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Jan 2003 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

The Coolest Middle School Bandleader in the World
By Stefene Russell

When you're in middle school, there are only two kinds of teachers.

The first type wears comfortable slacks, earthy-colored turtlenecks, maybe even Hush Puppies. They stand at the blackboard and talk and talk and talk, drawing diagrams of planets or root systems, and you get so bored that you seriously wonder if they're really just a giant dust mouse. Of course, your sympathy for them swells after you've grown up and developed your own tendencies towards crepe-soled shoes and sweatpants, but when you're twelve, you draw disparaging portraits of them on the inside cover of your notebook and write them off as hopelessly lost and grown-up.

And then...well, then there are the Mister Garretts of the world.

Robert Garrett Robert Garrett is the band teacher at Fanning Middle School, and he's the kind of teacher that every 11- or 12-year-old dreams of — he sported a beret at the school's last band performance, for instance. But he's no pushover. He's very aware that a room full of young adolescents with brass instruments in their hands could become a cacophonic disaster in no time at all, so he expects discipline — not only in his classroom, but outside of it, too. If you sign up for band, you're in for the whole school year, instead of rotating into another arts class after Christmas vacation. You keep your grades up in math and English and history. You have to practice your instrument, and he doesn't buy any excuses — if a kid is living in an apartment with cranky neighbors downstairs, they can come to Mr. Garrett's classroom after school and practice there. If they don't want to take their sousaphone home, they can keep it at school. And on performance days, his kids wear their best clothes to the recital — and all day long at school, too.

But he also keeps a Miles Davis poster in his classroom. He listens to B2K, just like his kids. When one student asked him how to play "Livin' La Vida Loca" on his horn, Mr. Garrett sat down with him and showed him how to do it. At the age of 29, he's young enough to relate to his kids as a friend, not just a tottering tower of adulthood; he's the teacher who can carry on a 30-minute conversation with his kids about who won the Grammys last night. In other words, Mr. Garrett may expect a lot, but Mr. Garrett is cool. And he'd be cool even if he showed up in Hush Puppies instead of his standard ball cap and Tommy Hilfiger.

"Sometimes you have to stop as an adult and think, okay, what interested me at that age?" Garrett says, comfortably kicked back at his desk (which is covered with glittery construction-paper cards from his kids, all of them promising that they'll practice their instruments over Christmas vacation). "When I was that age, did I practice all the time? No. You've got to kind of guess what appeals to that student and bring it on their level."

And that philosophy is working gangbusters for Garrett and the 86 kids who show up to his classroom each day. Though Garrett is a seasoned educator — two years ago, he was in the thick of a career as an Associate Music Professor at Lincoln University in Jefferson City — this is only his second year at Fanning. He and his wife left Jeff City to be closer to their families in St. Louis, and during his job search, he bumped into Fanning Principal Frank Muehlheausler, who invited him to overhaul the school's music program. However, during his first week at the middle school, Garrett admits that he was a little dubious about how it would all work out.

"When I got here, I didn't have one person in the band," he laughs. "I had to go out and recruit for the program, and I ended up with about 55 or 60 members. But most of them were 8th graders, and they graduated. So this year, I looked at the numbers, and thought, man, it's kind of skimpy in here. I went out and recruited again, I looked up and I guess I wasn't paying attention, because I had 106 kids!"

The numbers evened out after the school year started, though he admits that 86 kids is still a lot. However, he's happy many of them are 6th and 7th graders that he'll be able to train for a few more years. His challenge, he says, is that unlike the county school system (which he grew up in), kids in the St. Louis Public Schools don't train for band in elementary school — in other words, he and the kids are starting from scratch.

"I tell them that in my eyesight, they've got some catching up to do," he says. "From September to December, they're just learning their direction and technique. We use a book by Bruce Pierson, 'Standards of Excellence,' and when they come back to me off winter break, I've got them focused on concert band literature in time for the Academic Olympic Bowl, and then turn right around and be ready for [St. Louis middle-school band] adjudication."

Last year, he says, his kids scored a 2, instead of a perfect 1, at adjudication, because they were lumped in with the advanced bands due to a typo in the program. "If they'd been with the beginning bands, they would've scored a 1, so they did extremely well," he says confidently. "I'm doing it in a short amount of time, and I give them a lot because I know they're capable of handling it. We'll bring home a 1 this year."

