I wrote a post a while back called “A Musical Remembrance”, where I talked about a couple key musical moments that happened in my life that were profound for me. A similar topic I would like to share with you is that of memorable mentors. I have encountered a number of teachers and conductors in my life; people of authority whose position it is to impart wisdom of some sort. In my life, of all those potentially influential figures, one person has stood apart from the rest. He was the Jazz Instructor at my undergrad university (Lawrence), Fred Sturm. He passed away this August 24, 2014. Lawrence University has put up a site where folks can post their remembrances of Fred and that page just keeps filling with the most wonderful reflections. I have included the reflection I left on that site below.
Fred was so much more than a great teacher. His teaching method was founded on trust and respect. I’ve had a lot of great teachers and influences in my life but Fred was different. He had a way empowering me and trusting me to find the answer or solution. He didn’t “teach” the answer. He encouraged me to explore and find the answer in my way and then, once found, he respected what it was that I came up with. What I have been talking about thus far I realize is rather esoteric and abstract if you did not know him or what he did. Fred directed the Jazz Studies program at Lawrence, (and for a while led the Eastman Jazz program) and also taught jazz composition and arranging. I also teach both of those subjects and it is very easy to “give out the answers” rather than let the students find them for themselves. It’s easy to say, “saxes, you are rushing”, or “that note is going to be out of range for the trombone”. As a teacher it takes more creativity, patience and trust to pose the question where the student figures these things out for themselves. Fred did this, but also much more.
He was so much more than a great conductor. I have had the opportunity to play under many conductors in my career thus far. I can say without question that I have never played so hard for any other conductor. What I mean by ‘hard’ is, I prepared harder, more diligently, played with more attention and focus than any other conductor I have ever worked under. It wasn’t because Fred was in front of the band ranting and screaming at us, demanding our respect. Or, trying to intimidate us with an overly-impressive vocabulary, or tedious historical tales. Quite the opposite. Most rehearsals he was in sweat pants and a football jersey, talking or joking in his rather quiet, breathy voice. We played so hard for him because everyone in the room knew that what we were doing meant something to him. What we were doing mattered. That makes you feel amazing.
I’ve said “much more” a few times in this post already and it’s the “much more” about Fred that is difficult to articulate. Those of us that knew him share the feeling that he had a way of empowering whoever he was with and making you feel like you were the most important person in the room. When you were with him, he genuinely was interested in being with you and learning about what was going on in your life. I’ve known him since the mid-80s and every time we got together he remembered whatever trivial thing that was happening in my life or family the last time we were together.
And then there was his sense of humor… He was the absolute undisputed king of practical jokes and would go to great lengths to pull some of these now legendary events off. A quick example is when he arranged a marching band version of John Harmon’s tune “A Tale of the Whale”, then had a high school marching band march up and down in front of John Harmon’s playing said arrangement at 7am on John’s 50th birthday. Not your typical birthday card… There are dozens of these kind of stories and some of them recounted on the Lawrence Remembrance site.
Here’s what I posted on that site; (I had sent Fred an email saying much of what I wrote. I just felt like checking in with him for some reason and telling him how much he meant to me. I sent my email on August 24.)
I love Fred for all the musical passion he passed on to me as his “favorite” student. (This is how we all felt, isn’t it?”) I’ve tried to model my teaching after his. I even went back to LU to shadow him for a day once I became a director of my own jazz program. I wanted to make sure my childhood memories of teaching greatness were founded. Fred did not disappoint. His musical impact is well documented among these wonderful memories given by friends, students and colleagues.
However, I would like to share a different connection I had with Fred that was perhaps even more profound for me. I wrote to Fred in May, to tell him I was diagnosed with cancer. He wrote back in about 45 seconds with an email as long as your arm. His email was full of hope and optimism, saying things like “you may not believe this now, but this could be the most profound thing that has ever happened to you and great things will come of this!” A couple of weeks ago I decided to check in and give him an update and tell him that ‘once again’, he was right. I wanted to tell him how I thought about what he had written and what a difference it made in my life. I don’t know if I would have been able to see through my self pity to realize a grander overall view of a life altering event, like cancer. I wanted to tell him that my view of life will now forever be different. I wanted to tell him how he now influences my students. I wanted to tell him “I love you, Fred.”