In August of 1986, as a senior at Indiana University of PA, I embarked on a journey that would forever change my life. The previous spring, a high school orchestra from Williamsport, PA and performed on our campus and were absolutely magnificent. I had never seen a school orchestra play at that type of high level and I knew then and there that I wanted to be part of that dynamic. I chased down the bus as they were leaving, made eye contact with the director, and said, “You don’t know me, but I am going to student teach with you!”
Somehow between that time and the beginning of my student teaching experience, I had convinced the music ed. folks at IUP that I needed to student teach in Williamsport and there was nowhere in the immediate area that could offer me the same program and experience. Williamsport is about a 3 hour drive from Indiana, PA and is really outside of the range for stucent teaching experiences. Somehow, through the efforts of some wonderful music ed instructors, I became the first student teacher from IUP to go to Williamsport and now I was getting ready to meet the high school orchestra director, Walt Straiton, for the first time since that day his orchestra performed on campus.
But this was no ordinary meeting. Walt had called me about a week earlier and said, “Hey – I am going to Madison Wisconsin for a workshop on strolling strings and you need to go with me.” No questions asked. No options. I was going to Madison and that was going to be part of my student teaching experience. Walt made it clear that if he was going to do something, I was going to do it, too. I knew right then that this semester was going to change my life. It did. Profoundly.
I could write a book about that trip and the wonderful experience that I had in Madison at the Red MacLeod/Marvin Rabin run Strolling Strings Workshop, learning about the concepts behind school strolling groups, or about the experience of being part of the beginning of the Williamsport Strolling Strings group that received national recognition in the coming years. But, this post is about relationships. That day, as Walt picked me up in his new t-top Camry at a parking lot in Dubois, PA and my Mom watched, clearly worried about who this guy was that was hauling her little boy to the Midwest, my life changed. On that day, I became linked up with Walt Straiton, both personally and professionally for the rest of my life. He burst into my life like a tornado that day - wheels spinning in the gravel parking lot as we took off down Interstate 80. And, from that moment on, he has challenged me over and over, in his unique way, to be the driven professional and pedagog that I am today.
Something that I didn’t know that day was, that to be connected to Walt, is to be connected to Ken Raessler. What a blessing. Ken Raessler, in those days, was the Supervisor of Music for Williamsport School District and the driving force behind what was and is arguably the finest public school comprehensive music program and Pennsylvania and beyond. He has conquered many areas in the music ed. field, including public school teaching, college music teacher development, public school arts administration, and collegiate administration. He is an author and speaker and a true leader in every respect. He mentored Walt while he was at Williamsport and facilitated much of the success that Walt enjoyed in that system. Ken understood that an Arts Supervisor had to have a plan, a model, and his was steeped in all of the right things: student achievement, opportunities for teachers, solid musicianship, impeccable teacher training, and a top to bottom comprehensive approach to music education. (His latest book is entitled Aspiring to Excel: Leadership Initiatives for Music Educators (GIA Publications) and I recommend it highly!!)
During the 5 months that I lived in Williamsport, these two teachers guided me, challenged me, taught me, inspired me, and most of all accepted me as one of their team. They made me part of their fraternity of driven professionals. At one point in the time I was there, Ken told me that we were like Ichi, Ni, and San. One, Two, Three. Three music educators that were living parallel professional lives, each in different stages of their career. He told me that I was like them and that I would enjoy the type of professional success that they enjoyed if I put my mind to it. I was only 21 and somehow, I couldn’t believe that Ken and Walt could possibly see themselves in me.
23 years have passed and we have all three moved in numerous directions.
Last night, I had dinner with Ichi and Ni – Ken and Walt. Now, Ken and I have been in fairly close touch in recent years. Ken was keynote speaker for the NCMEA Fall In-Service a few years ago and I was honored to introduce him at that event. He is always in attendance at my sessions when I speak at a conference he is attending. Unfortunately, I hadn’t spent any meaningful time with Walt for the past 10 years or so. And, the three of us hadn’t been together in a much longer time. But last night, we finally got together. It was like we were just in Williamsport yesterday. We are all a good bit older and have been through lots of experiences, but the things that are important are still the same. Ken listens intently to our stories of experiences and successes and offers wise advice, based on years of experience and his own success in the music education business. Walt inspires me with his take no prisoners approach and energy. He tells stories of wonderful experiences as a musician and businessman and is very willing to offer strong advice and friendly, caring support on a variety of topics. I have had my successes over the years and feel much more comfortable in the role of “san”. Ken’s prediction has come true in palpable ways. And he is happy to let me know that “he told me so.”
I could continue with details of how Walt and I reconnected with a comparable energy on current pedagogical thought, or how he nationally recognized now for his work with Yamaha, or how I think we convinced Ken to start a blog to share his thoughts on music ed and leadership with the world in a new way. But, really, none of that matters in this forum. These guys are my friends and mentors and I cannot express my thanks to them enough. They helped to shape me as a teacher and as a professional.
There are a million reasons to go to conferences as an educator. We go to sessions, learn new techniques, visit exhibits to see what is new, and have a great time. But, when it is all said and done, it is always about relationships. Last night, I had the priceless opportunity to renew two important relationships in my life. And, sure enough, we were still Ichi, Ni, and San. Just like in 1986.
Thanks, Walt. Thanks, Ken. I love you both.