When I was a sophomore in high school, my band director arranged for me to audition for the Alton Municipal Band. I had no idea what a big deal this was. It was my first professional gig. I was going to get paid to play the trumpet. I was nervous, and excited, and more than a little intimidated.
I showed up for my first rehearsal and was seated in the section playing third trumpet. I was disappointed at the seating results, but hey, it was a start.
My stand partner was a man named John Mitchell. He was at least 70. I was 16. He came in and unpacked an old, worn cornet.
I was sitting there with a shiny new Bach trumpet, thinking “who is this guy and what am I doing sitting down here next to him?”
As the season began, we started to talk. He was a nice old guy—and if I remember correctly (and I hope I do, in honor of John’s memory) he had served in the military, and then gone on to marry, raise a family, work hard, and live a good life.
I can’t remember where he learned to play the cornet—if it was in school, or in the military. I just remember that during all that time when he was taking care of his family and building a life for them, he set his cornet aside. He probably put it in a closet where it gathered dust for years—even decades. And then one day, when his kids were grown and he had retired, he took it out again.
I was a kid, and I had aspirations. I wanted to move up through the section, to be first trumpet, to be a soloist. John wanted to play third trumpet.
I remember asking him why he didn’t seem interested in trying to move up through the section. I don’t remember his words exactly, but to paraphrase, he was just happy to sit in the section and play third part and be a member of the band. I didn’t understand at the time.
I did move up through the section, after a couple of years of sitting next to John. And eventually I would move to a different instrument, and would even have the chance to conduct the band. John kept playing third trumpet.
I don’t remember when he stopped playing. I’m sure that he played as long as he could, and as long as he wanted to. And after I moved up and moved over, I don’t know how much, if at all, I thought about John. But I do now.
I think about John Mitchell every time someone talks about lifelong learning—in the arts, or in anything. And I think about John Mitchell every time I see my students—the ones who are currently a part of the Etowah Youth Orchestras, and the ones who have graduated and gone on to start their own careers, and their own families, and their own lives.
I think about John because I know that what I am doing—what we are all doing as arts educators—is giving my students something that is truly lifelong, that can never be taken away from them.
It’s easy to forget that, and it’s easy to let that become cliché. But as I hear from more and more alumni each year, I know it’s true.
We may not have the next Beethoven, or the next Monet, or the next Shakespeare in our classrooms or rehearsal halls. But we do have the opportunity to impact hundreds, even thousands, of young lives every day.
We have the chance to teach beauty, and emotion, and creativity, and to build a better society—one that will understand that the arts aren’t just a part of our culture—they are our culture.
So here’s to you, John Mitchell—and thank you.
I hope that just one of my students will pick up that dusty old cornet when they reach 70 and give it another go. Because if they do, then I know that I’ve done my job, and have helped in a very small way to keep this “art” thing going.