3 Lessons Learned from My High School Music Educators

“How does a kid that is so quiet get in so much trouble?” A man I did not know posed this question to me as he was observing three of Easley High School’s drummers and myself practicing on a band room table. I was in the eighth grade, and I had been drumming with the older guys in hopes that it would help me make the snare line as a freshman.

I looked at him, smiled defensively, and shrugged. This man’s name was Patrick Mainieri, the high school’s assistant band director. I was naively stunned that word of my behavior problems in middle school band had reached the high school staff. I could feel my chances of making the snare line slipping.

In middle school band, I had forced my teacher to lose all hope in me. I threw spitballs across the band room and regularly peppered the equipment room ceiling with pencils. I ruined rehearsals of classical pieces by improvising funk grooves on concert bass drum. It all came to a head when my middle school band director sat me down in the principal’s office and contemplated kicking me out of the program because she did not know what else to do with me. I was a bored percussionist who needed an outlet for my energy and creativity.

That outlet was quickly afforded to me over the next four years in high school marching band. Patrick, Lance Curry (my drumline instructor), and Matt Leininger (my private lessons instructor) all taught me to channel that energy into becoming a better musician and student leader. All three of these men spent countless hours pouring into me in the mornings before school and in the evenings long after rehearsal had ended.

Now, 11 years after that first conversation with Patrick, I have graduated with my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree from the Medical University of South Carolina. My wife jokingly asked me the week of graduation how I, the kid who hated school the most, had become the first “doctor” in the family. While yes, faith and family are the first two places where I give credit, I know that my achievements in life would not have occurred without the lessons I learned from my high school music educators.

Lesson #1: “Leave this place better than you found it”. – Patrick Mainieri

My sophomore year of high school Mr. Mainieri had taken over as the Head Band Director. The first time he made this statement he was referring to cleaning up after ourselves at a competition. Over the next three years I realized that he was also talking about leaving a legacy on our program as student leaders.

It seemed like every day of class or rehearsal he would challenge me to step up as a leader in some way. If a young percussionist was struggling in class he would keep the band room open late so I could teach them their part. My junior year, I began mentoring an 8th grader both on and off the field. Patrick would take me aside in his office and make sure I had all the tools I needed to become an excellent mentor to the student both musically and academically.

Photo 1: Patrick telling an embarrassingly true story about me during his speech at my wedding

Patrick, himself, represented this statement. Later on he left his job at the high school to teach at the middle school, the same one where I had struggled as a student. From the middle school, he left South Carolina and moved to Illinois, where he now works with the Morton High School Band. In each place, the program he left behind had become the prominent student organization in its school. I have yet to meet a man more dedicated to his students’ successes than Patrick Mainieri.

Lesson #2: “Learn to walk before you learn to run.” – Matt Leininger

Matt was my private lessons instructor. He was absolutely relentless at instilling in me a focus for perfecting the basics. If I couldn’t play a passage perfectly at a slow tempo there was no way he would let me play it fast. If the stick heights or rhythms weren’t flawless, I would have to break down the part and learn to play each hand isolated by itself.

This helped me become a better teacher because I was forced to figure out how to correctly learn my instrument. It also taught me patience, as I would practice the same 8-bar exercises endlessly. This life lesson is something I have had to remind myself of multiple times in the professional world. I wanted to hop into physical therapy and start helping people immediately. I have had to learn, though, that without putting in the exhausting number of hours studying each diagnosis I cannot offer my patients the solutions that they need.

Matt is the most hardworking and courageous person I have ever met. While I was in high school, he trained the athletes at Clemson University. He was actually my first fitness mentor and gave me the passion to pursue a health-related field. Now he is a 1st Lieutenant Armor Officer in the Army, a former Platoon Leader in Iraq, and will soon become an Executive Officer. I could not have asked for a better hero to look up to as a young man.

Photo 2: Matt (left), myself (middle), and Lance (right) at DCI Atlanta while I was performing with the Spirit of Atlanta in 2011

Lesson #3: “You can have fun and be disciplined.” – Lance Curry

Lance made the drumline feel like a second family. His teaching always emphasized hard work, discipline, and professionalism. The icing on top, though, was that he made sure we took the time to have fun.

The balance between discipline and fun is often lost in the marching arts; it seems like you either have one or the other. The irony of this is that neither alone is beneficial for helping young people grow. If you emphasize fun over discipline then you will likely devalue hard work. However, if you do not take the time to have fun the students will experience burn out.

It has been no different in my personal life. I stray on the side of workaholic because I want to be involved in so many activities. Lance demonstrated for me, though, the importance of work-life balance and taking time for family and relaxation.

He also taught me that teaching does not require yelling for your students to get the point. He only raised his voice in the most extreme circumstances where the issue was behavioral rather than technical performance. He was so effective at cultivating a fun and hardworking environment because he did not let frustrations over musical technicalities influence his attitude towards us. He has since taken over as Clemson University’s Drumline Instructor, where he has helped their program rapidly become one of the best in the country.

Photo 3: The four of us acting “normally” at my wedding

I am certain that without the influence of these guys in my life I would not have developed the skills necessary to persevere through years of school to becoming a physical therapist. For educators, remember how every action you make and every word you say resonates with your students. You have the platform to develop a formerly rowdy percussionist like myself into an effective adult who can impact the lives of those around them. For students, know that if you take the lessons you are learning on the marching band field into your college and professional pursuits, you will find your passion and be good at it. Thank your directors and teachers for that. Patrick, Lance, and Matt, I will never be able to thank you enough.

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