Many of the life lessons that I learned at an early stage in my upbringing were the result of discovering and participating in music.
One evening when I was in about third or fourth grade, our family was having a discussion at our home in St. Louis about playing musical instruments when my dad looked at me and said, “Chad, I bet you’d be great at playing the French horn,” to which I responded “Cool! what’s a French horn?” My parents took a gamble that year, and besides enrolling me in piano lessons (which I despised) decided to make an investment and found me a French horn.
Experiences at the elementary level playing a brass instrument were extremely limited and confined mostly to sectionals where other kids (who also despised piano lessons) met and tried to figure out just how to get melodic sounds out of our horns. Those early sectionals rarely ever produced the “haunting, rich melodies” that my dad described to me when I first started playing. Instead (especially with four or five of us practicing together) it sounded like feral cats locked in a dishwasher.
Unlike the piano (which regrettably I quit playing in junior high) I stuck with the French horn and soon found out that with regular guided practice and effort I could indeed make those same smooth, haunting melodies that French horns are famous for.
My band director in junior high was Mr. Percy Ironmonger, who became a role model for me. He was a teacher, director and savior to many of us who struggled with self images and hormonal chaos that only life in junior high produces. If you’ve ever seen “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” Mr. Ironmonger was just like the teacher in the movie played by Richard Dreyfuss. In fact, my favorite quote from the movie reminds me a lot of Mr. Ironmonger:
“Which instrument do you think you’d like to play?”
“Well I was kinda thinkin’ like how ’bout the electric guitar?”
“Well, this is a marching band. The extension cord will kill us.”
During my seventh-grade year I made “section leader” of the horn section and sat first chair throughout my high school years in band. It was a position that would change me since I was now in charge of not only myself during rehearsals and performances but five other horn players and all their diverse quirks and issues. Fortunately, Mr. Ironmonger went with us when the new high school opened and would lead and direct our marching band and orchestra. I enjoyed orchestra and symphonic band, but my real niche in the world of band geek-o-mania was marching band.
If you’ve been out and about this summer, you’ve probably seen the marching band members participating in “band camp” at our local high schools, practicing in the heat. When I hear them (we live right behind Sky View High School), I have flashbacks to my marching band days at Tabb High in Yorktown, Virginia. Since our school was brand new, the football field wasn’t quite suitable for home games, so all games were played away and home games were played on the field of our nearest rival (York High), which our pep band attended. We memorized all of our music, and I can still recall parts of the fingering for “Bubbles Was a Cheerleader,” which was our marching band favorite.
Playing in the band and being a part of that group afforded many of us the opportunity to become part of something at school that was safe and where we could go anytime during the school day and get positive reinforcement from Mr. Ironmonger. He really didn’t care when we popped in, as long as he didn’t have sectionals or stage band practice going, and would let us play and practice. He knew us by name and, as hard as he was on us during practices and rehearsals, found time to recognize us in and out of school settings.
I remember once on a trip to the Shennandoah Valley for the annual “Apple Blossom” parade, we stopped at a restaurant for dinner, and as I went to use the restroom, I met Mr. Ironmonger coming out. He stopped and looked me up and down and said, “You’re getting tall Chad.” These were simple, casual words, but I’ve never forgotten them because he was talking to ME, a sophomore section leader out of a hundred kids in the band!
Mr. Ironmonger would encourage me to participate and compete in regional competitions with brass ensembles as well as single performances. Sight reading competition held the most anxiety for me, and I’m pretty sure this is where I developed stomach issues that plagued me throughout my baseball career. My parents faithfully attended my concerts, parades, competitions and performances and were always just off stage or on the sidelines to greet me when I finished a parade, football game or concert.
Unfortunately, when we moved to Cache Valley in 1974, the high school I was to attend didn’t have French horns in the marching band, so my horn has remained silent all these years. A few months before my mom passed away, she gave me a small cloth music patch she had framed that I earned at Tabb High. When I look at it, I remember my mom, my dad who thought I’d “make a great French horn player,” and of course my hero, Mr. Ironmonger.