Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Letter

The great hunt is on. The search is for a document that is almost a quarter of a century old -- a magazine article. We now figure that there is an 80% probability it is somewhere with my ex-wife. The search is on. I've also started an online search, but have only taken the preliminary steps which have been unsuccessful. It was my plan to wait until I had the article in hand before writing this vignette, but I have become impatient. I will publish the article when I get it. But for now...

My daughter was a sophomore, or maybe a junior, in high school. She reported to the band hall one morning in December and was assembling her flute and preparing to take her seat with the band when the office door opened and the Band Director bellowed, "Elleana. Step in here please."

A hush fell over the band students. Being summoned to the Band Director's office was rarely a positive experience.  My daughter rose hesitantly and walked slowly toward the office. She looked back at the seated band and shrugged her shoulders mouthing, "I don't know" to her band mates.

Mr. Valdez -- a burly mustached man,  was seated at his desk. He was extraordinarily successful at his job. In his first three years on the job this band had risen to become one of the top three bands in the state in both marching and concert performance. This previously unknown band had become a powerhouse in the world of Texas high school bands.

"Yes sir?" My daughter stood in front of his desk.

"Did you write a letter to the Plano Band Director?"

Immediately fearful that she had violated some chain-of-command protocol, she stumbled, "I uh, don't...letter?"

"Back in October, did you write a letter to the Band Director of Plano High School?"

Back in October. That was in the middle of marching band season. There were something like 400 bands working and sweating, perfecting their performance shows in preparation for the University Interscholastic League competition. Part of the process was for bands to compete in independent competitions in front of professional adjudicators (judges) to hone their skills. The race to the top was sometimes contentious, especially with the top bands. Sometimes bitter feelings erupted.

Plano had one of the top five bands in the state. The school sponsored an independent marching competition and invited the best bands in the state. They hired the best adjudicators to strictly judge each band on show quality and difficulty, as well as marching and music performance. They each had recorders and would  vocally record every misstep, missed note, crooked line, and hone in on individual posture, music presentation, show design...and on and on. To win the Plano competition was an accomplishment. To not win meant that you took the judges comments to heart and went back home and worked on correcting mistakes.

So many times when a band won a competition, other bands would turn their backs on them...mutter rude comments or disparage their accomplishment. There were always bad feelings at these events.

It was expected that the Plano band would win. They had a powerful reputation. Their band sat in the stands next to our band and watched as the competition progressed. Since Plano was hosting the competition, they were to perform last. When it was time for Elleana's band to perform, they went onto the field and did marvelously. One thing rocked the band. As the performance ended, the Plano band stood up and cheered our band. We didn't see this often. When the Plano band performed, they were magnificent -- so our kids returned the favor by cheering them.

All of the bands were back in the stands awaiting the results of the judging. Finally the announcements were made. Each band was rated in five categories -- as well as rated in their placement among the performing bands. Finally it was down to the final two bands. Our band came in first and won the competition.

Against all previous experience, the Plano band let out a rousing cheer for us and their band members come rushing down to greet and congratulate our band, hugging and telling the kids how awesome we were and that our band was truly the best. Our kids were dumbfounded...and many stood there crying at this dramatic show of support.

Our band finally made it to the buses for the four-hour drive back home. Elleana made it in around 2:00 in the morning.

At 2:30 I saw that Elleana's bedroom light was on. I entered and asked her if she was okay. With tears in her eyes she said that she was writing a letter to the Plano band thanking them for what they did. I didn't know that this thank-you letter ended up being four pages long. The next day she mailed it.

As Elleana stood nervously in front of Mr. Valdez in his office that December morning, he looked her in the eye and said, "The Plano Band Director needs your permission to quote from your letter for an article he is writing for the Texas Music Educator magazine. Does he have your permission?"

"Uh...yeah. I guess."

Elleana was dismissed. But before she could open the office door, the Band Director said, "Good job Elleana."

What did she write in that letter?

She first thanked the Band Director and the Plano Band for their outpouring of friendship and support. Then she talked about the purpose of Music Education in schools and how it had gotten side-tracked into this race to become the winner. She discussed what music should be about and how we are losing our focus. She said that she was so thankful to the Plano band for bringing it all back into focus and she said that if we can't support each other and help each other then it simply wasn't worth it.

