Don’t Take Your Teachers for Granted

Since last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, I felt that it would be appropriate to talk about a few of my former horn teachers. It is normally inevitable that we will one day out live our teachers, but I think that some of us, if not most of us, take their presence in our lives for granted. In a span of four years, I lost three teachers (my horn instructors) that not only meant a lot to me personally, but they were also very influential towards my development as a horn player, musician, and teacher.

I went to The University of Tennessee for my masters, because they offered me the most money. It was the last grad school where I auditioned, and it was the school that I knew the least about. I think I only applied there, because some of my professors from undergrad went there and advised it. Well, I showed up, played one of the best auditions of my life, and I was offered an assistantship not long afterwards. It was a blessing in disguise, because I really enjoyed my time at UT. I also really enjoyed working with the horn professor, Calvin Smith. He was funny, possessed a wealth of knowledge, played flawlessly, and cared a great deal about his students.

Unfortunately, he was also the first teacher that I lost. I remember the day as if it happened yesterday. It was my second year into my DMA, and I think the Fall semester had just ended. I woke up late and saw that I had missed a call from one of my friends back in Knoxville. Even before I heard the news, I had this weird feeling that something bad had happened. My friend left a voicemail, but before I could even check it, the trombone professor from UT called to give me the bad news. A heart attack, nothing anyone could do about it.

I think it’s a normal reaction to wish that you had made more of an attempt to reach out to someone after they pass away. As we get older, our lives become busier, especially if you have a family of your own, and you don’t always have time to call family members or friends. It’s easy to put things off. We think, “Oh, we’ll see that person at the next holiday, or the next time we’re in town.” I did send a couple of emails to Calvin while I was working on my DMA, but I instantly regretted not doing more. I had actually wanted to interview him about his time in L.A. and try to have it published in The Horn Call, but I wasted too much time. It also would have been nice to spend more time with Calvin, because he was such a great human being.

The next former teacher to pass away was Bob Pruzin, who I studied with for a year before going to grad school. His death was not as emotional, because he and I never really had much of a personal relationship. Still, I will be forever grateful to him, because he definitely helped me become a better horn player, and he is definitely the reason why I got into graduate school for performance. Pruzin also gave me my first professional orchestra gig. He passed away almost immediately after I moved back to Georgia, which is very sad, because I had hoped to re-establish a connection with him. His passing happened very suddenly as well, because he was afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or ALS, and his deterioration was extremely rapid. After the diagnosis was announced, it only took maybe a couple of months for him to pass.

With Pruzin, I primarily felt guilty after his passing. As I mentioned, he was my teacher when I was preparing for grad school, and I applied and was accepted into the University of South Carolina, where he taught. I was actually verbally committed to attending SC, but I received the assistantship offer from UT right before the deadline. It was a tough decision, but I made the choice to go to UT, which I don’t regret at all. I informed Pruzin of my decision via voicemail, and I always felt guilty about not telling him in person. He wasn’t the greatest at taking bad news (Pruzin was infamous for having a bad temper in his younger days), so I was a little afraid to tell him in the first place. I would have liked to apologize for that decision, but I never got the chance. I tried to reach out to him when I moved back, but he wasn’t performing anymore at the time, and I think he was in the early stages of his diagnosis, so he wasn’t teaching as much, only his students at SC. Other people wouldn’t be bothered by this, but it bugs me. It’s a decision that I regret, and I can’t makeup for it, so I guess it will always bother me.

The final teacher that I lost during this span of time was the most difficult. Dr. Virginia Thompson was the reason why I went to WVU. Granted, WVU has a great music program, but I don’t think I would have considered it if not for her. Two of my previous teachers talked about her a lot and held her in high regard, so I had always heard wonderful things about her. I also had a friend that went to WVU and would talk about how great she was. When I finally met Dr. T, I knew that I didn’t want to study with anyone else. I auditioned and then we spent a couple of hours talking about a myriad of things. She even tried to convince me to go somewhere else, because she felt that WVU wouldn’t be able to offer me the experience that I wanted…it didn’t work. She and I clicked. Sometimes, I would just go into her office intending to ask a simple question, and three hours later, we’d finally be finished with our conversation.

As with the other two, her passing was sudden and unexpected as well. She found out that she had cancer that had metastasized at an alarming rate, and only few weeks after receiving the news, she passed. It was very difficult, and for a while, I didn’t believe that it happened. This might be a little weird, but I have had dreams, even recently, where she’s still alive. These dreams are way too real and cause me to feel a lot different emotions upon waking. I even had a dream recently, where she had somehow miraculously survived the cancer, and her and the current horn teacher at WVU were both teaching there…very odd.

Anyway, enough about my weird mind. I don’t really regret many things pertaining to Dr. T. We had an amazing relationship while I was a student and that relationship continued after I graduated. We talked a lot, and I would often send her an email to pick her brain about random things. There are, however, a few small things that I regret. One, I never took a picture with her, not even after any of my recitals. I don’t really enjoy taking pictures, but I wish that I had put this aversion aside for at least one moment. I also regret not attending my graduation ceremony. I didn’t go because of a gig with the symphony that I was playing with at the time. My rationale was that I didn’t want to give up a performance opportunity or the extra money, but in hindsight that concert didn’t mean that much. I should have skipped it and walked across the stage. I think that Dr. T was even disappointed that I wasn’t going to attend graduation, but she would have never admitted it.

All of this to say that you never know when you are going to lose someone, so take advantage of the time you have. As music students, we form a special bond with our teachers, spending two to four years, sometimes longer, working one-on-one with a single person. Now that I’m on the other side, I realize how much work and effort goes into teaching. These students become our kids, and we experience and feel with them, both triumphs and failures. Even when they leave us, we still care about them and want them to succeed. It also makes you feel better when a former student comes to see you. This simple act let’s a teacher know that all of the work they did and the time they sacrificed made a difference.

I know that all of my former music teachers made a difference in my life, so students, don’t take your teachers for granted. Let them know how much they mean/meant to you while you still have the chance.



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