This past Saturday I received word that one of my gradeschool music teachers, Mr. Conrad Ross, had passed away at the age of 88. Overshadowed a bit by the death of another of my musical inspirations, Tony Bennett, truth be told I learned a lot more from Mr. Ross than from Mr. Bennett.
I met Mr. Ross in the fall of 1991. I was a fourth-grade student at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School, and Mr. Ross was the orchestra teacher. I learned much later that Mr. Ross was not an orchestra teacher at all; his instrument was the trumpet, and he’d been teaching band for 30 years. With dwindling enrollment and musical interest in the Binghamton City School District there had been some reshuffling of teachers, and Mr. Ross ended up teaching band at one school and orchestra at another. That I learned all of this only years later was a testament to his good nature and old-school sense of purpose. I’m on the other side of the business now, and I’ve seen teachers with far less seniority throw a fit at the thought of having to change assignments. Mr. Ross took it in stride.
And, coincidentally, I ended up being a direct beneficiary of his teaching at two different schools… because I went to both.
After two enjoyable years of playing the ‘cello in the Thomas Jefferson Elementary orchestra I came to West Middle School, where Mr. Ross was the band director and my clarinet teacher. Actually we began two months before, as Mr. Ross led a summer program at the school I attended in July and August of ’93. Thirty years later I’m the summer school teacher, not teaching the subject I’d wanted to teach originally, never thinking I’d love being a teacher so much I’d want to do it in the summer, and, according to my students, wearing a uniform each day a few decades out of style. On days I wear my glasses, I am Mr. Ross. And I wear the label with pride.
I had the benefit of many great teachers in middle school and high school, and I sort of patterned my own life after a few of the male teachers I had. At the top of the list would be my own father and grandfather, and Conrad Ross wasn’t far behind. The thing about music teachers is you have them for more than one year, and in an interesting twist I had Mr. Ross for five years in a row. I never heard him raise his voice once, and for what it’s worth I really did become at least somewhat proficient at the ‘cello and the clarinet. Sadly within months of having new teachers I quit playing both of those instruments, but the musical appreciation I picked up 30 years ago I still hold dear. I didn’t become a professional musician or a music teacher, but it’s been a favored hobby of mine for three decades. And counting. Playing music you can do your whole life (Mr. Ross was still playing and writing about music into his eighties), and allows you to meet people you might not otherwise know, sharing in the enjoyable goal of performance. They don’t call it working music; it’s playing music.
I finished eighth grade and my days at West Middle School in 1996, and Mr. Ross retired shortly thereafter. He still lived near the school and we’d run into each other from time to time. Same kindly expression he had every day at school. A little like Mr. Rogers or the musical grandfather you never had. I believe there’s a cliche in here about “not making them like they used to.”
Well, I’m trying.