The Plano Band Director read this letter to his band who listened to it with tears streaming down their cheeks. He thanked his band for their character. The Director was so struck by Elleana's message he submitted an article to the magazine essentially asking 'how can this student have it so right and how can so many of us educators have it so wrong?' He then included the letter in his article.

The article was published in the next issue of the magazine. It received a lot of attention with many follow-up articles written by others addressing the subject.

If I remember correctly, Plano won the UIL competition at the University of Texas stadium that year, and our band came in second. The Plano band received overwhelming cheers and hugs and congratulations from our kids, their most ardent supporters.

The evolution of a Musician Letter Writer. Who woulda' thought...


  1. What a wonderful story and what a wonderful ending. Love the pictures.

  2. Gosh, Dad! I think you probably scored yourself a guaranteed, permanent place in the heart of one very lovely, very accomplished, very caring young woman. I think she got her letter writing excellence honestly.

  3. I wonder where that beautiful daughter of yours got her ability to see *the point*... along with the ability to put it beautifully to words....hmm? (Good job Dad.)

  4. Aaah, you got me all teary-eyed! Teenagers are not usually seen for getting the point of something so early in their lives, let alone being able to put it in words in a four page letter! That says a lot about not only her but the people who have raised her. Since this didn't just happen yesterday, I'm wondering what that letter would look like in today's language shorthand as seen on cellphone texting and twitter! (Don't you get all teary-eyed when you look back at some of these old photos? I know I do!)

  5. Just when you leat expect it, they make ya proud. Ain't it great :}

  6. Daughters can be totally awesome. I know!

  7. You sound like you have an amazing daughter who has an appreciation for others as well as a gift for the written word....just like her dad!

  8. Both of you can be proud of your accomplishments. Thanks for a great post!

  9. We definitely know where she got her writing talent, but what an awesome experience it was for both sides. I think it is one of the top best high school stories I have heard. You must be buttonless from your chest expanding so profoundly from all your pride. You have on exceptional daughter to have written such a letter. Jerry, you have done a GREAT job raising your kids! Congratulations.

  10. Great story! So true about the music education. My kids have benefited in countless ways from their experiences in band, orchestra and choir. I can't imagine that ever disappearing out of our schools.

  11. This is, without a doubt, absolutely beautiful. What a wonderful girl you have there - and yourselves to thank. Even at such a young age - she was so very wise. Thank you for sharing this - and the wonderful pictures of your beautiful girl. I hope you find the article!

  12. Simply wonderful. We need more of this.

  13. I almost cried. Great story!

  14. I so love that story and you have to be button busting proud.
    Kudos to Plano, kudos to your daughter and the parents who raised her right.
    Hope you find that article. Thanks to the Internet, it is out there somewhere.

  15. thank you, Jerry. you brought tears to my eyes :)

  16. That is a wonderful account!
    ...and I particularly like the second from last photo...

  17. I do so love your family tales. Isn't it wonderful when our kids put into practice the values we hope we've instilled?

    There are days when parenting isn't such a bad gig ;)

  18. fine simply fine, both accounts..these are "real" stories of heros.

  19. that was a wonderful teaches so much more than most realize

  20. Thanks for sharing the inspirational story Jerry. Glad that your daughter took time to compose such a letter--that is a rarity today.

  21. Oh, Jerry. I can totally see "Musician Letter Writer" written all over that adorable little face. Especially in those chubby cheeks in the first photo.

    What an amazing testament to the poise and honor young people are capable of makes no excuses for the behavior we often see from many kids.

    Kudos in raising two great ones, my friend.

  22. Such a positive story. What a brilliant, lovely girl!

  23. Having been in marching band and even still being "in band" today, I totally appreciate this. I miss the magic of marching band in high school! Good for her to write such a powerful thank you letter!

  24. What a great story - a teary eyed, heart warming story! And how much more meaningful since it was about your own flesh and blood! :) Did you ever find the article? I am super curious now!