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The Exact Moment I Found My Life's Passion

When the day came to meet face to face with the kids, I was a little nervous.

Wow. Another new year. The last one sure went fast! I've heard it said, "The younger you get, the faster the years go by."

Yeah, I'm gonna keep that one!

Here on the Patch site, where I enter my blog posts, I recently updated my profile information. When finished, I found myself in a reflective mode, even though I'd changed only one word. "Almost" was exchanged for "over," referencing a teaching anniversary I had just passed.

"I'm a local percussion educator and performer who's been sharing these passions for over 30 years."

A cascade of memories flowed. But the first and strongest one that hit: How I became a private percussion instructor.

In some ways, it seems so long ago, like when I reflect on the accomplishments of the many students I've taught over the years. Not always musical achievements, though; many former students are married and have kids of their own. Other moments seem like yesterday. I can still recall the looks on the faces of the kids at the very first lesson I ever taught. Some excited, some not.

One kid kept looking out the window so all I recall is brown hair on the back of his head. I can still smell the school room we were all in. You know - that "school" smell, plus chalk dust, and a wood odor because of all the wooden floors. Those floors sure creaked a lot when we walked across them. That was probably a good thing, because those creaks meant none of my "victims" could escape the room during a lesson.

I've been involved with music since fourth grade. My first attempt at being a "musician," was learning the guitar. Or trying to. I grew up in West Allis, so I took lessons at the now defunct West Allis Music. My teacher's name was Skip. Six months into it, I was done. Guitar just wasn't happenin'. So ... I skipped.

However, I knew I had music within me. I just needed a different outlet.

The Catholic schools in greater Milwaukee (I went to St. Aloysius) had a cool program called The Cathedral Area Band. Representatives and students within the program would tour the many parochial schools in the area, demonstrate all of the band instruments, then offer the attendees the chance to sign up for the band program. A teacher, (mine was Mr. Johnson) would come to your school to teach weekly lessons on the instrument of your choice.

First, the students learned the basics on their instruments, then all the schools' kids would prepare the same band compositions. Finally, a few times a year, all schools would combine their band students for a rehearsal and put on a concert (at Tenor High School, next to Cathedral Square in downtown Milwaukee), or march in a holiday parade the following day. The program even had a "solo and ensemble" competition every year (also held at Tenor High School). A student could play a solo or perform as part of an ensemble in front of a judge, and receive a score and a placement medal. Maybe this band program could be my outlet?

During most of the introductory presentation, I didn't really pay attention (I was a fidgety kid). But I did notice the drumset on the stage.

Some of the kids who helped demonstrate the traditional school band instruments also put together a band on the side. They performed at the end of the event, using guitars, bass, drums and vocals. They played Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business." I couldn't help noticing the drummer's groove during the solo beat section of the song. Oh, man. Ohhhh, MAN! DRUMS!!

This. Was. It!

My music education continued into high school. During auto shop class my junior year at West Allis Central High School, I'd heard about something called an "apprenticeship." The idea of working on cars for part of the school day, and getting paid, was a neat concept. About this same time, I'd started to think about pursuing music education for a living. Bingo! Was there a program in place to apprentice with a band director next year, while a senior?

Duane Gandre, my band director at the time (recently deceased), wasn't sure. He hadn't heard of a band apprenticeship program, so he directed me to see my guidance counselor. My counselor was able to confirm that no such program existed. I felt deflated.

But then he smiled and said, "This shouldn't stop us from creating a program." We could do this?

We determined early in the process that, because I'd be gaining my experience in the school system, the program would have to be an unpaid internship. So, he and I worked together to lay some ground rules : How would it work? What exactly would I be doing? What expectations would the school have for me? What was I hoping to get out of the experience? What was motivating me to create this  program?

My counselor contacted band director Jim Mertins at John Dewey Jr. High in West Allis, because I had attended ninth grade there and participated in band class. Mr. Mertins agreed to help me pioneer the program. I would work with the 7th, 8th and 9th graders enrolled in band.

Great! I now had a "school home" for my internship. (As an aside, around 1981-82, John Dewey burned to the ground. My schoolmates and I who went there, will forever contend, "Uh, it wasn't us," wink, wink.)

