music that emanates from me for the rest of my life. I will work for that.


Anonymous said...

I realize this is an old blog post, but in preparing for a visit back to Michigan, I was considering looking up Mr. Perkins whom I'd assumed was likely just retired, and was sad to read via your blog that he passed away. For a brief time early in his career, he was my band teacher at L'Anse Creuse. I agree that he could be remote, but he had a profound effect during some difficult personal years that has made a lasting difference. We also played together in the Genessee Valley wind ensemble when I was in my teens, and talks during those hour-long drives helped me get past some challenging times. He never complained when I came in to practice for scholarship auditions during my off hours, partly because he knew that home was not the kind of place where I could concentrate, and he would often provide insightful critiques that gave me new perspective on what my private teachers were trying to get me to see. Without being intrusive, he would keep up with how things were going in other parts of my life, was quick to engage in debate on any number of subjects, and had a sly sense of humor.

One fall, I returned to HS from an Interlochen summer to find a clumsily-wrapped album on the table as I was digging in to sort out the music library chaos in preparation for marching band season. It was Les Preludes, the end-of-season tradition that rips the heart out of every alum I know. I sat on the floor of the music library, alone, and cried. He knew how hard I had worked to win scholarships and save babysitting money to go.

There were only two teachers that I wanted to personally thank when I got home - and I am sorry that one of them is no longer with us.

Despite early aspirations to go into MusEd, I changed career paths. To this day, I still play in small ensembles, work with local arts organizations, and get great joy from music - due, in large part, to his kind encouragement and keen instruction.

A thoughtful post, which despite making me sad has also brought back fond memories.

Kind regards.

Paul Keiser said...

Thank you for this comment. I hadn't actually read it in several years, but as I sit here following a rehearsal directing my chorus, it reminded me of all the lessons I mentioned, and gave me a greater respect for the man I already admired.

Next week's rehearsal may be a little different. Harder, but better and more rewarding for everyone.

Again, thank you.