With regards to composing, I started relatively late. I was not a child prodigy; as a matter of fact, when I was a young music student, it never occurred to me to even try to compose. I was always drawn to playing the piano, and somewhat devoted to playing the clarinet, but writing music was not even a glimmer of a thought.
And then, in 10th grade, I entered high school and became immediately immersed in the wonderful and robust music program at Harry A. Burke High School in Omaha, Nebraska. This story is a lesson on how deeply and profoundly a public school music teacher can affect his/her students.
Dr. Steve Lawrence (aka "Doc") created an instrumental music program that consisted of an orchestra, a concert band, a smaller wind ensemble, a clarinet choir, theory classes, jazz band (which at times turned into a 50's band, Big Daddy and the Ducktails ), chamber music groups, an annual (and hilarious) variety show called Bits and Pieces, and an extremely festive and unconventional marching band (as well as its winter sport counterpart, the pep band). I believe that I played in every ensemble I had room for (and some I didn't- I was consistently late for my Algebra class because I had clarinet choir right before). To say I was bitten by the music bug is an understatement. I was making music of all kinds at all levels and felt as if I had found my spiritual home. I knew, without any doubt, that I was meant to be a musician. Dr. Lawrence had gone to the University of Iowa to get his doctorate in clarinet; consequently, I felt that getting a doctorate in music was the ultimate achievement.
One small problem with that plan: as Dr. Lawrence gently put it, there were thousands of excellent pianists out there in colleges and conservatories competing against each other. And there was never a question of whether I would major in clarinet performance; I loved (and still love) the clarinet, but was never cut out to play it professionally. Doc was NOT discouraging me; on the contrary, he was painting an accurate picture of what my life would be like should I choose to embark on the Piano Major path in college. He did something that changed my life, and pointed me in the direction I have never wavered from. He suggested I do some arranging for the marching band; I believe the first thing he asked me to do was to compose a flute obbligato. I discovered, much to my amazement, that I was good at writing music, and that I enjoyed doing it. I seem to remember other similar kinds of projects. Doc eventually told me that he felt that the combination of my talent at music theory and my creative nature might translate into an ability to compose. He set me up with Dr. Robert Beadell for monthly lessons at the University of Nebraska, and I felt as if I had found my true musical self. I started composing then- this was 1977- and I have never stopped.
Dr. Lawrence had some of us take harp lessons so he could have harpists in the orchestra; I feel that as a result I have a much better affinity for writing for harp than I might have had otherwise. Having too many clarinetists, he suggested that some of us learn string instruments. I played viola and took after school viola lessons- never really getting out of first position, but once again, developing a greater affinity for writing for string instruments than I might otherwise have had.
But, maybe the absolute MOST important thing Dr. Lawrence gave ALL of his students, regardless of talent or ability, was a love and appreciation for the community aspects of making music. Marching Band, potentially an onerous obligation for a public school music teacher, was treated as the ultimate group activity. Our halftime shows were entertaining, and the 7 a.m. practices to prepare for them instilled in us a family-like camaraderie. We were the band geeks, and we were proud. And many of us are still connected to each other, thanks to Facebook. The music itself wasn't always the highest art imaginable, but the act of playing the music together with the other students was deeply fulfilling.
I am the musician I am today in no small part because of my public music teachers- Dr. Lawrence, Jeffrey Sayre, Glenda Kalina, and of course my dad, who was never actually my teacher in school, but whose own Marching Band experiences in the Carson-Macedonia (Iowa) school system gave me my first exposure to the wonders of the Marching Band communal music making.
I am forever grateful to all of these people. I would not be who and where I am today without them