So You Want to Lead a Band? . . . by Bennett Lentczner

In February of 1962, I began teaching band at North Shore Junior High School in Glen Head, New York. I was hired for the job mid-year on the recommendation of William Strickland, the supervisor of music in Hempstead, New York, where I was completing my student teaching. My soon-to-be new boss, Ted Ryder, had contacted Mr. Strickland because he was in desperate need for someone to replace his ailing junior high band director.

Mr. Ryder came to Hempstead to observe me teach and to interview me — a not even wet-behind-the-ears fellow who had only just decided he really would like to be a teacher. During the interview, Mr. Ryder told me he had never hired anyone with less than five years of teaching experience, but because Mr. Strickland had given me such a strong recommendation, he was offering me the job. Delighted, I began an adventure in the world of teaching that has lasted a lifetime.

I approached my first day on he job with great excitement. I was a band director! My junior high student teaching experience had been in a school with an excellent band feeder program where a very fine group of elementary school teachers prepared their students for the next level of band participation. In that junior high school band, the instrumentation was complete; in North Shore’s junior high school band — not so much. After my first rehearsal at North Shore, Mr. Ryder called me into his office and asked me how it went. I said it had been just fine, except “there were no bassoons.” He looked at me with a very serious pair of eyes and said, “I know.” That is why we hired you. You want bassoons? Develop them.” Welcome to the real world of teaching instrumental music.

All these years later, I remember that challenge, how I met it, and more importantly, how meeting that obstacle subsequently led to a career as a professional bassoonist for no less than two of the students who started their adventure trusting me for guidance. Over the years, Mr. Ryder placed many challenges in front of me. He supported all of my efforts to meet them and took great pride in my accomplishments. We became very good friends, attending professional meetings together and playing golf with as much frequency as time permitted. In June of 2005, long after I had left North Shore, my former students created an Alumni Band Concert, and we dedicated it to my colleague and friend, Ted Ryder. Without Ted’s intuition about me and his trust in my ability to grow in my new and demanding profession, there would not have been an Alumni Band. He was my first real mentor.

Ted was a great believer in the New York State School Music Association (NYSSMA) festivals. He required all the ensemble directors in the district to take their groups to this annual spring adjudication event and receive comments by some of the finest teachers in the state. It was an opportunity measure our work against high performance standards as well as gain insight into how we could improve our group and our teaching. Suffice to say that my first experience with NYSSMA dealt a devastating blow to my young ego. Juilliard graduates were not accustomed to less than excellent. In the months afterwards as I looked back at that first festival performance — my band had received a humiliating D — I came to understand the importance of teaching not for a particular performance, but in a sequential manner so that my students could grow as musicians.

With Ted Ryder’s support, I gained the tools needed to apply my Juilliard education to helping students make music at a high level and feel the satisfaction of their own accomplishments. His recognition of the abilities I had developed came when he turned the high school band over to me. I remember him calling me into his office and telling me that from day one he had recognized my musical skill; now he felt I had gained sufficient technical skill in applying that musicianship, and I deserved the opportunity to conduct the North Shore High School Band. I was thrilled and vowed to make him proud of the faith he had in me. Many years later his wife told me that he was so proud of what I was able to accomplish and spoke of me often and in very flattering terms.

The high school bands I had the pleasure of directing at North Shore earned many distinctions, among them were perfect scores at annual NYSSMA festivals. None was more impressive than the perfect score awarded by composers Donald Hunsberger and Hale Smith for the performance of Hunsberger’s transcription of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Festive Overture. What I remember about the performance was that the busses that took us to the school where the festival was taking place got lost, arriving just a few minutes before we were scheduled to perform. The 105 members of the band retrieved their instruments, went on stage and warmed up on their own like any group of professional players would do, listened to a quick tuning note, and within a few minutes, we began the performance. From the first note, I knew that the days of school-level band performances with this outstanding group of players was a thing of the past. Yes, I can take credit for being their teacher, but they had transformed what they had been taught into making music — not school music.

Our next year was spent reaching for higher and higher musical goals. Against the advice of Ted Ryder, I decided to make Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy the centerpiece of our NYSSMA festival performance. His advice was not based on the ability of the band to play this extremely difficult piece, but rather, he wasn’t one hundred percent sure they could perform at the high level they were capable of in the intense environment of a festival performance. I had no doubt and neither did the band. They delivered a flawless, exciting musical performance that had all of my colleague directors and their students on their feet with thunderous applause. Wow!

My joy was short-lived. While one of the adjudicators awarded the band perfect scores in all categories, the other judge, a last minute substitute for one of New York State’s leading collegiate band directors, gave the band low marks for my having chosen a more difficult version of the Grainger piece. Because I had a fine bassoon player in the band, I had chosen the version that most bands avoid because it is so difficult. Most bands perform the version that is scored for bass clarinet. The last-minute substitute judge happened to be a bass clarinet player, and this was his only negative comment. Amazing!

Ted and I knew that this was the best high school band I had ever conducted, and he fought the rating all the way to the state level. Nothing changed, but the band understood what really mattered — the music. They had performed with maturity and musical excellence, and they knew that both Ted and I were proud of all of them.

The following is an excerpt from the tribute I wrote in remembrance of Ted for his memorial service:

More than anything else, I came to know how deeply Ted cared for kids. I know his seemingly all-business approach often masked the pride he felt for even the smallest student accomplishment, and I also know how thrilled he was when young people made good music. For him, there were no finer moments. It was what he was all about. . . .

I will remember Ted always — for the pride he had in my successes, for caring, and for teaching me that there was always more to learn. I thank him for his encouragement, his example and his friendship.

Goodbye, my friend. See you on the first “big” tee.

February 9, 2000

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This story is from an essay in Bennett Lentczner’s book, Every Step Counts, Every Word Matters!

Bennett is a member of our team.

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Read a story about a person who changed the course of a young woman’s life.