Part of Mr. Garrett's success also lies in the fact that he remembers how much stock kids put in other kids' opinions. "I have teacher aides, and they'll help — 'Wait Mr. Garrett, let me show him' — it's good! I can sit back and say, okay, show him. What's the definition of this? Y'all tell him. It's kind of like a team-teaching thing with me and the students. A lot of kids learn better when one of their peer group is teaching, because they're looking at you, thinking, 'Oh, yeah, it's easy for you, you've been doing this 20 years.' But when they see someone who says, 'I was here last year, and it didn't take me that long to learn it,' they pull together and help each other a lot."

Mr. Garrett is also a great believer in the virtues of performing, and his students do quite a bit of it even before the Academic Olympic Bowl. The week before Christmas, the band traveled to a nursing home to perform a concert for the residents there. "I always tell them, outside of this being an education thing, they're still entertainers," he says. "You have to please your crowd. So they take pride in what they're doing." Rather than practicing out of a sense of obligation (or merely the fear of embarrassing themselves at the next school assembly), sooner or later the kids make this connection: Hey, wait a minute! This isn't all that different from what (insert hip band here) does! And they practice because it's cool, because they want to. Of course, that doesn't mean Mr. Garrett doesn't push them beyond that — he doesn't buy the "I only listen to (insert music genre here)" line.

"My kids don't listen to a lot of classical music," he says. "I tell them that's unfortunate, because if you're going to do music, you ought to have an open mind, and have a variety of genres just floating around, and be open to whatever. Don't turn your nose up, and open up that door and let everything in, because you are becoming a musician now. I've exposed them to Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms. Surprisingly, pretty soon they look up and say, 'Mister Garrett, Mozart wrote 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,' right?'"

Though his kids get a thrill out of discovering that a familiar nursery song was penned by one of the greatest composers of all time, it's the more local, contemporary connections that really light torches in their hearts for music. Last year, Fanning's technology teacher brought down a poster, and asked Mr. Garrett to ask his students who it was. When they didn't know, Mr. Garrett asked them to figure it out for themselves. They went crazy for several days, grilling each other for information, but never came up with an answer. Finally, Mr. Garrett brought in a Biography special on Miles Davis, and revealed that he was the mystery man they were looking for. Like any cookie jar set on a high shelf, his kids decided that they couldn't get enough of Miles Davis. And they wanted to know more. Mr. Garrett told them about Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk — in fact, the whole history of jazz.

"So I ask them, 'Who's Lena Horne, who's this person, who's that person? And then you bring it down to their level — who's Nelly? Who's B2K? Who's Christina Aguilera? What song did this person sing?' They bounce back and forth, because pretty soon they can see how it all folds together. I had a lot of kids who did not know rap was a form of poetry, and a form of jazz. Jazz was the music behind the poet, doing his rhymes on top. Once they made that connection, they started coming to me and asking me things like, 'I was watching "Men in Black," and Will Smith was rapping. Wasn't that a Stevie Wonder song?' It made me feel good that they're in middle school and they know more about jazz and classical music than most high school kids. And they're going to retain that, and keep it for the rest of their lives."

Knowing how to read, play and listen to music is enriching in itself, but Mr. Garrett is wise enough to see its practical applications as well. He knows that just as young, hip grown-ups turn into older grown-ups who make shoe concessions for the sake of their fallen arches, little 6th graders eventually become high school seniors who need to figure out what kind of adult they're going to be. As the Assistant Director of Bands at Lincoln, he scouted the St. Louis public high schools to recruit talented seniors for their music program. The first question out of his mouth was always, "How much money have your parents set aside for your education?" You see, it wasn't long ago that Robert Garrett was just a confused high-school senior himself. That's why he has an answer to parents who pointedly ask him, "Mister Garrett, what's the big deal about band class? Why shouldn't my darling Junior go to gym instead?"

"I tell them about my experience," he says. "I was in band all of my life, when I graduated from high school, I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do. I had a friend who was going to sign up for the military, and I went down and passed the test but then I thought, do I really want to do this? I'm not military material. So I sat down and evaluated what I knew, and the only thing I knew how to do was play music. So I got into school, and pretty soon I had a career as a faculty member. I ask them if they have 30 or 40 thousand dollars saved up for their child's education, and usually they haven't thought that far ahead."

"Playing this little piece of metal," he grins, examining the flute, "paid for my education. Music is the ticket."

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