What I learned from my high school drum line director

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I just fell down a rabbit hole on my high school Drumline Director’s Facebook page. Jeffery Scott Dudley is leaving Belton High School after more than twenty years of teaching kids to play music. Right now he’s the Director of Bands at BHS, but when I met him in the summer of 1995, he was a teacher I’d never heard of who asked me at band tryouts to clap to the beat. I clapped; he smiled. He put me on his list of students who could keep rhythm, a kid with drumming potential.

I was 10. I felt discovered.

That summer day started eleven years of drumming with student groups from middle school to college. Today, more than twenty years later, I find myself reading his Facebook page and welling up with pride. This is a man who made hundreds of kids feel special and most of us were nerds and geeks.

“From 8th grade to Senior year, I don’t believe anyone has had such an impact on my life,” said a young soldier on Dudley’s Facebook profile. And then from a classmate of mine who is now a mom of a beautiful family: “This man didn’t make me feel like I should give up, even though I was the WORST trombone player at Belton High School, probably ever. I just wanted to have fun in band with my friends, and he let me own it. And boy did I have fun!! Thanks for making my best high school memories possible!”

I still walk around tapping out beats on the side of my legs. I can remember the rhythms of our best cadences. Give me a few days and four mallets, and I’m sure I could get through a four-mallet marimba piece, maybe Yellow After the Rain. But that’s not the best of what he taught me.

Dudley taught me that the only standards that matter are the ones you set for yourself. And those standards… those should be really damn high.

“Listen!” Dudley would yell at us during drumline practice. “Listen to each other!” We were shrimpy, motley kids from a little town on the side of I-35. We had drums strapped to our backs, fat drumsticks in our hands. We were tapping eighth notes for thirty minutes at a time. “Fortissimo!” Our drumsticks would sail high, our wrists back, TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP TAP. “STOP!” He would interrupt us just a few beats in. Over and over and over he’d stop us if just one strike on the drum head fell off the beat. “Brent, you’re behind!” Thirteen of us– five snares, five bass, three tenors, all trying to play at once, all marking time with our feet on the sidewalk. “Stop! Brent, you are killing this for the whole group! Come on!” I remember feeling so lost. I couldn’t hear the beat. I couldn’t feel it. My feet were keeping time. My hands were moving. I couldn’t hear what Dudley was hearing. Suddenly our drum captain would be counting us in again, and we would be back at it. Eighth notes until we were precise, totally in sync. Eighth notes until we were a crisp clear unit, until suddenly we were artists making something no one expected kids to make.

I didn’t understand those moments. I would feel absolutely lost. Dudley wasn’t lost at all. He believed in an equation that it took me years to learn: practice, plus teamwork, plus more practice plus so much belief – put those things together and you can create things you never imagined. Dudley pushed us to practice, and he had enough belief for all of us.

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I loved percussion; I loved hitting things and hearing their sounds. I learned to love musicality, the softs and louds, the textures, the sum of every brass, wood, metal, and air-filled note. But Dudley took all of that and created an experience so much bigger. He changed my perception of myself, from confused 5th grader to high school bad ass.

Dudley wrote down the music from Stomp Out Loud. He watched the HBO film about music makers who drummed with trash, and he wrote out sheet music from what he heard. He started us on the piece with the brooms. We swept in time, slapped the broom heads on the ground, danced with each other. High school kids running around stage making broom music meant for stage-worthy professionals. After that it was poles and hammer handles. Then musical piece with just basketballs. After that it was other wild music – drumming in the dark with glowing sticks and then an ensemble piece meant to evoke a volcanic ritual that had us pounding log drums and chanting to the gods.

In the spring Dudley took us on tour. He got us out of class to go bang drums at elementary schools. He set up Friday night performances at what felt like the biggest show in town. In the fall, during football season we were kids apart. Before football game pep rallies we led the band in a march through our high school playing drum cadences that brought our peers out of their calculus and history and into the halls to dance. While the band made their way to their seats in the bleachers before the game, the drumline played cadences while the sky glowed orange and pink at sunset. And at halftime we played our contest season marching band performances. We flew around the football field, playing music and dancing in shapes and sounds that stunned our small town.

I was a closeted gay kid, a nerd, a middle school reject. And through music and performance, Dudley made me feel untouchable. Dudley created a program where a kid like me could feel discovered, where a kid like me could push myself to play great music and then later find play that music in front of crowds who were cheering for me. The kid who clapped to the beat in middle school never imagined that, but Dudley did. And he gave it to me. I never even had to ask.

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What I didn’t know as a middle school reject, I knew by the time I left high school – I can do more than I imagine. If I believe and show up to practice, I can make something so much bigger than anyone expected.

Seeing Dudley’s Facebook page today, I tapped into that feeling I had as a drumline senior playing cadences at football games, that feeling of being a creator, a leader, a teammate, someone capable of doing great things. Dudley, you made me feel that way. Turns out you still do. Thank you.

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