The Why

At some point during the school year there is a class

of students hard at learning. The choice of course is left to the imagination, but the presence of these students and a hard working teacher is a reality. Unfortunately, there are times when this reality comes at the expense of a fine arts program. As summer vacation draws to a close, teachers once again begin preparing for their lessons. For the first time in a dozen years I will not be one of them. In 2016, I reached a crossroads in my career due to a series of unfortunate events. Everything I had been building as a music director was put on hold due to a single question, which then branched into a triplet of inquiries: Why? Why have I been doing this? Why do I work so hard? Why am I here? The answer to this rests in triplicate as well. The results of my conclusion forced a response I did not expect. It was time to leave the classroom. Now, nearly a year later, I look back and acknowledge that decision while admiring those who continue to keep me effective in their absence.


I started teaching for the simple reason that I had the skill set to do so. I was raised by a teacher, who was raised by parents who believed in education as a means to elevate a person, internally at least if not by other external means of promotion. My grandfather (a shakeout man), and my grandmother (a domestic worker) decided to become foster parents while my mother was still young. They accepted children who were under-served and overlooked by society and taught many of them to be productive citizens through hand-over-hand training. By this term I am making reference to the method in which a person learned under them. The teacher would physically place the hands over the learner's and walk them through the process. I know because I was the recipient of that form of training during my youth. I am unable to forget it. It still works today.


Muscle memory and repetition proved to be a valuable tool in building skills of the children who would grow up under their roof, many of whom exited the home as capable adults. This no doubt had a profound effect on my mother, who used her knowledge to receive several degrees and eventually enter the realm of education as a public school teacher. She held this position for nearly thirty years. I was able to take her instructional techniques and fuse them with my own, allowing me to reach my career goals in less than five years. Beyond that I have been immensely blessed with information and colleagues, impossible to achieve without her leadership. Most of it by example and deed rather than lecture. Her death has been difficult for me. Handling the matters of estate proved too much to balance with a teacher work schedule like mine and the need to be present to support the activities of my own children began to take priority over those under my care from 7 am to 6 pm (if not later with field trips or performances involved). Early retirement was one of the hardest choices I have ever made.


There was one more person who made a profound impact on the decision without his knowledge. That person was that of Dr. Isidor Saslav. Isidor Saslav spent some time in the Detroit Symphony as a young student of the great Mischa Mischakoff. Mischakoff, who had worked with Arturo Toscanini in the NBC Symphony prior to joining the DSO in the 1950s, poured much of what he had learned from his teachers overseas into Dr. Saslav. The music education system of the United States owes a debt of gratitude to those who migrated to this country and contributed as much as they did. The film "Orchestra of Exiles" only tells a portion of the story. Many people attempting to escape the tyranny of Nazi Germany made America their home. His lessons stretched beyond that of the music studio of Stephen F. Austin State University. I was privileged to know him and receive his instruction, both as a musician and a father figure in my life. Before I graduated, Saslav made me promise that I never allow my students to keep bad habits and to teach them everything given to him by Mischakoff, who received direction from Toscanini among others. Even after his death, with the combination of hand-over-hand instruction, I have yet to break that promise.

Mischa Mischakoff, instructor to Dr. Isidor Saslav