Because this internship was a prototype, my guidance counselor needed to present it to the School Board for final approval. We still needed to sort out fitting the program into my senior class schedule, accreditation, ongoing accountability, criteria for grading my work, to whom I would submit my Quarterly Intern Reports (my thoughts, observations, what work I did within the quarter, what I learned, what exactly I would be doing next quarter).

After I satisfied the School Board's queries, they approved my internship.

My senior year in high school was so much fun. I'd already decided to pursue music education in college at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, so my mornings were filled with all kinds of musical activities - Music Theory 2, for example. After lunch I'd head over to John Dewey to intern.

Here are some excerpts from the very first Quarterly Report I turned in, back in 1980:

I feel that the work program I have entered into is the greatest learning experience I have ever encountered. There isn't another way I can think of that would give me the feeling of "living out my role."

The first thing I did ... was to sort out music for the band. I learned a valuable lesson in how the band is seated. Of course ... one must find out the names of his students. This didn't seem too bad, until the day came when I was to meet face to face with the kids. I must admit, I was a little nervous....

Mr. Mertins and I got down to business.

My part of the "business" is to teach percussion individually to students for about 40 minutes. I soon found this to be a very rewarding experience, not only for me, but to the kids.

The kids have been not only in my eyes, but Mr. Mertins' eyes, been responding to my teaching methods.... They seem to be constantly learning something valuable.

The teaching methods I use are basically the same as anyone else's; use of a book for lessons that follow certain guidelines, but I have also insisted that the student not just play the music, but feel the music, also. You see, music can be as loud and hard as a lightning bolt, but also a gentle and soft thing of beauty.

My plans for the students in the future have started a little already, and these plans include preparing the kids for District Solo and Ensemble Contests. This is when I'll really find out how well I've taught them!

When the school year concluded, parents of several students inquired about their children continuing on with me in private lessons. They expressed that their kids had learned so much, and really enjoyed their classes with me.

Outwardly, I confessed I'd never taught drums privately, but told them that I'd think about it, and try to put together a lesson plan.

Inwardly, my heart leapt with excitement. I knew I could do this - I wanted badly to do this!

Looking back, that was the exact moment I found my life's passion.

As you can guess, I put those lesson plans together, and found some good books to use with them. Those kids were a joy to teach - and they did well in high school themselves.

I must mention my mom and dad. They supported me a lot during these early musical years. My dad let me drive him to work in the morning on my way to school, so I could use the family car to get to my internship in the afternoon. Then, I'd pick him up after work. And, where else would I have been able to teach those first private lessons? You guessed it! In their basement.

I sure do love and appreciate you both very much!


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jeff Rockel January 27, 2012 at 12:40 AM
Jim, I seem to remember the last day you shoveled pizza out of the oven and were able to go "full time" in the music profession. That was a huge risk and a huge achievement. Congrats on 30 years!
Jim Kube January 27, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Liz Wessel: Thanks on the congrats! You are right about this not being a job ;) Thanks for reading my post - again, Jim
Jim Kube January 27, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Jeff Rockel: Nice to hear from you, my friend! Hope all is well with the "new place." I'm sure it's "newer" now :) Yeah - pizza ... Surprisingly - that started about the same time this story ends! Ah, yes. Trying to work my way through college! That's a whole other chapter! Thanks on the congrats, and for reading my post again as well! :) Jim
Mary Berger Harris January 27, 2012 at 01:31 AM
Jim, Congrats on being one if the lucky few whose profession is also their passion. Never knew you did the while internship thing. Anyone do something like it the next year?
Jim Kube January 27, 2012 at 01:57 AM
Mary Berger Harris: You're correct about profession and passion; I do feel blessed, and am very thankful. The internship seems to be surprising a few folks - even some close friends! Interesting because the internship is something I'm proud of. I guess it just hasn't come up in conversations. That's one of the reasons I'm glad I wrote this story. I wanted to revisit that time period in my life, and share it with my kids. I also wanted to put the history out there to hopefully encourage others to listen to their heart and persue their passions. Unfortunately, I have no idea if I blazed a trail for anyone else. Maybe after reading this story - someone else will think outside the box too, and go for it. Whatever that may be! Thanks for your comments! Jim

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