What my high school band director taught me about teaching journalism–and life

Everybody can name one teacher who defined their youth in some way, affecting their life forever. Mine was Chuck Campbell, my high school band director, and I find myself thinking about him often these days.
I knew he had been sick, but upon my return from Guatemala the end of July I noticed the “I Miss Chuck Campbell” Facebook page had exploded with comments.  Mr. C had passed on, and so had a part of me.
It wasn’t until I got into a Facebook discussion some time ago with an old high school friend that I realized just how much of an impression Mr. C made on my personal and professional life. I grew up in Winchester, Kentucky, a town that is still small, 38 years after my graduation. It was, and still is, the only high school in a rural county tucked into the eastern Bluegrass region, on the edge of Appalachia. There were a couple of factories, lots of agriculture, and not much else but history in this beautiful area east of Lexington.
I now teach public relations to college juniors, seniors and graduate students at a university in north Texas. You wouldn’t think music lessons would apply to writing and strategic planning, but they definitely do. I realize that much of what formed me as a PR professional for 23 years, and what informs my teaching and mentoring today was learned in that crowded, un-air conditioned band hall (and on a hot marching field) decades ago.
Prior to Mr. C’s arrival in the fall of 1969 the band was not particularly noteworthy. They hadn’t won any major competitions and didn’t generate a great deal of school spirit. If you could play an instrument and show up, you were in. Chuck Campbell changed all that in a heartbeat.
My freshman year was his first year as band director, and he shook everything up.  Overnight we were unified, summer band camp was like Marine boot camp, and we developed as a team despite being a rag-tag group of kids with varying degrees of musical talent and marginal music education. We auditioned for our place in the band, and we knew we earned our position. He was tough but fair, and his tough love and winning smile kept us coming back for what some would call abuse, but what we knew was making us better musicians, students and people.
Many of us got more love and discipline in the George Rogers Clark High School band than we did at home.  Band was family.
The first Campbell quote that comes to mind is “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late.” What did that mean? When he stepped onto the podium to give the first downbeat, he expected everyone to be in their chair with their instrument warmed up and ready to play. For some of us, that meant arriving early, fussing with reeds, and putting an instrument together to warm up and tune. Others could walk in at the last minute, pick up drum sticks or plug in a mouthpiece and go. The lesson was that each of us was responsible for figuring out how much time we needed to prepare, and plan accordingly, because if we weren’t ready when he was, we were holding the group back.
That one phrase carried over into my professional life. In the news business, you live and die by deadlines. The evening news doesn’t start when you’re ready, you must be ready when it starts.  Newspapers go to press (or online) on a schedule. Deadlines mean everything in my business. No journalism teacher or professor ever instilled the value of meeting a deadline like Mr. C.
I tell my students that waiting until deadline to write is suicide. Writing is like playing a musical instrument—you have to drill the basics until they’re automatic before you ever play a song or write a paragraph. In writing, research and preparation is vital, and the re-writing process is even more crucial than writing that first draft—much as in music, where re-playing a passage until you get it correct is also crucial. Turning in a first draft is the journalism equivalent of sight-reading a concerto in front of an audience.  It just can’t be done. 
“The band is only as good as its worst player.”  
Mr. C nailed that one, too, and it’s true for band, choir, sports teams, a newspaper, engineering firm, law firm, or PR firm—any organization that requires a team effort. But instead of making that “worst player” feel like a loser, Mr. C inspired us to help each other improve and excel as individuals, which boosted the team.  Most of us took our study hall in the band room, where we practiced our music or helped each other out with homework. I encourage my students to work together and coach each other, and my office is always full of students looking for help or just to hang out. I deliberately select student groups with a mix of skill levels and the weak ones always rise to the level of the strongest team members.
Mr. C was never too busy for a student, and I try to follow that same example.  I’m sure if he was teaching today he’d be accessible by cell, text and maybe Twitter, to answer students’ questions and guide them through life’s obstacle course.  He’d be snarky when called for, but he’d be sincere in his concern for each student’s needs, musical or not.  And I’m sure social media would facilitate many of the goofy tricks we played on him (and each other) over the years. 
“Kiddo.” 
I call my students’ “Kiddo” all the time, and didn’t realize until I re-visited the “I Miss Chuck Campbell” Facebook group that I’d gotten that endearing term (which sometimes had a double meaning) from him.  I’m sure he loved us even when he was exasperated with us, and he tended to be harder on the ones from whom he expected the most. If you were an achiever you were pushed harder but also took a lot of grief from him because he knew you could always do better. If you were not blessed with talent but worked your butt off, you had his unending respect and encouragement. The casual onlooker could rarely tell the difference, because we were that good. 
Like Mr. C I find myself pushing my exceptional students to be even greater while seeking ways to help the less-talented and inspire them to keep at it. Like Mr. C I also become exasperated with the talented ones who are lazy and happy with the status quo. The talented slackers were whipped into shape by Mr. C and peer pressure, and their work ethic eventually caught up. It happens in my classes, too, especially with group projects where everyone has to pull their weight, and the peer pressure is strongest.
As tough as it was, very few people quit the band. We busted our butts, our parents and the band boosters busted their butts, and when we won our first major competition my freshman year everyone in the state was shocked. By the time I graduated 4 years later we had racked up an impressive trophy case of state, regional and national awards, all the result of the teamwork between teacher and students. Many of us had won solo and small ensemble awards, too.
Mr. C. was a part of our team, not just our leader.  He took our failings personally, not because we failed him, but because he felt in some way he had failed us. I remember after blowing one competition my freshman year (our performance was fine–we actually flunked the military inspection because of a couple of grubby haircuts and wrinkled uniforms) the field commander called a meeting—without Mr. C’s knowledge. We all sat sullenly in our chairs while she and the band captain took us to task and let us know how hurt Mr. C. was at our failure. As a group we discussed how to fix the situation, and I think a couple of the guys may have taken the offending slobs out back behind the Ag building for a “talking-to.”  Changes were made, we all watched after each other, and we never blew an inspection again. 
As a group we took ownership of that failure and turned it into a winning strategy for the future. I had to do that with a student group this past semester that made an egregious error in a project for a client. After a stern talking-to, they understood the problem, rectified the situation, apologized to the client, and put together a dynamite presentation at the end of the semester. Another group project was turned in late, and the responsible party came to me to proactively accept blame and ask that the rest of the group not be penalized.
I strive to impress on them the idea that in the professional world, owning your mistakes and failures makes you a better professional in the eyes of others. Taking responsibility for your actions is mature and professional. I got that from band, too.
I’m sure there were a few kids who couldn’t stand Mr. C, as I know there are a few who feel the same way about me.  I’m guessing Mr. C, like me, lost sleep and fretted about the unreachable student before moving on to focus on the success stories—the ones who work hard and honestly give their all.  They are the ones that give us the joy of teaching, and they’re the ones we’re delighted to see again as alumni.
You’re gone now, Mr. C, but not forgotten, and the lessons you taught us over the years are being passed on to legions of students being taught by those of us you pushed, shoved, mentored and loved into adulthood through our years in band.  Thank you.
Here are some videos of performances during my high school years, including contest programs from my sophomore year (70-71), my junior year (71-72) and my senior year (72-73) when I was the drum major. The beginning of the last one is cut off–if I can ever find a complete version I’ll re-post. 

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