My Tribute to A Noteworthy Music Teacher
Every once in a great while someone crosses your path, walks part of life’s journey with you, befriends, influences and invests in you, leaving you forever changed. That was the case with Dale Jens, my high school music teacher. Thirty years after graduating I wrote a letter to him to let him know just how much he influenced me as a musician and as a person. The letter that follows, edited some for this much wider audience, was my Thank-you to him. I share it here as a tribute. If reading it helps you do something similar, wonderful!
I volunteered as a docent at Ten Chimneys since it’s opening in 2003 until we moved to Nebraska in the fall of 2009. I’m of the opinion that mentoring -sharing what you’ve learned with someone who shows promise- is the heart of their legacy. At the end of each of my tours I compare Mr. Jens’ investment in my life to the mentoring influence Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne had in the lives of their friends and aspiring actors through their long and illustrious careers. I encouraged my guests to remember someone who opened the door of opportunity for them, or taught them something no one else could, look them up and say Thank-you while they can. Then I ask them to consider who may be able to benefit from their doing similarly for someone younger, investing in the life of someone in the next generation.
Maybe this will do the same for you.
June 7, 2004
Dear Mr. Jens,
Recently I learned your approximate whereabouts from the current music teacher at Meeker High School. He said you were doing well and in good health so far as he knew, that you were playing in a community band and enjoying it. I hope he’s right, even understating things a bit.
This letter is intended to encourage you.
To thank you for your investment in my life some thirty years ago.
To let you know in my own words how much you influenced a young musician’s life and shaped it. You helped create a “bent” in me that remains to this day.
Jens, as we called you, you profoundly influenced the “phil” in my philosophy in more than just a musical sense. I hope you don’t mind that this is typed, and that the font is large. I want you to be able to read and re-read it, even after your eyes make new demands on you. I want you to be able to remember and smile, knowing that like Glen Holland in “Mr. Holland’s Opus” you had a profound impact on your students, and like his students, yours are making their mark in the world. In part that is because of your example, your teaching, and your mentorship.
I hope the lines that follow spell “Thank You” in a way that brightens your smile every time you read them, bringing back some fond memories of your years at Meeker. I hope you know that for this one, and who knows how many others, you made a difference. Thank you.
I remember coming to Meeker half-way through my sophomore year. I had wanted to excel in athletics, basketball in particular, in the Nebraska school I came from. But I arrived too late in Meeker’s basketball season to make the cut. I knew I couldn’t wrestle. Not that I would have wanted to – wrestling looked like torture in 90-second increments! But I, of course, was in choir. We were preparing Fiddler on the Roof medley, and I noticed a cue line for violin. When I asked if you’d like me to work on it, maybe play next to Mary at the piano, I remember you smiling (probably wondering “ who is this over-confident new kid anyway?”). I heard you say we were too close to concert to add anything new. “Let’s not. What I do need, if you’re interested, is a bass player in concert band.” And you offered to send the bass and instruction books home with me over Christmas break so I could teach myself how to play that overgrown violin.
Knowing what I know now about teachers and students, your suggestion was masterful. You created both opportunity and test for me at that moment, in a way that wouldn’t kill the concert band. I’d teach myself bass and if I was any good I’d be an addition. If I wasn’t, the band could easily bury my unamplified sounds. Perfect. I learned the bass, began to play in band second semester, and came to love the instrument. I think we were both a little surprised when I eeked my way into Colorado All-State High School Band a year later. You took a chance on a new kid. You set him up to win if he applied himself. Thank you. The summer after graduation I bought my own electric bass, a little red Fender; I still have it and I still play. I use your technique with promising students and I – like you – smile when they rise to the challenge.
