Friday, January 13, 2017

The Forgotten Ones

I had forgotten Gordon Bischoff, my middle school band director.  Thanks to Donald Trump, he was brought back into my life. At least Trump's done one good thing.

See, I started communicating with my middle school pal, Tim Lyke, after the election.  Tim lives in the town we grew up in - Ripon, Wisconsin (really, you should click on that.  You're going to be surprised.). In fact, he publishes the local newspaper.  The fact that Tim's bio is in the midst of all of his employees' bios here should give you a sense of what type of person he is.  Warm, great sense of humor, smart - that's some of Tim's better qualities.  We see each other on Facebook occasionally; we haven't seen other in person for a few years.  When Tim and I talk, it feels like we last spoke a few days ago.  That's the friendship we have.

Ironically, as Tim and I were reinvigorating our conversation, Mr. Bischoff died.  Don't worry, he was 90. I must admit, I hadn't thought about him for years.  Which was unfortunate, but to be expected.

Some mentors just never leave our awareness.  I have one I talk to regularly.  I thank her regularly.  I see her on Facebook all the time. She saved my life when I was a teenager. I'm not kidding. Others do great work and slip into the fringes of our memories.  That's what happened with Mr. Bischoff.

Look, he was a fine teacher.  I remember he'd get a little ornery.  He was exacting, insistent, would occasionally crack a joke.  and you know what?  He had a HUGE influence on my life.  HUGE. I became the musician I am today because Mr. Bischoff insisted that I hold that quarter note for the entire beat, tap my right foot, not my left foot, that I practice that phrase again.  All those little pieces that, in the end, added up to an unbelievable musical education.

Tim tells it even better than I do right here. If you're feeling lazy, I've published the entire piece at the end of this post.

Real music.
My friend, Tim Lyke and our middle school band director, Mr Gordon Bischoff

Here's to the forgotten mentors of your life.

Column: Mentor, student make music with licorice stick, sludge pump

By:  Tim Lyke, Publisher, Ripon Commonwealth Press
Wednesday, September 9, 2015

GROWING UP IN RIPON in the 1970s, I respected, revered and (a little bit) feared two men who still live in our city: Gordon Bischoff and Dave Schanke.

They were my middle school and high school band directors, respectively.

Every week from sixth to 12 grades, I paid a one-on-one visit with these fellows for a trombone lesson. (Come to think of it, given my assault on their ears, they probably feared me, too.)

The night before my lessons, my heartbeat quickened, my hands turned sweaty and my stomach churned as I realized that again, best intentions to practice my horn every night had been for naught.

So I’d try to cram a week’s worth of rehearsing into a single night — the dreaded lesson eve. The next morning, I’d face the music (using the term very loosely).

Messrs. Bischoff and Schanke were on to my scam, but I was well behaved and rarely emptied my spit valve into Janelle Schulz’s saxophone in front of me, so I usually got away with a B in band.

I still play trombone today — even get paid for it, on occasion, which seems criminal, given how much I enjoy it.

I am indebted to Mr. Bischoff for getting me started and never giving up on me, even when it seems I had given up on myself.

HE COULD SEEM STERN. But his guidance, patience and encouragement were unwavering.

Perhaps Mr. Bischoff endured me and my classmates because he knew that he could escape us novices on those fall Sundays when the Packers played at home.

He’d drive up to Lambeau Field to play his clarinet with the Green Bay Packer Band — one of Wisconsin’s finest ensembles.

This was in the Lombardi era, when the Packers were at their peak. You could turn on your TV after church and, at halftime, see your band teacher accompanying America’s best team with what surely had to be America’s best team band.

SINCE GRADUATING, I’VE run into Mr. Bischoff around town now and then.

I’m no longer intimidated by the man I now address as “Gordy,” though my respect for him is undiminished.

I hadn’t seen him for about a year when I spotted him a couple weeks ago while visiting my mom at Prairie Place.

Now 89, Mr. Bischoff , was in the assisted living facility’s less-skilled unit, his clarinet case by his side.

I asked if he was performing for residents. He explained that he wasn’t sure how he got there but needed a ride home to be with wife Joan. (Staff told me Mr. Bischoff now lives at Prairie Place and that I should not offer him a ride.)

During daily visits to Mom I would occasionally bump into Mr. Bischoff ; I’d remind him that I was among the hundreds if not thousands of Ripon students he taught to play an instrument.

“Such a rich legacy you leave with the joy of music you have given them,” I’d say.

I’d tell Mr. Bischoff that he taught me to play the trombone more than 40 years ago. “You get all the blame for that,” I’d add.

He’d slowly smile.

I’d then ask him if I could one day play a duet with him, noting I’d be thrilled to play with a guy who used to perform for Bart Starr, Jerry Kramer and Fuzzy Thurston.

He’d slowly nod his head, indicating the thrill would be mine alone.

ONE WEDNESDAY AFTERnoon I was delivering Commonwealths to Prairie Place when I came upon Mr. Bischoff standing in the dining room in front of a music stand, giving a mid-afternoon concert to resident Fern Wagner and an aide or two as they would walk by.

I ran out to my car and grabbed my trombone.

He graciously watched as I assembled it and stood next to him.

Together, we played part of “Stars and Stripes Forever” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

The pieces were simple, and I know there was a time when Mr. Bischoff could have improvised solos and harmonies and runs. But that day, he was content to read the quarter and eighth notes, tolerating my attempt to harmonize. His tone was impeccable, with a hint of vibrato at the end of the longer notes.

When we were done, I beamed, thanked him and confessed that I was thrilled to play with him.

He offered a half smile, the sort you’d expect from a man who previously looked resplendent in his spotless, stiffly starched, dress whites with gold epaulets as he marched smartly down Watson Street while leading 80 musicians, each of whom he personally had taught to master their instruments.

Now here he was, wearing his U.S. Navy baseball hat as he played his clarinet for an audience of one or two in an institution from which he wasn’t permitted to leave without an escort.

Mr. Bischoff joked about how I should bring my own music next time, though I could tell he didn’t know who I was or why I had such a goofy grin on my face.

My hero had made my day — my week, even.
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