Last week I learned of the death of my high school band director. He had been in ill health, but I was unaware of how serious his condition had become. I had the opportunity to speak with him a few summers ago, and we spent a couple of hours reminiscing, gossiping about local high school music programs, and talking about the future. It was the last time I would speak to him in person, and I am grateful that we had the opportunity. Learning of his death brought with it not only sadness, but also many wonderful memories of experiences in his band. Though not always the friendliest of people, he was a dedicated teacher and mentor to thousands of students who came through his program. As is the case with many high school students, my band director came to be one of the most influential people in my life. There have been many eloquent and poignant tributes to him shared on social media, and I would like to share a few thoughts here. Of the many, many things I learned in high school band, here are my favorites. Rest in Peace, Mr. Carswell.
- The Music of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Richard Wagner: To say that my band director was “old school” is a bit of an understatement. He had an abiding love for the great orchestral composers of the 19th century, and shared that love with his students through recordings, videos, and transcriptions of their works. I have vivid memories of attempting to read the first movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony during my freshman year of high school. After a grueling rehearsal, Mr. Carswell loaned me a recording of the piece with the NY Philharmonic and Bernstein conducting. After listening to it at home, I remember thinking, Oh…that’s how it’s supposed to go!” My first encounters with Mahler’s symphonies, Wagner’s operas and Strauss’s tone poems happened in his rehearsals, and continue to have an influence on me.
- Chamber Music: Chamber music has long played an important role in my musical life, with my first experiences happening as a member of my high school’s brass quintet. Under Mr. Carswell’s coaching, we prepared ceremonial music for Memorial Day, various school functions, and even the occasional gig around town. While our performances may not have been of the highest caliber, we had a great time rehearsing and laughing together. Without a doubt it was these early positive experiences in chamber music that helped make it an important component of my professional life.
- The Band Hall is a Safe Place: High school can be a difficult time, and I still remember the awkwardness of trying to find my “place” amidst the teenage noise and angst. My freshman year was particularly tough – no surprise there – and looking back on things I realize that my path could have easily gone in a less positive direction, had it not been for the influence of Mr. Carswell and the friends I made while in band. After casting about for some kind of identity during the first several weeks of the school year, I discovered that the band hall was a safe place to hang out and converse before, between, and after classes. I quickly made friends with the other students who hung out there, and we discussed all manner of things, including music, politics, sports, movies, and romance. Mr. Carswell was always there, and made sure to put people back in their place if the conversations ever got out of hand. I found lifelong friends among those band students, and I am grateful that we were allowed to congregate there.
- History, Tradition, and Legacy: As mentioned above, Mr. Carswell imparted his love of tradition and history to his students, especially the legacy of great band programs in our part of the state. Our school had inherited much of the music that belonged to the Lenoir High School Band, and we spent many hours going through the old scores and sets of parts that had been bequeathed to us. Shown above is a well-used miniature score to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony that was passed along to me by Mr. Carswell, although I should probably return it to my old high school at some point…
- You can do this for a living? One of the pivotal moments in my life came during my freshman year, shortly after a band rehearsal. Mr. Carswell stopped me in the hall and, almost in passing, said something to the effect of “you know, you could do this for a living.” I suppose I must have looked quite confused, because he followed up by saying that he thought I had what it took to be a professional musician. As a high school freshman, I had given very little thought to my college plans, not to mention a career. I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, but his kind words certainly planted a seed which came to shape my college and career goals. I don’t know that I ever explicitly thanked him for showing confidence in my abilities, but I hope he knew just how much that little conversation (and many others like it) meant to my fellow students and me.