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Thursdays With Mary
By Dave Kiffer


May 19, 2008

Ketchikan, Alaska - For the past decade, I have been teaching Ketchikaners how to play music At any given time, I have about a dozen students dutifully trying to get "joyful noises" out of the saxophone, flute or clarinet.

jpg Triangulate This, NAVSTAR! By Dave Kiffer

Generally these students are youngsters, anywhere from fourth grade through high school. Most take lessons for a year or so and then fall off the radar, usually because of the crush of other activities.

Students who are into band are also into soccer, drama, baseball, theater ballet and many other things. They also tend to work harder at their school work than many other kids. At some point, something gives and it's usually lessons.

I don't take it personally. Sometimes it's a little frustrating when you work hard with a youngster, help them over a hurdle and then watch them quit just when they are ready to make some real progress.

But that's the nature of teaching.

And besides not every student is going to be great musician. If I can help make them a better one - and help them enjoy music more - then I've done my job.

I also see a few young students who would really rather be doing just about anything else than music lessons and are only going along with what their parents want. It's my job to give them enough that some day they will look back and say "music was kinda fun after all."

That is also the nature of teaching.

So about seven years ago, I was somewhat surprised when an adult came to me asked about lessons. She had played the oboe years before and now wanted to learn the clarinet, primarily to play in a new community band that Roy McPherson was starting up.

And so started seven years of "Thursdays with Mary."

Every Thursday afternoon at 4:45, Mary Guss and I sat down to work on the clarinet. To be honest, we both had a work a bit because clarinet has never been my natural instrument. I can certainly play along with grade school clarinet players, but an adult was going to require me to "bring my A game" to each lesson.

Sometimes if we were working on a particularly hard piece or duet, I would actually - horrors - have to practice a bit myself just to stay ahead!

The flip side was that Mary was definitely a motivated student. I never once had her Mom call me and promise that Mary would "practice more in the future!"

Mary always joked that her neighbors were going to offer to pay me not to not teach her but they never did.

So she was there on Thursday ready to go, although sometimes her job as a lawyer - and her active travel schedule - had kept her from practicing as much she would have liked.

Occasionally, she would call in and say that she would rather not subject my ears

(or hers) because she hadn't been able to prepare properly. I was always kind of disappointed because even if the music wasn't going so well there was always the interaction to look forward to.

I learned many new lawyer jokes. I got to see a ton of cool travel photos. And I got to spend time with someone whose frame of reference was not what had just happened on the playground two hours earlier (although sometimes court interactions are remarkably "playground-ish.").

In fact, I have enjoyed those little "gab sessions/lessons" so much that I now have three adult students amongst my charges and am always looking to add more.

Like a lot of clarinet players, Mary started off a little afraid of playing loudly enough. When an instrument squeaks as readily as the clarinet does, you tend to want to back off a bit, but that actually makes a clarinet squeak more.

I have to explain that the only way to stop a clarinet from "squeaking" is to put it back in the case and then bury in the back yard. Actually, it still squeaks even then but you can't hear it anymore.

I am proud to say that eventually I was able to suggest to Mary that she play "a little quieter." She still puffs her cheeks out a little more than she should, but teaching - like parenting - is all about "picking your battles" carefully.

Anyway, Mary had her last lesson last week. After living in Ketchikan for 30 years, she has finally decided to head south and go somewhere that people are not shocked whenever the sun comes out.

Actually, what she is really doing is going back to college in Arizona to study a different type of law and enjoying a career change.

I've tried to convince her that we can still do lessons. Maybe a teleconference sort of thing. Or, perhaps, I could just email her every so often and say "don't puff out your cheeks!"

But in truth I have to face what every teacher faces eventually: the lessons are over.

I'm going to miss them.

Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

Dave Kiffer ©2008

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