Musical memories at NHS

Brian Golden

My musical experiences as a youth at Norwich High School began rather dubiously, to say the least. I was all of 14 years old my freshman year and I’d picked up the guitar with serious intentions to master the instrument just a few months prior to the start of school in the fall of 1991. And since my homeroom just happened to be NHS music teacher Miss Mayo’s classroom, I immediately found myself acquainted with the adjacent music wing.

Needless to say, it wasn’t long until I convinced Miss Mayo that I had some aptitude on the guitar and, following my offer to re-string the four or five new acoustic instruments the school had acquired, I was given permission to grab one whenever I liked. And so it began.

From that time forth I could usually be found, at any given time of day, occupying the music wing hallway, strumming away and struggling to force the sounds tumbling about in my head through my fingertips and onto the fretboard. I was somewhat musically possessed (and by somewhat I mean completely) by that time and typically practiced at least four to five hours per day, if not more. I was convinced I could replicate the music of Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan, among others, if I simply paid my dues and practiced my tail off.

My sophomore year found me in the same spot, practicing the same techniques and with a much better grasp of the instrument. And then something happened which, in all likelihood, changed my life forever.

At that time, in 1992, Don Burke was the band director at NHS and in all honesty I’d always been a little terrified of the man. I was well aware that there were no guitars in the symphonic, concert or marching bands, therefore I reasoned that Mr. Burke probably had very little use for me or my constant practicing right outside his doorway. I couldn’t have been more mistaken as I was blissfully unaware of the existence of the Jazz Band and jazz music in general. So when Mr. Burke stuck his head out of his office one day and asked me to come inside I was fairly certain I was about to receive a tongue-lashing and subsequent order to ply my musical trade elsewhere. I was wrong.

Instead, Mr. Burke sat me down and asked if I’d ever heard of Pat Metheny, jazz guitarist extraordinaire, following which he played me a recording of Methany’s “Third Wind.” The music itself was unlike anything I’d ever heard and I’ll admit I was interested in where exactly this little visit was leading. In the end – it landed me smack dab in the middle of the Norwich Purple Tornado Marching Band Pit Orchestra. Burke and his fellow directors had decided upon a Metheny-themed program that year and I guess he figured, “Hey, I’ve got this annoying but somewhat talented guitarist sitting outside my door every day, I might as well make use of him.”

Thank goodness for that.

Due to Mr. Burke’s interest I ended up following a much different path than I’d ever imagined. Marching Band immediately led to my joining Jazz Band, which led to spots in the Symphonic and Concert Bands, Choir and the Madrigal singers. Even more surprising – all of this eventually led me to a short but informative gig at Ithaca College, studying Jazz Improvisation of all things.

When informed I would be covering the local Marching Band earlier this week, I’ll admit I got a little excited. A chance to revisit NHS and the band’s practice field was a wonderful experience which brought back numerous memories – old friends, mentors and relationships which I had not thought of in over a decade. My best wishes go out to the Purple Tornado Marching Band as they kick-off the 2010 season and I hope the students involved in the ensemble come out of it with the same respect and fond memories that I did back in the day. The band may be a bit smaller now, and while most things are never quite the same after 15 years, it’s nice to know that some things never change.