Sometimes, with the pressures of the outside world looming, family can be the only grounding force in one's life. It can be that place to find ourselves - the truths of where we stand politically, where we celebrate successes together, discuss how to tackle the tough day ahead - and possibly how to grow emotionally.
To me, family life is like a nature hike, through Kettle Moraine State Park, during fall with its many foliage colors: up, over, and around the hills and glacial drumlins, sometimes in the sun, sometimes during the rain.
To some, it can be like hiking up Mt. Rainier or falling into the deep cold of a glacier's crevasse.
As a percussion instructor, I've found many of these similes hold true for my "extended family."
I am so fortunate to have maintained wonderful, family-like relationships with many of my past students and parents (social media - yes!), and have amazing work relationships with my current students - many of whose parents I also count as friends.
Moments in the sun
Music is one of those endeavors that, if started young, will stick with people throughout life. It may take on different forms, but will always remain an underlying thread as they maneuver toward their life's pursuits.
Most high school musicians will not pursue music professionally after graduation. I have former students who are lawyers, nurses, stay-at-home moms, high school teachers, pharmacists and travel agents. Others are pursuing black studies, social work and ... medicine.
Jeff Denninger took lessons from me for five years. He graduated from Hamilton High School in Sussex, Wis., in 2007. There, he played with the school band program's very competitive drum line, and was successful in the band's solo and ensemble competition at both district and state levels. He worked very hard at developing his drumming skills and hand technique. He was an exceptional reader of music.
"One of my favorite lesson memories was getting to sit in for a song with your band at a gig," Jeff says. "Another great memory was when I was struggling with, I think, a drum solo piece and it just clicked and I finally was able to get it. It was a great feeling, kind of like I conquered that piece."
After high school, he furthered his studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, graduating with a degree in biology in 2011.
Presently, Jeff is working toward his graduate degree as a physician's assistant at Barry University in Miami.
"Being down here I miss having my drum set to help me release a bit of stress and take my mind off of school; no room for the set in the apartment," he says. "And I don’t think my neighbors would like it. Haha."
Congrats on your many successes to date, and "break-a-leg" on that master's degree.
I'm proud of you, Jeff!
A chilly, dark climate
This next story is difficult to relay because of its shocking nature. It happened to one of the students with a learning disability I presently work with, and his dad.
The mom related this story to me and others: "Some people are such idiots. My husband took our son to see a movie last night. I guess my son was tapping the seat in front of him. My husband never saw it and this guy turned around and started screaming at my son. My husband said he was sorry he didn't notice what our son was doing. The guy said he had been giving our son dirty looks for the past 20 minutes. My husband explained that our son is autistic and apologized. The guys just told my husband, 'Train your kid. It's respect you jerk.' My husband had to control his emotions. After the movie he again said he was sorry and the guy told him, 'F--- you.' How can some people be so stupid?"
When asking the mother if I could use this story in my post, she said:
"I'm sure that is fine. I will let my husband know. He doesn't like talking about it as it just gets him upset. That guy was such a jerk. I'm proud of both my husband and son for keeping control."
I asked the mom if I might use their story because I want to expose the outright ignorance that occurred.
I want to expose it because of how this run-in affected the family: They were bullied! Plain and simple. Someone was trying to inflict his will onto another, trying to squash it, silence it.
And the bullying didn't stop until long after the incident occurred. The family carried the feelings home and thought about it many times since then.
We've all experienced circumstances where, at the time, we're just shocked. We're confused in how to respond. We can't believe this just happened to us!
I can certainly understand the frustration of having the back of my seat kicked for an extended period of time. I could even understand a certain amount of irritation coming through in asking that the action be stopped. But to assume the people behind you are idiots, incapable of respect, or that the kicking is known about and just ignored - well, you see, that is a lot of presumption left to chance. Then to scream out your point in a movie theater?!
The pièce de résistance? After the folks were apologized to twice, told that the kicking wasn't known about - and that autism had come into play - the response? "F--- you."
The bullies probably thought they had the last word in this. They probably felt vindicated by their actions. Maybe, they even felt like they were doing themselves and the folks around them some good by "making an example out of this kid."
Dudes - all you did was put out in public how narrow-minded, insensitive, hateful and stupid (in the proper sense of the word) you really are.
The father and son who were affronted with this extreme bullying are more than an extended family - to me, they are heroes.
Sure, there was the confusion of the moment, the emotional stress, the shock, possibly a tinge of embarrassment (public location), and the dad having to really fight to keep his composure. But, in the face of bullying, cruelty and ignorance, they did not respond in kind.
My student's mom says she's proud of both of them.
I am too.
I'm also very proud of the rest of the family for being so supportive after the fact.
Love really does win in the end!!
The shocking reality of losing a young one, then trying to deal with the numbing grief, can feel like a mountain that just keeps growing higher. One may never reach the top; it's insurmountable.
