Ms. Thompson, the Great

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.

With Ms. Thompson, after a show in the early 90’s.

 

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.

K. Smith elementary cafeteria/auditorium, with Ms. Thompson front and center.

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.

Ms. Thompson these days… between lessons!

_________________________

October 2016 Update:

sanantonio2016
With Ms. Thompson, during a show in 2016!

10/6/16 Facebook Message: Friends, I would not be who I am, or where I am, without my original band teacher, the one-and-only, Ms. Mary Thompson…. 81-years young, and our guest of honor last night at the Lita Ford show in San Antonio. We headlined a late set, but she stayed for the whole thing! When I noticed she was still there around midnight – during the intro to “Close My Eyes Forever” – I had to step side-stage and grab this pic, even though I was soaking wet.

She is the real deal, people. A world-class musician, and an immensely talented and passionate teacher who has influenced thousands of students through the years, many of whom, like me, have gone on to enjoy careers in music. She STILL teaches privately these days.

_________________________

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.

BR

PS. All photos courtesy of Ms. Thompson’s Facebook tribute page.  Thanks Laurie and friends…


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About Bobby Rock

Bobby Rock is a world renown drummer, the author of seven books, and a recognized health and fitness specialist with certifications in exercise, nutrition and meditation. He has recorded and toured with a variety of artists, released three CDs as a solo performer and is recognized as a top drumming educator. (He is currently touring with rock icon, Lita Ford.) Through speaking, writing and activism, Bobby remains committed to a number of animal and environmental causes. Bobby lives in Los Angeles.
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19 Responses to Ms. Thompson, the Great

  1. Laurie says:

    You captured her spirit, thank you!

  2. carolyn Schmidt Dasher says:

    Bob,
    Man, you wrote such an eloquent fun fact filled story about our beloved Miss Thompson. I am so proud of your accomplishments. I think it is cool that you give her such well deserved credit.My memories are similar. I remember the flying batons, stands and chairs. You are right…noone ever complained. Wouldn’t happen these days.Her amazing choreography for our halftime performances to this day make me smile.Thanks for your words.You were lucky to have had her in your court! She knew talent when she saw it!

    We are all proud of YOU too!I love to tell people that we were in band together!

    Happy Birthday
    Miss Thompson.
    See ya,
    Carolyn

  3. Lynnette Cardenas Wilson says:

    Thanks for a wonderful tribute page for Mary Thompson, Bob! Your writing is every bit as fine as your drumming!!

  4. Kaylyn Aden Merricks says:

    Bob, No one could have given a more perfect tribute! I laughed and choked back tears reading this and I’m pretty sure Ms. Thompson will too. Although I was never a “great” student, I will always cherish the times in band and years with Ms. Thompson. My 11 year old daughter also plays the flute, like I did. She has been a member of her school band for the past 3 years and Ms. Thompson would be proud of her! (She is first chair, unlike her mother!) I tell her all the time about marching band, halftimes, parades and of course, being one of the original first 8 members of Ms. Thompson’s flag corps! Band was, quite frankly, one of the best things about jr/sr high for me. Thank you, again, for your beautiful tribute and I am so proud to say I got to play with one of the all time best!

  5. Debbie Barrett Boyd says:

    Ms Thompson,

    I didn’t go to Scarborough all 4 years, but the 2 years that I did go I only enjoyed school because of you. I looked forward to go to your class every day and then find a way to skip school the rest of the day. I really meant a lot to me for you to take the time to convert me from a woodwind player to a precussion player. Those were the best days in my life time and that class is the only thing I miss about school. I hope that you have a very nice birthday and hope you have many more to come. I was so glad to see you and all the comments and how you influenced other peoples lives not just mine. Well take care and once again HAPPY BIRTHDAY!

    Debbie Barrett Boyd

  6. Debra Patterson Nelson says:

    Hi Bob,
    Glenn Jacobs sent me your blog. It’s so heartwarming that you have kept in touch with Ms. Thompson and that you have written a beautifully powerful tribute to her.

    Even though I was only a SunDowner, Ms. Thompson always was “larger than life” to me. She was so incredibly talented designing all those precision marching formations (long before the invention of computer marching programs). My daughter plays piano and trumpet and I only wish she could have been in a band (stage or marching) taught by Ms. Thompson.

    She was simply amazing keeping all us “borderline juvenile delinquents” marching in straight lines and pinwheels. She is simply one of a kind. There can never be another Ms. Thompson.

