Today is the birthday of a woman who has had an immeasurable influence on my life and career; Ms. Thompson, my high school band director.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: how can a band teacher have had such a heavy influence on your life’s work when you’ve probably studied with so many great drum teachers? To know the answer to that question is to know Ms. Thompson.
My first exposure to Ms. Thompson came shortly after I started playing drums. I joined the music program at K. Smith elementary in Houston, and Ms. Thompson – who was the legendary band director of the junior/senior high school I would be going to the following year – would drop by weekly, as I recall, to prep us all for 7th grade band.
Ms. Thompson carried with her an air of seriousness, of true dedication to her craft. Even as a bunch of young punks, which we all pretty much were, she commanded our attention and respect – immediately.
And I’ll never forget the summer before 7th grade when all of us drummers had to meet up at the school in preparation for the coming year. I remember all of us lined up in front of our snare drums, in the icy, fluorescent ambience of that Scarborough High band room, working on our hand speed and coordination. We were all following along with Ms. Thompson – who stood in front of her own snare drum – as she played those monotonous hand exercises right along with us… her thick forearms suggesting that she had put in a fair amount of practice herself, even though the drums were not her primary instrument.
I would later hear from another apprentice band director (one who didn’t make the cut, I might add), that Ms. Thompson was one of those “fanatical” music teachers who would often stick around the hall after hours and practice the other instruments – like trumpet, trombone and French horn – just so she could be better prepared to teach all of her students. This was one of the first hints I got as to how serious she was about her calling. The other was noticing that, in addition to all of the painstaking time and effort she spent on campus, she would then go and teach private lessons at her home in the evenings. This woman was all about the music.
Also of note, in that fateful summer before 7th grade, Ms. Thompson was responsible for three lifelong game-changers for me:
1. My first copy of the book, Stick Control, known as the “drummer’s bible” for general technique. I would sweat all over those pages, hours at a shot, for years to come;
2. My first Buddy Rich album, Rich in London, which she let me borrow, and which we would later play an arrangement from in jazz band that featured a drum solo (hooray!). Buddy Rich would become one of my greatest drumming influences through the years;
3. An introduction to my first drum set teacher, Randy May, who was considered one of the best in Houston. Randy helped me develop a strong foundation in a variety of drumming styles and taught me what it meant to be a real “working” drummer.
How can I possibly convey the critical influence that these things had on my journey?
Anyway, as any of Ms. Thompson’s students will attest to, she was quite the character, with the blunt, dry wit of a steel factory foreman, and the relentlessly high expectations of a physics professor. Yes, she demanded a lot from her students, but never in an unreasonable way, and never without a respectable amount of patience… that is, until and unless you blatantly disrespected the sanctity of the band room. And trust me, this, you would not want to do.
I would say, at least once a semester, something would go flying in one of Ms. Thompson’s classes; a baton, an eraser, or even a trumpet mute. And there would often be a student at the other end of said flying object, usually cowering out of the way. Yes, friends… the passion, the fury, the momentary loss of temperament – such an awesome thing to witness in a teacher! Plus, these occasional outbursts were usually accompanied by select language that, I’m guessing, was not included in the Houston Independent School District Approved Vocabulary For Teachers handbook. Again, to be 14 or 15 and hear your teacher drop an f-bomb? Awesome!
But – and here’s the more important point – I personally never once heard of anyone reporting this occasional “inappropriate” behavior to the staff or principal. Why? Because everyone knew that music was her life, that the student or students in question had it coming, and that it was somehow an acceptable way for her to express her profound disappointment. In other words, everyone knew how much she really cared, and there was something special about the unique teacher/student dynamic that we all shared with her. Everyone just got it. We didn’t need any outsiders to referee our relationship with Ms. Thompson.
Beyond the colorful aspects of her methodologies, however, Ms. Thompson was indisputably a gifted and prolific teacher, and the proof was in the proverbial pudding. Her bands often dominated city, or even statewide contests, and many of the Scarborough High musicians under her tutelage won key awards for outstanding musicianship or exceptional solo/ensemble performance. Of course, a number of these students went on to become accomplished band directors and pro players, themselves.
