January 2004 – Feature Article
One Foot In – One Foot Out
By Larry M. Sheets
This article is about a lot of things. Mostly it is about being simultaneously retired and non-retired in a lifelong career in music. (Hence the title: “One Foot In – One Foot Out.”) It is about the wonderful things that can and do happen if one remains active and open within a career field and life in general. It is about enjoying life to its fullest, continuing to grow all the time, and much more. I have been privileged to have met, worked with, and studied with some of the greatest teachers and musicians in the world during my career. Some of the most exhilarating and memorable experiences in my life, however, have come from the students I have worked with during all those years. While I can only touch on a few of those experiences in this article, I hope they will encourage others to remain active in performance, study and teaching long after retirement. The rewards are boundless and often unexpected. Sound interesting? It is. First, I must give you some background information with lots of seemingly unrelated twists and turns that will (if you bear with me) all come together at the end.
I taught instrumental music in the public schools of West Allis-West Milwaukee for 27 years, beginning in the fall of 1969. Fifteen of those years were spent teaching band instruments, and twelve in teaching string instruments. Most of my work was done at the elementary and middle school levels. During my early years of band teaching, I was very fortunate to have been able to work with Dr. James O. Froseth in developing and helping to do the validation study for his Individualized Instructor band series.
As one of four band directors in the West Allis-West Milwaukee schools who volunteered to take part in this innovative pilot project and approach to instrumental music teaching, I learned more from Dr. Froseth about teaching beginners to play band instruments than from all of my college methods courses combined. (The knowledge and skills I acquired from this project continue to serve me well, even to this day, as you shall see later.) We taught from the original books that were laboriously created on a music typewriter by Dr. Froseth in his home basement, bound together with a plastic spiral binding, and sold to the students for 50 cents each. The Individualized Instructor series, which evolved from this pilot study and ultimately underwent several revisions, was based on the research and teachings of Dr. Edwin Gordon. It was the first band instrument method to use the singing voice as the basis for learning to play an instrument, and it also made extensive use of clapping and counting rhythmic patterns. Using the Individualized Instructor books as they evolved over the years, I was able to produce many fine individual young musicians, and also some very good elementary school bands. Two of those bands performed at the Performance and Clinic Days sponsored by an organization called WEBDA (Wisconsin Elementary Band Directors Association). One of my bands performed at Sun Prairie (1983) and the other at McFarland (1984). These were wonderful experiences for those young musicians who had never performed outside of their own schools before.
Making a Change
However, a very significant change in my career occurred after fifteen years of band teaching. A situation arose in the music department in which an additional string teacher was needed, and a band director would have to either be involuntarily transferred to that position or laid off. Even though I had high seniority among the band directors, I offered to make the change voluntarily, and was accepted. My transition into string teaching was helped immensely by all of the wonderful orchestra and Suzuki teachers of West Allis who gave me a great deal of support and guidance.
My primary reason for making the change was that the West Allis-West Milwaukee school system offered (at the time) one of only two or three genuine K-3 Suzuki string programs in the state of Wisconsin as part of its music curriculum. Even though I had been getting measurably superior results with my band students using the Individualized Instructor series, I was even more astounded by the accomplishments of the kindergarten through third grade Suzuki violin players. I saw these little kids walking around with as many as three complete volumes of music memorized, with the ability to play them back upon command and with few mistakes. As a result of this lower-level groundwork, the middle school and high school string programs flourished and attracted more students. But it was the Suzuki kids that fascinated me the most.
A few years prior to my making the change, my wife had convinced our two-and-a-half year old daughter to enroll for Suzuki violin lessons in the Carroll College “Project Create” program. None of us knew what we were really getting into. Nevertheless, we purchased a one-sixteenth size violin for our little “peanut” and went off for lessons. At first my wife and I shared the responsibility of attending lessons and supervising practice at home. As the music and skills progressed to higher levels, my own interest began growing, and I became more involved with the lessons and group sessions. I also learned an enormous amount by observing the various Suzuki teachers; their infinite patience, knowledge and creative solutions to problems.
One of the highlights of our first years of lessons was to attend one of the American Suzuki Institute summer workshops at UW-Stevens Point. These workshops were originated, organized and hosted by UW-SP violinist and teacher Margery Aber. At this particular workshop, in August of 1984, Dr. Suzuki was to be on campus for the entire week. We promptly enrolled to attend the workshop. All three of us stayed in a single dormitory room for a week (remember what that was like?) and had a wonderful time. While our daughter never was in one of Dr. Suzuki’s classes, we attended his lectures and all of the Institute students played together on the final concert while Dr. Suzuki accompanied them at the piano.
