I quit band once. Junior High band. It was a misunderstanding and I really didn’t quit, but for some reason everyone thought I did. Everybody expected our mean old band director to get someone to quit; it was always the director “who made them quit.” No one had quit since early in the school year, so naturally, everybody assumed I was the next one driven out by the mean old band director. Yep, mean old band directors have that effect on their students.
The image of the stereotypical “dictatorial, grumpy, and mean (let’s not forget ‘sadistic’) band director” was revived with J.K. Simmon’s Oscar winning role (Best Supporting Actor) in 2014’s Whiplash. I should point out that I have not seen the movie yet, but this is the impression I was left with after seeing some of the trailers and Simmon’s Saturday Night Live skit based on his Whiplash character. I am sure there are a few band directors out there who could be compared with Simmon’s character. I am also sure there are a few one could compare with Robert Preston’s con-man Harold Hill in The Music Man (1962). The law of averages leads me to believe the truth is planted somewhere firmly in the middle of these two extremes. Even my most terrifying band director (the one who everyone was sure had driven me from the band) had a temper and as good junior high band students, we managed to bring it to the surface every once and awhile. Calling him “mean and sadistic” would make for better band war stories, but it would also be a huge disservice to someone who let me play in his band. Make no mistake about it: a band is the director’s baby and while the students are learning to tune their instruments, the director is learning how to tune his students and turn them into a band.
My first formal drum lessons were taken under the direction of Marquette Senior High band director Joseph Patterson. I only knew him for a little over six years as he passed away early in my sophomore year of high school. He was an accomplished violin player (he also directed the school orchestra) and wrote a new MSHS fight song when the new school was opened in 1964-65. There were several of us who started as drummers together at Whitman Elementary School (now Whitman Hall as the school was purchased and repurposed by NMU after it was closed in the early 2000s), but only Susie Anderson and I stuck it out all the way through four years of high school band. We spent fifth and sixth grade practicing on table tops with Joe (he was only “Mr. Patterson” in person – all other times, he was “Joe” or “Old Joe”) singing the parts along with us as we performed our lessons. I am not sure how good a drummer he was, but he could spit out flams, paradiddles, and rolls that sounded just as crisp as our drum stick beats on the table top. To this day, if I find myself playing written out drum parts, I can hear “brup brup, brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr” in my head, just as clearly as I did back then. Joe Patterson was patient and kind. He also loved what he was doing: sharing music with his future high school band students.
As we progressed, we occasionally played with the brass and woodwind students, but only the ones from our own school. We were brought together with kids from the other elementary schools once or twice in the band room at Graveraet Junior High to give us a taste of playing with the larger band we would graduate to in seventh grade. In those days, each combined grade in all of the Marquette elementary schools had between 400 and 500 students. By the time we hit band in seventh grade, we had nearly 100 musicians crammed into the third floor band room at Graveraet that was too small and always too hot. It also had a great view, but we rarely had time to take it in.
From the director’s viewpoint, the percussion section was in the far left corner, as far away from the door as one could get. I remember it well because the day before I allegedly quit band, I was asked in no uncertain terms to “get out of the band room”. I don’t exactly remember what I did, but I was either a) goofing off, b) talking too much, c) not paying attention to the director, or d) all of the above. I do remember that it was a long, long walk from the back corner to the door with a hundred sets of eyeballs watching in absolute silence. It was the eighth grade equivalent of being shunned.
Mr. Smeberg, the director, had a baton with a large cork end on it and when you weren’t paying attention, he would lob it in your direction, usually with uncanny accuracy. It wasn’t heavy enough to do any damage to our thick skulls and it only happened occasionally, but when you got bombed, you got the picture. I didn’t get bombed on this day, I was sent packing. I would not be the first or last to be invited to depart the band room, but at that moment, it felt closer to a lonely walk to the gallows.
The next day, I returned to the third floor and found the orchestra using the band room. Usually when they held a lunch hour rehearsal, we were sent to homeroom for that band period. I had not been in the room the day before when it was announced that we would have band after orchestra the next day, so I saw the orchestra using the band room and assumed I needed to go to homeroom. The bell had rung by the time I realized I was the only band student in the homeroom. I got a sinking feeling that, on top of the events of yesterday, I was now skipping band.
Getting tossed the out of band room was easier than getting back in. Once you had been shown the door, you had to have “the meeting” with Mr. Smeberg in the practice room behind his director’s stand. My stomach sank even lower when I contemplated how I would explain skipping band on top of the other sins I would have to atone for. By this time, the grapevine had me locked in a cage in the director’s dungeon awaiting my fate. The truth be told, that would have been a better place to be than sitting in homeroom with no plan as to how I would explain myself the next day. The only thing I knew for sure was I was on my own. This was not something I was about to discuss around the dinner table at home. “You were given the heave ho from band, so it was your fault, so fix it,” would have been the only course of action that I would be given, so I sucked it up and prepared for the worst.
The next morning dragged on until the fateful hour came. I presented myself to Mr. Smeberg in the practice room for what I was sure would amount to a flogging or some similar form of diabolical punishment. To my surprise, he simply asked, “Where were you yesterday?” I explained the best I could and got the same age old advice I had already heard a zillion times at home: “Next time ask – never assume.” We never did talk my behavior two days before and it came to me much later that “making me sweat” was probably far worse than any other penalty I could have paid.
I enjoyed band more than ever after this little episode. We got our first chance to play pep band music when the teachers played the eighth grade boys basketball team. We did a tour of some of the elementary schools as a kind of recruiting tool for the music department. When we played at Whitman, all the “Whitman kids” got to stand up and take a bow. We played one piece that contained a very loud, very long tympani roll that Mr. Smeberg asked me to demonstrate before we started the song. He smiled broadly when we were finished. Directors make a lot of faces when conducting but this was different. He was proud of how far we had come in two short years under his care. The next stop would be high school band. I promised myself I would not be invited to leave the band room ever again. I may have flirted with it (some bad habits are hard to break), but I had learned when to straighten up and fly right. Quit the band? Never!
I only felt a little like Jake when I wasn’t in band . . . it was almost like going to prison!