An opinion piece
Do you have a favorite song? Is there a writer whose books you can’t seem to get enough of or perhaps an actress whose movies always manage to make you smile? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then you have a teacher to thank. Although I personally never grew up to be a great artist, I was fortunate enough to have been taught by an educator who made me feel as though I could be one.
I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. From a young age, I was singing songs and would often pass the time on our bumpy school bus ride home by listening to my favorite songs on an old CD player. At the age of ten, I took up learning to play the saxophone in the elementary school band and continued doing so until I reached the eighth grade. At that time, I’d begun to lose interest in the rigid structure put in place by the middle school’s music teacher. The songs were simple, and the lessons were repetitive. I’d all but made the decision to give up on continuing my music education. All of that changed when my fellow eighth graders and I were given the chance to tour the foreign landscape of our small rural high school for the first time and get a feel for the daily routine, learn about the various clubs and organizations available to us, and listen to presentations from our future teachers.
In the midafternoon, after touring the building and speaking with several members of the faculty, we were shuffled into the music room. There, in the front of the room, stood a short, thin, black-haired man in a royal blue polo with the school’s mascot embroidered on the chest. He wore an enthusiastic smile on his face, and the low hum of anxious whispers could be heard as we took our seats; this was Mr. Browne. I was most familiar with Mr. Browne from the intricate halftime performances and roaring drumline that marched onto the field before my older brother’s football games, but that was far from the extent of his professional responsibilities. Outside of being the director for both the school’s band and chorus, he also ran all extracurricular music ensembles, oversaw vocal and instrumental performances for all musicals put on by the drama club, and even created a specially designed course teaching students to play guitar and form their own pop bands. To my fourteen-year-old brain, he was something of a mix between John Williams and Jack Black’s character in School of Rock. For lack of a better term, he was cool.
Rather than talking us through the types of pieces we could expect to play in the class or keying in on competition and marching, Mr. Browne decided to take a different approach. He began to speak about the different ways a song could convey a message through its lyrical content. To get his point across, he rolled a piano to the center of the room and sat down to play. He paused for a moment and let the room grow quiet; the concert was about to begin. He took a deep breath and began to sing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe,” a conventional story of a young boy taught to play music by an elderly man. Following his performance, he went on to play the music video of “Mr. Jones” by Counting Crows on a boxy television set pulled out on a metal set of wheels. He pointed out the contrasts between the use of metaphors and expressive language used by this artist and the literal message used in the previous song. It was unlike anything I’d experienced in a music class before, and I knew then and there that I had to hear more. I reported for band camp that August and didn’t look back.
The next four years were a whirlwind of new information and experiences I never imagined I would have the opportunity to take part in. Mr. Browne was constantly challenging us to improve. Apart from practicing for the annual school concerts and statewide competitions, we were often treated to lessons on music theory and tasked with playing musical pieces we would never perform in public. We were pushed to our boundaries by exploring time signatures and styles many of us had never seen before. We were encouraged to join extracurricular ensembles such as jazz band, giving us the chance to learn new instruments and concepts outside of what we would normally see in class. At one point, Mr. Browne was able to coordinate a special in-class performance from a Grammy award-winning tabla and sitar player from India—not too shabby for a school with less than 500 students.
It wasn’t until several years after I’d graduated and moved on to college and my professional life that I was able to digest all the wonderful things I experienced in those four years. I’d gained new friends, learned to play new instruments, traveled, and performed around the country on band trips. I played rock songs at basketball games, sang in a jazz choir, and formed a school-sanctioned rock band. The catalyst for all those great memories was a teacher who found a way to inspire his students to meet new challenges head-on because he truly believed his students could succeed.
What sets people who teach fine arts apart from those who teach other disciplines is that many of these individuals are artists themselves. Before teaching high school students how to prepare for a Christmas concert, Mr. Browne was the front man for a punk rock band and a member of his university’s drumline. On that day in the eighth grade, he spoke to us not just as a high school music teacher, but as someone with a deep love for music as an art form. Every new piece of music, intricate marching choreography, and lesson he taught was an extension of his own experiences and passion for music he’d developed as a performer.
Behind every great work of art are hours of unseen lessons taught by the “Mr. Brownes” of the world—teachers who push their students and give them the opportunity to fail, who provide constructive feedback because they know what it feels like to have made the same mistake in their own practice, and who treat every student as the great artist they could one day be.
Originally published in the Zealousness e-magazine (issue 16) in 2020. Reviewed in 2023.
Read more education-related articles on our Zealousness blog Education – iN Education Inc. (ineducationonline.org).