Jerry Oliver was The Best Music Teacher Ever. He was a percussionist beyond compare, featured on national television at an NFL halftime show playing, stroke for stroke, Gene Krupa’s fabulous drum solo in Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing.” He brought that talent to the Thayer High School Marching Bobcat Band, where we entertained the town at high school football games.
I scoff when I hear band students talking about “this year’s marching competition show.” The Thayer Marching Bobcat Band did a new show at every home game, and a new show for every competition – which we, of course, won, though we were about one-third the size of other schools. Our high school had about 150 students, and by the time I was a junior in high school, the band and choir numbered 100 each.
I remember the first band practice Mr. Oliver held – on a Tuesday night a couple of weeks before school started. That meant we were in the band room on a hot, stuffy August night, and we were all sweating profusely. I remember the cacophony when he brought his arms down to begin directing “The Notre Dame Fight Song.” It was horrible.
But by the end of the evening, we sounded like a band. He led us into unbelievable territory, presenting halftime shows that were creative and spectacular. Because the football team, bless their hearts, was so bad, Mr. Oliver insisted the football boys who played in the band march during the halftime shows, wearing their pads and their band hats. Cheerleaders marched, too, wearing our cheerleading uniforms and our band hats.
We ran on the field, played “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” (with tympani), did a field parade, and then launched into a show that may have featured the band spelling “OHELL” to “Hi, Neighbor,” and then cleverly changing that formation to “HELLO” as Mr. Oliver, reading the script, said that he didn’t know what he was going to do with us. One time, we put pin lights in our hats and formed a treble clef sign to “Say it With Music” – and we did it in the dark. We memorized all our music – all of it.
We were legend at State Music Contest, where all our ensembles, both instrumental and vocal, received I ratings. We followed each other, like lemmings, into the rooms where we performed to audiences that came to expect our beautiful music.
Regardless of Mr. Oliver’s “wonderfulness,” he had one downfall. He got really, really, nervous. When we did sight reading at contest, we had difficulty distinguishing the downbeat because he was shaking so much. After a few years, he couldn’t even come into our contest rooms as we performed because he got so wound up in our music.
And the worst was the year that we stopped for breakfast at Shoney’s on our way to a marching contest in Memphis. Mr. Oliver couldn’t remember whether he had taken his little blue “nerve pill,” so he took one – but he had already taken one! In a few minutes, he was happily being walked around the Shoney’s parking lot by the chaperones. Eventually he walked alone – and could read the script to the show.
Oh, and we won there, too.
The reason I am telling you this is because I am waking up nights in anticipation of this Sunday. I am now the music director at Broadway Presbyterian Church, and this Sunday, we are presenting our annual Christmas program; however, this year, the program is all music.
The choir will sing, soloists will sing both traditional and contemporary Christmas music, we will have a group that will do some blues with harmonica, and some music will be instrumental solos. And I am nervous, just like Mr. Oliver!
I hold no illusion that I can do with musicians what he did with us, but I hope beyond hope that all our work will pay off, and the music we present will be spectacular for the community - and for a higher power.
So come watch me be nervous and hear some beautiful music for the season, 4 p.m. Sunday at Broadway Presbyterian: Be there!