And hell, just the lineage of Scarborough drummers was noteworthy: Kerry Georges, Mark Hodge, Robert Bartkowiak, all came before me, all were great players, and all could’ve had careers exclusively in music if they had chosen to. And I’m sure my old friend Blas Elias (Slaughter, Blue Man Group), another monster drummer who came around a few years after me, would agree that so much of what she taught stayed with us long after graduation.
Speaking of graduation, here’s another huge piece of my life that Ms. Thompson was instrumental in influencing. In 12th grade, I was offered a full scholarship to a local community college that had a pretty decent jazz program. I was thrilled about the opportunity and immediately tracked Ms. Thompson down to tell her the news. “Congratulations,” she said. “But why go there? Why not go to the best? Why not go to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. That’s the best.”
Indeed, why not? I actually hadn’t even considered it until she suggested it. I guess I thought it was “out of my league.” But Ms. Thompson obviously didn’t see it that way, so I immediately arranged a last-minute, midsummer visit to Boston to see the school and jump into the application process. Eight weeks later, I started my first semester there. And that, my friends, is when everything truly changed for me. My time at Berklee elevated my game to a level that would not have been possible anywhere else. (And yes, I thought of her smiling face often during those six to eight-hour practice sessions in the Berklee woodshed!)
Again, how can I possibly convey the critical influence that the Berklee experience had on my journey?
One of several visits to one of Ms. Thompson’s classes over the years, this one around ’92 or ’93, I would guess.
Still, I often tell youngsters in my educational travels that most everything I ever needed to know about surviving for nearly three decades as a professional musician, I learned in the 7th grade: practice your ass off, keep those fundamentals sharp, and remember it’s all about the music… three key tenets from Ms. Thompson. Because trends and fads come and go in this crazy business, and every long-term career goes through those natural ebb and flow cycles. But – if you can maintain that work ethic, continue to expand and improve, and stay true to those foundational elements of great artistry, you can always make a living doing what you love. This is perhaps the greatest gift that I got from Ms. Thompson, even though my dumb ass didn’t realize I was receiving such an important gift at the time.
And this is where her contribution as a teacher truly transcended the subject she taught: She made you want to be your best – period. Through her daily example, through her mindfulness in all that she did, and even with those subtle, non-preachy bits of southern fried wisdom that she would occasionally pepper the class with, she was teaching us all as much about life, as she was music… without us really knowing it at the time. That’s a great teacher.
Fortunately, this legacy continues with Ms. Thompson to this very day. I remember hearing about her “retiring” from teaching some years back. Yeah, right. Are you kidding? She can’t stay away. She still teaches privately, and since “retirement,” has been involved with several local musical projects as a player. It’s in her DNA. And while I happen to know that Ms. Thompson has a sizeable extended family who loves her madly, to my knowledge, I don’t believe Ms. Thompson ever got married or had children of her own. It seems like music and all of those thousands of students have had her otherwise engaged.
I’m happy to report that I’ve kept in touch with Ms. Thompson through the years and that she has been able to share in a few of my “career highs,” first-hand. She has celebrated right along with my family and friends at my folk’s house in Houston on a key occasion or two, and yes, she even once endured the glass-shattering shrill of the pre-pubescent mob at a Nelson concert to watch me play! And I have had the pleasure of dropping in on a few of Ms. Thompson’s classes through the years to talk to, and/or play for, her students. This has all been cool.
But for me, just to be able to get up everyday and do what I love – to engage the various creative processes, and to still find the unconditional ecstasy in those late-night hours of practicing my drums – that’s been the most consistent source of joy in my life. And that’s what I learned from Mary Thompson.
Happy Birthday, Ms. Thompson. There are so many of us out here who love and respect you, and appreciate all the ways that you have enriched our lives.
PS. All photos courtesy of Ms. Thompson’s Facebook tribute page. Thanks Laurie and friends…