  7. Belinda Fernandez says:

    Happy Birthday Ms. Thompson….Wow!!

    I played Alto and Barritone Sax in Stage and Marching band 1979-1981…..

    It is awesome to see this tribute to one of the finest Music Teachers ever! Thank you Bobby for writing this and bringing back such fond memories of my High School days! Happy Birthday!!

  8. Robert McKay says:

    I would like to say, if it were not for Ms. Mary Thompson, I would not know who I would be today. She was so tough on me. I love Ms. Thompson becuase she is one of the most important people in my life. Mary, if you get this message, please call me at 281-897-8054 because I would love to talk you. You are still one of the dearest people in my life and I will always be greatful. I’m so sorry I ever lost touch with you.

    Your Student, Robert McKay

    p.s. (I could not find you on Google) Note: I made it in engineering, music is just for me now.

  9. Ray Manning says:

    Please contact me if at all possible…Mary was my introduction to music and my band director through jr high at Hogg in the mid-sixties. I live in New Orleans and play music to this day. Would LOVE to express a long-overdue expression of gratitude to her for a lifetime of music. Ray Manning

  10. Colleen Crawford says:

    Beautiful Bobby! Thanks for the share

  11. rmckay8 says:

    Sent from my Verizon Wireless 4G LTE smartphone

  12. Frank Souders says:

    Ms. Thompson: Happy Birthday! … and thanks for enriching the lives of so many people.
    Bobby: Very sweet! … as always, Rock On!

  13. Vanessa Luce says:

    Mary, thanks for being an influence in some of my children’s life. You are a rare “jewel”!

  14. Tom Barrow says:

    Bobby,
    What a great tribute to a wonderful teacher. I was just thinking about her the other day.

    Having Ms. Thompson as a band teacher made my decision to leave band after 8th grade very hard. I was just getting into jazz and being able to play just a little improv on the trombone was inspiring. I no longer play but she opened my ears up to what music could be and I still enjoy to this day.

    As for flying batons – Cooper did it!

    Happy Birthday Ms. Thompson.

  15. Pat Aden says:

    Happy Birthday Mary, boy can I remember all of those Band trips and ball games, hope you had a great day. Pat Aden

  16. Aldridge Jack says:

    Ms. Thompson was an exquisite, tough and passionate teacher about music. She was always leading by example in her dedication to educational fundamentals of music and academics. She taught me to be the best baritone player in 6th grade. I would go home and practice for countless hours and I was dedicated to form my craft as an musician. The truth is she kept me so focus on our musical journey that I didn’t have time to be on the streets getting in trouble but in my house dedicated to be the very best at what I enjoyed doing which was playing a variety of different music. You made me so elated to come to class everyday and after school and you inspired me to become an elementary school teacher. I guess that’s why I never missed a day of school and I lead by example while expecting the best from my students just like you expected from me. I love you Ms. Thompson and you will always be my favorite middle school teacher.

  17. Paul Hogue says:

    Ms. Thompson is still one of my biggest influences. I was in 8th grade the year she retired. I am proud to say we were her last band at Clifton. I have lots of great memories of her and band there. She took a shy blond headed boy with broken English and made him believe in himself . I went on to high school at Scarborough and decided to major in music at Sam Houston State. Now, I am following in her footsteps teaching middle school band hoping to inspire young musicians like Ms. Thompson did for me. Thank you, Bobby, for making this page. I’ve always wanted to thank her but never knew how to get ahold of her.

    Thank you Ms Thompson and Happy Birthday!

  18. Julie says:

    Wow great tribute to a great teacher. Happen to read because my niece Kristina Stewart who was a student of hers and now a band teacher posted this on Facebook.
    Ms Thompson sounds awesome and I wish my kids would have had a teacher like that! By the way hats off to whoever your English literary teacher was that influenced you also!
    Loved the read!

  19. Fran Rigell says:

    I’m going to respond here and on Facebook. Bobby you have expressed this beautifully. As the mother of your friends, I also know your Dad rigged the garage so you could practice.
    I was very involved in music as a high school student. This didn’t turn out to be my passion, but the lessons I learned from my music teacher were invaluable through life. Self reliance, work ethics, passion for your beliefs were what carried me through. I’m now almost 72 years old and I knew Ms. Thompson and I feel quite sure her passion was her students. You were one of many, but those of us in Forest West are so proud of you and also where you come from.

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