I remember that you went with me to Greeley my first year in Colorado All-State High School Band – a junior and his band director. We attended a tuba and percussion recital. I’m not sure what your motivation was, maybe you knew one of the UNC profs. Perhaps you were in the mood for a bit of variety. Maybe the recital had been promoted by UNC’s Music Department. Maybe it was something to do besides watch TV back at the room. (Those were the days when a director & student could share a room on a trip and no one thought twice about it – how times have changed!) I do know why I went – “Because Jens said ‘Let’s’.” I had never seen anything like it before. So many sizes of tubas. Such skill. Such fun to be had! I didn’t know what to say. And then the percussion recital followed. Mallets and sticks. Rhythm and melody. Precision so clean I wondered why we didn’t all subdivide the beat. I was so impressed I had difficulty describing it when we got back to Meeker!
I remember the day I caught you for a second in your office off the band room and asked if you would teach me to conduct. You had me read a book from your shelf in preparation. Then another. Then a thick, technical text, DRY-as-dust. When I finally brought the last one back, read but hardly understood, you smiled. “You mean business, don’t you?” (Apparently I passed the entrance exam to receive your tutoring.) You began to work with me. What you taught me between that moment and graduation sealed it in my thinking. I love making music with groups of people! I learned enough I could have tested out of my first semester of Conducting I. More importantly, you helped launch my career. I watched how you worked with people so I could learn to do likewise. When you let me work first with a girls’ chorus and then with the concert band, I knew you were giving me the opportunity to try my hand at what could become my livelihood. You mentored before “mentor” was a buzz-word in our society. Thank you.
I remember watching one of UNC’s concert bands, sitting next to you in the bleachers. Dr. Wayman Walker walked into the gymnasium, bowed to acknowledge the audience’s applause, and stepped onto the podium. With the band’s every eye on him, his baton poised, I saw it. A single preparatory beat. With his down-beat the march began! But Dr. Walker only conducted the first measure! I watched a few seconds.
“Jens!” I turned to you, “he’s not conducting!”
“Oh, yes he is,” you whispered. “His work was all done in rehearsal. He’ll just help them turn the corners. They – are prepared.”
I was amazed. In the hour that followed, watching him and growing in my admiration for the band, it became clear; the band is not there for the conductor, the conductor is there for the band. When the group is skilled and prepared, he or she can become invisible. You set a paradigm for me, a way to measure my success, long before I knew paradigm was even in the dictionary.
I remember the trip you took to Walden, Colorado for a choral clinic and took Ron Bicknell, Tom Jirak and me with you. You had chosen a Jazz Gloria for their performance, so brought your rhythm section with you. I remember one thing about that trip. “This is so much fun! I love this!” It wasn’t the getting out of class; it wasn’t the travel. I don’t remember if we stayed the night there or not. I just remember we did our best to stay right with you so you could work with the singers, and not have to stop for us. In the concert you directed, at the end of our song, I breathed a little prayer. This is what I want to do with my life, God. May I? He said “yes.” and my life has been spent working with people, leading, directing, guiding and helping .
I enjoy telling groups the last part of a story that includes you. It was the year we went to Colorado Springs as a band to play for the CMEA (Colorado Music Educators Association). We were accustomed to bringing I’s home from contest, and while we sat waiting quietly for the activity in front of the curtain to conclude (we were next), you gave us a curtain talk. I can still hear your words. You reminded us “The people out there are not aunts, uncles and grandparents who don’t know any different. They are music teachers. Every – last – one – of – them.” (You said it slowly and let it sink in, I remember.) “You know these songs. You play them well. Pay attention, please, follow me close, and let’s do these so well, those music teachers out there forget to critique our performance and instead just enjoy it. Shall we?” We nodded yes. Then you smiled a little and shrugged. “Besides, we’ve already gotten “Ones” on a couple of these.” I wove that concept into my philosophy. I have endeavored these years to have “my” groups always play and sing with excellence enough to free the critical listener. I want musicians to forget to critique and instead allow themselves to be encouraged by what we do. I first learned it from you.
That same weekend I was somewhere in your shadow while people milled around before or after an event at CMEA. I overheard a colleague ask you what you do to get 110 kids from a small mountain town to play so well. A regimen? Something to do with the high altitude? A diet perhaps? A curriculum? Your answer surprised me. But it made perfect sense. “Actually, the secret to my success at the high school is a person. She’s here somewhere. Her name is Mary Villa and she starts my kids out in elementary school and has them through junior high. My incoming freshmen have already played high school literature. I can just keep on building. That’s what enables us to play college and professional literature.”
