Since childhood, I have directed every effort toward becoming a teacher, principally due to the influence of Mr. Melvin L. Harris, Jr., a teacher and Instrumental Music Director whom I wished to emulate. While performing is an imperative, I consider myself to be “a teacher who plays, rather than a player who teaches.”
In July of 2015, I was privileged to be the Speaker at a ceremony honoring Mr. Harris, including the naming of a portion of US Route 50 in Salisbury, Maryland "Melvin L. Harris, Jr. Way." A great tribute to a great man.
Whether in the classroom, the rehearsal hall, or the private applied studio, I endeavor to teach by example, by inspiration, and by encouragement. The results have often been extraordinary, many students attesting to this.
I ask that my students become pluralistic aestheticians (this term borrowed from Dr. George Thaddeus Jones) in the study and performance of music, and I direct their studies toward the ultimate objective of becoming literate, competent, functional musicians, regardless of specific discipline.
I consider myself to be an amalgam of the great teachers from whom I received my training. Let me tell you about these remarkable musicians and scholars.
Preëminent among these is George Thaddeus Jones, Professor Emeritus of Music Theory and Composition from Catholic University. In the short space of time that I knew him, his influence upon me, and his dissemination of knowledge to me was profound, an epiphany. Additionally many other teachers who trained me were either disciples or close colleagues of Dr. Jones, including Dr. Robert Wayne Ricks, Dr. Paul Garvin Taylor, Dr. James Vincent Badolato, Dr. (and Sr.) Cyrilla Patricia Barr, and Dr. Steven Strunk.
Dr. Strunk, who possessed a mind of the first order, guided my research through both Masters and Doctoral studies. He distilled my all-too-often scattered thoughts into as coherent a presentation as possible and, believe me, he had his work cut out for him! I received other invaluable training from him in the heuristics and processes employed for understanding music. As we both shared a passion for Jazz, that made for some very interesting conversations as well. He was a brilliant man.
Dr. Paul Taylor was not only my teacher, but a friend and mentor as well. Countless times, when he was literally inundated with his duties as Associate Dean of the School of Music, he put all aside to give of his time and skill. Many times, when I considered chucking the whole thing, he provided guidance and encouragement. He was a “second advisor” for my dissertation, and his suggestions were invaluable. In the classroom, he unveiled many things and his nonpareil organizational skills and classroom techniques are those that I strive to emulate.
Dr. Cyrilla Barr made the history of music become a living entity. In her lectures, she led all of us beyond the surface events of timeline and analogy. In the context of any historical era she wove a constant thread of transcendent style and idea, the “aura of the era,” coupling music with contemporaneous history and philosophy, and binding all with insightful presentations of cogent examples from the literature. Her lectures were powerful experiences. On a prosaic note, she gently quashed my childish jejune presumptions and biases and taught me to love Opera.
Dr. Gerald Francis Muller was my composition teacher as well as my “Boss” at Montgomery College. I learned much from him in lessons, as well as just “hanging around” and stealing his ideas about music, conducting, composing, teaching and so forth. He allowed me many opportunities, far more than I deserved or was prepared for, and yet he never lost faith, and always encouraged me, especially after my inevitable egregious errors (of which there were many). He taught me how to make students give of their best.
Dr. James Vincent Badolato, a former colleague, and for my part, an indispensable mentor, is a superlative musician, composer, arranger, theorist, and teacher. I constantly badgered him for information-frankly I coveted his brain-on every subject imaginable: theory, jazz harmony, composing, arranging, everything. He is the master of all these things. The standing joke among those of us who hold him awe is, “he’s forgotten more than we will ever know.”
Wayne Cameron is a colleague at Shepherd University. He is a virtuoso trumpeter and an outstanding and seasoned conductor. Wayne was a graduate student when I was an undergrad. I spent many hours just “hanging around” absorbing what he had to say. The amount of information thus acquired was exponentially disproportionate to the time I spent with him as well as my ability to absorb it! When we re-connected years later at Shepherd, we immediately found that we had many things in common musically, artistically, and personally. My true regret is that I never studied privately with Wayne: “if I knew then what I know now...”
I mentioned the late, great Bill Potts. Bill, a renowned figure in the Jazz world, seems to have been everywhere, done everything, known everyone. Very early, he “took me under his wing,” and gave me countless opportunities. Bill was responsible for giving me my first shot in the college classroom and rehearsal hall. More than that he was a fount of knowledge and wisdom and he taught me how to swing, a process that I’m still learning. When I can play five-voiced swinging solos like Bill, I’ll know I made it!
Dr. Robert Wayne Ricks, Professor Emeritus at CUA, with whom I studied conducting and theory , was instrumental in shaping the way I think about music. He has this uncanny ability (although he denies it!) to point to some event or passage in a score and suddenly, it seems that new worlds emerge. He has shown me many things this way, often as we met by chance in some hallway or stairwell. His classes were among the most valuable to my development. Much of my classroom technique is derived from him. He was Reader for my Dissertation, a thankless and grueling task, considering my writing and often incomprehensible expressions of ideas. With me, he displayed the patience of Job.
I am sad to say that Dr. Ricks passed away in his sleep. All who knew him and those of us privileged to be his students miss him greatly.
I ask your indulgence here. I would rather tell you about these wonderful musicians than employ “felony use of first-person singular.” They are great artists, great teachers, and I owe each of them an incalculable debt.
Mark Andrew Cook, Ph.D.