This happened to the families of two former students. One that still seems like just a few years ago, but in reality, was more than 17. The other was very recent.
Adam was an awesome kid. He had a smile that could light up a room, and that toothy grin usually had a very precocious-sounding laugh associated with it. In fact, if I listen to my memories very closely, I can still hear him.
That's what I remember most about Adam. Many of the other memories I have are fuzzy-edged snapshots, slightly yellowed by the 17 years since his passing.
I remember that I taught him on Saturday mornings, and that he loved playing his drums - usually to some pretty rockin' tunes!
Adam learned to read rhythmical notation pretty well for both snare drum and drum set. In fact, if I remember correctly, toward the end of his lessons, we were working on transcribing (writing out music parts from ear) the drum set parts to some of his favorite tunes. Then, he could put on headphones, have his hand-written music on the stand in front of him to read, and play to the transcribed tune.
"I remember a song he would practice over and over again on the drums. I don't remember what he called it, but I believe it was a song that you helped him make for some talent show," his brother, Andrew, shares. "I don't quite remember the beat, but I remember the fill he would use over and over. I remember trying to play it for you in one of our lessons and you seemed to recognize it. Funny how music can prime a memory and make it so strong."
I remember his family invited mine to Adam's house for a pool party and a cookout, and I played basketball in the driveway with his older sister, Andrea.
Amy, Adam's younger sister, was running around and playing. My wife remembers Andrew, his brother, being so little at the time. I didn't know it, but I would end up teaching all four of the Velic kids.
Adam's parents were such gracious hosts.
Near this time, Adam had had surgery for a rapidly developing brain cancer.
"Adam's tumor was a neuroblastoma. Not commonly manifesting in the brain," Andrea says. "Maybe that's why it was so hard to treat Adam?"
The doctors did their best; however, the cancer came back. Adam passed away fairly quickly on June 16, 1995, just shy of his 15th birthday.
But his musical influence lives on.
"Jim, I just wanted to say thank you for how much you have taught me with drumming. I know I wouldn't be the same person without your guidance. Music has always been a huge part of my life," reflects Andrew, who is now taking classes in biology and working toward a degree in premed with a minor in psychology. "I will sit in the library for hours studying, and have people tap me on the shoulder and ask me to stop tapping my hands and feet so loud. I don't have the opportunity to play as much as I would like. But, I will hold on to my drum set and Adam's kit until I'm dead."
Thank you Andrea, Amy and Andrew, for helping me recall the details of Adam's far-too-short life.
"Of course," said Amy. "You are family to us."
Sleep well, Adam.
Wes was one easygoing, but crazy-for-drums dude. He was a big guy with an expressive face and curly hair that, when longer, just wouldn't quit!
He was so much fun to teach. I could assign him any exercise or music -- especially double-bass patterns -- and he would attack! He had to play those patterns as fast as he could, until he broke a sweat.
When I sent Wes home with some painfully challenging, four-way "limb-breaking", double-kick drum work, he would never give up on it. He took it as a personal challenge. At his lesson, if something took him a while to get, he'd get this quirky, awesomely funny look of frustration on his face. Then, he'd laugh at himself - with a laugh that was funny in itself!
Beyond the drumming, those are some of the memories I cherish most about Wes.
That, and his big heart. Because of this, he'd accumulated some very close friends.
"I have had a lot of influences on my drumming and life in general," reflects Alex Pulvermacher, "but none of them could ever compare to Wes. He was one of my best friends. He sold me his drum kit, and every time I play he's not far from my mind. He was the reason I picked up my drum sticks for the last 12 years, and continue to do so. I know wherever he is, he's shaking his first at me for not practicing my rudiments. "
Wes' mom Barb, was his biggest drumming supporter.
"I remember being the bus driver for Wes and his friends, to and from various concerts," Barb muses. "The Rave, Oz Fest, Shorewood VFW, a jazz band at a book store, and many drum clinics. And then there was the time I took the guys to see a certain cool drum teacher, Jim Kube, at one of his gigs."
Reflecting on that past moment, I can still envision Wes at the gig, but viewing him from the stage. Time stands still. What a precious memory!
On July 13, 2012, while readying himself for work, Wes had an epileptic seizure. He fell and hit his head on the bathroom door. He never regained consciousness, and died three days later.
While raising kids, parents frequently tell them, "Slow down and pay attention to the love in the family. It is precious, and shouldn't be taken for granted."
Thanks for that reminder, Wes. You were precious, indeed!
Wes' mom misses him dearly, but she tells me he was an organ donor. "He has already saved the lives of two men with his kidneys and restored the sight of two other people, so Wes lives on. I am so proud of him for giving these gifts of himself."
Wes, rest peacefully my friend. But - not too peacefully. Look up Adam. I know he'd be up for some drummin'!
Many thanks to my wife Kat, who is managing editor at a magazine. Her council throughout this posting was invaluable. Her editing skills, exceptional. Thanks, Hon.
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