And we did. I recall one time you handed me a hand-written part and asked me to put it on a 3rd clarinet stand on stage where the band was set up. When I asked you about it, you vented a little (not too much) and assured me we would be playing that song in concert on Friday night. “I will challenge my best players,” you said. “I have first trumpets who can play. Really play. This song was a stretch for them, and they got it.” I knew you were talking about Tom, who later succeeded you at Meeker (and helped me find you), your son Dan, and Debbie. “If I have to,” you continued, “I will re-write a part for third clarinet players who can’t –or won’t– practice. But my best players will play and be challenged.”
Just one more, then I’ll stop. You may remember that I used to listen to publishers’ demo recordings when they came to the school. When I noticed something special, I’d make a note for when you previewed them later. One of your comments has endured, spanning three decades of my own music screening. I motioned you over toward the stereo one day as you strode into the room. I had been listening to new tunes. “Jens, come listen. This is really neat.” You stopped and folded your arms in front of you while I played it for you. A catchy little motif came over the speakers one wave after another. After a while you began to shake your head. “Awww, why not, Jens? That’s a neat riff!”
“That it is, but that’s all it is. See?” And you took thirty seconds to show me what you meant. “See, Phil? He wrote eight measures, but he’s trying to get credit for thirty-two. No sale.” Then you smiled as you turned toward your office. “Don’t ever do that.” Somehow I think you knew I wouldn’t. That moment was my introduction to Form and Analysis.
Well, I hope you have enjoyed these anecdotes; each incident taught me a concept I’ve used my entire career. I just wanted to tell you how thankful I am for the years I had you as my teacher, model and mentor. You shaped my life more than you knew – until today.
Last year I went through the training and qualified to be a docent for the Ten Chimneys Foundation (literally in my back yard), the estate of Broadway greats, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. I conclude each of my tours emphasizing the people in their lives – the mentors they had and the actors and actresses they inspired and mentored. Last year I said, “If I ever learn the whereabouts of my high school band and choir director, I’m going to write him a long letter. I don’t think he knows how much he influenced my life.” This year I can say, “I found him, wrote him a long letter, and I hope it made his day.” Then I will encourage my guests to write or call someone who made a difference for them as they grew up, and invest in a youngster who shows promise. “You never know who they might become. Be generous when you invest in the next generation.”
I wish you good health and happy days, Mr. Jens – Dale.
You have been, and are, one of my heroes.
Thanks for taking a chance on a sophomore new-kid.
Thanks for agreeing to teach a junior how to conduct.
Thanks for giving a senior a taste of what it might be like to make a career of this “arts” thing. I love it.
And I’m doing my best to pass the baton to others who will carry it well.
You are the first to read these paragraphs, and that is as it should be. They will one day be adapted and placed as a tribute to you on my website. People frequently ask about the people who have shaped my thinking. As my protege’s and other interested people read these paragraphs, and others, I hope they will be encouraged and challenged. Perhaps they will even copy some of the things we’ve done right along the way!
With deep and sincere appreciation,
( and I signed it )
Meeker High School – Class of 1974
PS. Did we ever tell you the origin of “Legato Half-note,” the affectionate nickname a half-a-dozen of us had for you? Several of us were sitting along the windows in the school lobby one morning before class, and our sponsor, Mrs. Stoddard, walked by. High-heels. Short, quick steps. “Those are staccato eighth-notes,” we agreed. We measured the sound of her heels on the tile floor till she turned into the office. Not long after, you strolled by. Much taller. Not in a hurry. You waved good morning, and we smiled and waved back. I noticed your gait that morning and said, “those are not staccato eighth-notes”. “Nope, those are half-notes,” someone said. And Tom Bement (trombone player) said in his dramatic way, “Le-ga-to”. From that day on, in our little group, you were Legato Half-note. Always with respect, always reminding us – don’t hurry so much. Enjoy life. Like Jens does.