The other Music Man

By kateandcarla

January 2, 2011

Category: Uncategorized


Photo: Woody, Flickr Commons

If you see Mel Johnson, will you tell him I’m sorry?

And thanks?

Channel surfing these lazy holiday afternoons reintroduced me to Professor Harold Hill and River City.  But faster than I could sing Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little (, I found myself in memory mode, recalling another music man who changed a little Iowa community significantly…but all on the up-and-up.

Mr. Johnson (students called him Mel only at risk of life and limb, as my brother-in-law Bob will confirm), arrived in the Seymour/Promise City area in 1960.  I was a fifth-grader—that magical age when we took our first steps toward being a Seymour Community High School band member.  And it was a huge deal.

Seymour’s music program was a point of pride for area citizens, with the marching band a contender in regional competitions and the concert band a welcome source of entertainment during the endless winters.

Mel Johnson’s mission was to take this quality program to the next level…and higher.  We would get there through hard work, individual contribution, group synchronization and discipline. White tennis shoes were not white bucks.  Six o’clock meant six o’clock, not five past six. Marching music was to be memorized. Reeds were to be well-soaked and squeak-free. And no gum.  Ever.

I do not recall blood being let during our practice sessions, but sweat and tears were plentiful.  As were some of the most fun, energized, exciting moments of my high school years.  To march a five-mile parade route at 100 beats a minute, dressing right and covering down, side-stepping the horse souvenirs and then hearing your school’s name announced as first-place in its division made for mighty sweet music.

As a member of the percussion section, marching meant service as a tenor drummer, cymbal bearer and—briefly—glockenspiel girl. Concert band brought bells, snare drum and, as a senior, tympani.  And it’s there my apologies begin.

I regret not taking the time to truly understand the art and science of perfect fifth intervals and proper tympani tuning. I wish now I had listened more intently as Mr. Johnson explained the nuances of various compositions. But as it was, I did leverage a tremendous amount of accidental knowledge into college music appreciation classes. And for that—as well as knowing my forte from my fermata—I’m grateful.

I think it all comes down to this: powerful lessons last.  Which was well evidenced a few years ago, after Thanksgiving dinner at my sister Marilyn’s home, when she (sans flute) and I (sans tenor) performed The March of the Toy Soldiers during a post-turkey walk.

Just as in 1965, we couldn’t remember Part II to save our souls. But we were stellar on Part 1.

Left, right, left, snap.


6 Responses to “The other Music Man”

  1. Love this! Remember, we had to be high steppers…the knees brought up high…with arms swinging. I told my girls so many times during their band school years that Mr. Johnson would not settle for their band. (See, I still can’t call him Melvin.) Band days were some of my favorite. I still have my clarinet…that was used when I started playing in 5th grade. Oh my, that is an old instrument; but it still works. Too bad I have trouble getting some of the notes out correctly.

  2. Another “ace” in the hole Carla. I still think of such pride of our band and band experiences. I, and 99% of the other band members, had such respect for Mel Johnson. He would never settlle with a half effort, but we WANTED to do our best. One of the most fun things I have done in my much more mature days was to be a part of the Alumni Band directed by none other than Mel Johnson. We did that a few years back at the first All School Reunion. I had so much fun…..he even knew me after not seeing me for decades. He didn’t recognize everybody. He instilled in me a love for high school band. My daughter played percussion, too, Carla. She was pretty good. Her junior high band instructor recommended she take lessons at Simpson College. She had taught her all she could. So once a week for two years we made the trip to Indianola for these private lessons. Her high school band had (and still does) a very good reputation, too, and has won for years at Ottumwa Oktoberfest. Now my grandaughter plays trombone in the West Des MOines Valley high school band. I went and watched the band preform at homecoming and at a competition in Waukee. Loved it all. Keep bringing back those old memories. I enjoy these walks down “Memory Lane”.

  3. Thanks for the memories, Carla! Like your brother-in-law Bob, I too made the mistake of calling Mr. Johnson Melvin when I was a lowly 6th grader–I still remember the stinging retort I got! And I never made that mistake again. Lots of good band memories. When we were practicing one particularly difficult (for me) “move” for a football half time performance, I was struggling with my two left feet. He came up beside me and guided me through it, and when I finally got it, he said, “If Marilyn Snook can do it, anyone can do it!” He also told me if I could march half as good as I played, it would be great! We did have fun in the 60’s, didn’t we?

  4. Oh, you guys, you’ve made my day. Thanks for reading and remembering. Hugs, C.

  5. 100 beats a minute? That was normal speed. Whenever your cousin Ronnie on the bass drum and Maddalozzo and I on snare drums decided Pat I. the majorette, needed to pep things up, we would rev up to 120 bpm, just to get the blood pumpin’! Made us sharper, and we WERE the sharpest band around! We never ever knew where Mr. Johnson was lurking on the parade route, when he wasn’t marching along, but he never seemed to miss anything, did he? I can still tap out most of the cadences we used, but flamadiddles and paradiddles are long gone……

  6. The Saturday night band concerts in the park are some of my best memories of high school years. I’ve seldom had as much fun since then.

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