There is no doubt in my mind that Shinichi Suzuki changed the entire world in a very literal and positive sense. He certainly changed mine. I believe that he has been one of the world’s most influential forces in instrumental music education. His influence has been globally comparable to the work of Zoltan Koday (who I also met in a summer class at Northwestern University), Bela Bartok and Dalcroze in the vocal music fields. While Suzuki lived a fortuitous and enormously productive life, much of it is not well known to those outside the area of string pedagogy.
Becoming an Adjudicator
Soon after beginning to teach in the West Allis-West Milwaukee public schools, I also registered as an adjudicator for the Wisconsin School Music Association. Those were the days when we received a whopping $45 per day for judging all day on Saturdays. Anyone who has ever done it knows that giving up a precious weekend day for relatively small compensation was not the primary consideration. I wanted to expand my horizons by finding out more about the state organization, learning more about the literature outside my major area of woodwinds, and establishing a basis for comparing my standards of judging and expectations against those of other professionals in the field. I felt that I had a great deal to learn, and that judging for WSMA would be a great vehicle for that learning. I have been an active WSMA adjudicator for over 30 years, and have seen many changes in the focus, structure, expansion and enormous growth of the festivals, State Music Conferences and Honors Projects. Most of the changes have been and continue to be very positive.
During those 30-plus years of teaching and adjudicating, I have heard many wonderful musicians perform and have learned more than I ever thought possible. I have judged everything from recorder solos to piano duos, including guitar solos, harp solos, jazz ensembles, string solos and ensembles, and even (recently) a beautifully-played fife solo, in addition to the standard band and orchestra literature. I believe that I would not have taught nearly as well without those experiences.
Retiring – Temporarily
In 1995, I decided to retire from the West Allis-West Milwaukee public school system. I applied, and received the early retirement option. Even though I knew I would continue to maintain a home studio of private saxophone students, it appeared that my public school teaching career was over.
My retirement didn’t last long. In late August, Dennis King, the music supervisor in West Allis, called and asked me to substitute teach for a string teacher who was taking a short leave of absence. I accepted the offer based on it being a short-lived position. As it turned out, the string teacher never came back. As a result, I directed the Christmas concerts at three schools, and worked until second semester when a permanent full-time person was hired. Then, I had about seven months off before I was called again to teach.
This time the call came from Swallow School District in Hartland, Wisconsin. The superintendent needed an experienced band director to work two days a week with a small band, and hopefully build the program. The job entailed teaching beginners in fifth grade, and continuing with them through eighth grade. It sounded like a nice position for a year or two, so I agreed to do it. It actually turned out to be a very challenging position, but interestingly enough, I found that my Suzuki and orchestral teaching experiences (now twelve and a half years) had added considerably to my patience and understanding of band teaching. Seven years later I am still there. The band program now includes around 50 students, and I am employed two and a half days per week at Swallow School. I work closely with four other band directors in the Lake Country area; combining concert band and jazz ensemble students from five school districts to present concerts in a situation that is unique in Wisconsin.
A Life-Changing Experience
My continuation in part-time public school teaching also reinforced my decision to remain active as a WSMA adjudicator. Unknown to me, this dual role of retirement/non-retirement would ultimately lead me to one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It occurred on March 2, 2002. I had received and accepted a WSMA contract to judge string events for the Northern Fox Valley Music Festival in Kimberly, Wisconsin, (near Appleton) that Saturday. As luck would have it, the weather forecast on Friday included up to a foot of snow accumulating in our area overnight and continuing the next day. Another WSMA judge had previously called me and asked if she could share a ride with me to the festival. Anticipating the worst, I arose at 4:00 a.m. and drove into Milwaukee to pick up my passenger. We were on the way by 5:00. There were already about four or five inches of snow on the ground, and more falling and accumulating rapidly. I had taken our cell phone along in case a WSMA staff person called my home to tell my wife that the festival had been cancelled. The call never came. Even though numerous festivals around southeast Wisconsin were cancelled that day, the one in Kimberly was not. I remember seeing many cars and trucks skid off the highway into medians and ditches. While driving nervously through all that snow and slush, I remember asking myself: “What in the world (or something like that) am I doing here?” We finally arrived safely, late for the judges meeting, but early enough to begin judging on time. Walking through the halls to my judging room, I could see through the windows and doors the near-blizzard conditions that prevailed outdoors. It was still almost dark outside.
