The other Music Man
If you see Mel Johnson, will you tell him I’m sorry?
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 (www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbhnRuJBHLs), 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.