As I began judging, I also remember wondering how many students would not appear on a day like this in a rural area. They did appear, however, one after the other and pretty much on schedule. After about an hour of judging, I had just finished listening to a Class B cello solo, and was writing some comments on the adjudication form when another cellist came in and set up to play. I was only peripherally aware that several more spectators had filtered into the room, until it was almost full. The cellist was scheduled to play the same piece I had just heard, and I motioned for him to go ahead and start while I finished writing about the previous performance. He began playing with a nice full cello tone, and sounded fine. After several measures, I had finished writing, and looked up at the performer to visually check his posture, bowing, hand position, etc. The cellist was a young lad who appeared to be of Asiatic descent, about 12 or 13 years old. Nothing in my entire teaching career could have prepared me for what I observed next. The young cellist had no left arm! I could not believe what I was hearing and seeing. He had the neck of the cello over his right shoulder, and was fingering the strings with his right hand. He was bowing with his left foot. He had the frog of the bow gripped tightly with the toes of his left foot, and was moving it back and forth with his left leg.
As the music became more complex with sixteenth note passages and advanced bowing techniques, I watched spellbound as he negotiated the indicated bowings, string crossings and articulations precisely as they were written. At times the bowing became a little “heavier” than a purist might want to hear, and there were some minor intonation discrepancies. The performance was not flawless by any means, but it certainly warranted a “first” rating from an adjudication point of view. From a humanistic point of view, however, it was beyond belief. There is no rating that high. As I approached the boy after his performance to talk to him about it, I found I could hardly speak. There were no words to convey my overwhelming feelings of joy and astonishment, yet I somehow managed to stammer out a few words of praise as he replaced his shoe on his left foot and packed up his cello.
Because I was now closer to him, I could see that his left arm did not exist below the shoulder. I could only speculate as to whether it could have been a congenital defect, was lost in an accident, or surgically removed for some reason. It didn’t really matter. It was I, the experienced Master Adjudicator, who felt suddenly inadequate and embarrassed in the face of this young man’s incredible will and determination. He later came in and played a cello duet with another student. These unbelievable performances did not in any way overshadow the many other commendable events that took place that day. I especially remember a young violinist who played with impeccable clarity of technique and tone. I remember many fine viola, cello and bass solos and miscellaneous ensembles, and being impressed with the high quality of these other fine performances. In addition, there were, amazingly (if I remember correctly), no more than two or three “no-shows” in my room, in spite of the near-blizzard conditions that raged on outside with blowing snow and bitter cold. The entire day of judging was a tribute to the extraordinary teaching and sense of commitment that was being instilled in these students by teachers who were obviously doing a superior job in that area.
After the judging was done, my passenger and I had a long and dangerous drive back to Milwaukee. Snow was still falling, and even though snowplows were working constantly, the roads were covered with snow and ice. The memories of the day’s experiences made the drive easier, and we made it safely home. By the time I arrived back in Waukesha, I had been on the go for about 17 hours.
Putting It All Together
My question about “what in the world I was doing there” had been answered in an unexpected way. It was almost as if an enormous challenge had been met and conquered. The events of that day have often caused me to reflect philosophically upon the existential nature of an “event” or “happening” in one’s life. Consider the history of my life and career, and the things that had to happen in order for me to be there at Kimberly High School at that moment in space and time. Think of the events that must have happened in the cellist’s life in order for him to be there at that moment in space and time, and for our lives to suddenly coincide in such a manner. Was this a real-life example of Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity? Unsettling thoughts; and yet reassuring at the same time. I believe that we are all here to serve, and to help each other in our own unique ways. When we are able to do that successfully, we experience one of life’s greatest joys and fulfillments.
Interestingly enough, I have retold the “event” that occurred with the cellist to many other retired music educators who have continued in their roles as WSMA adjudicators. Almost all of them have told me about some of their own experiences and that they feel they are doing their best work now. They enjoy judging and “clinicing” the students more than ever. They feel more relaxed and less pressured, and are much better able to help the students they are working with.
While I would highly recommend it, there is no doubt that semi-retirement is not for everyone. For those who (like Suzuki who lived to be 100) never grow tired of hearing “Twinkle Twinkle” or seeing the smiles and “twinkle” in a child’s eyes as he or she learned to play the song on a real musical instrument, it is simply a continuation of an already fulfilled life. Musical growth and fulfillment beyond retirement can come in many different forms. I am happy that I found the means to perpetuate it and benefit from it in my own life and in my own way.