Union Grove High School band director was Jack Mahan, but in those days the term
was “Bandmaster.” A master he was, indeed. From the very beginning, he made it
clear that there was no excuse for giving anything less than your very best. Strict
discipline was required at each rehearsal. The room was quiet enough to hear a
pin drop. He was demanding, almost to the point of belligerence, but everyone
in the band loved and respected him. When the band performed in public places,
we noticed the undisciplined, sloppy appearance of some of the other bands. It
made us proud that our band director had lifted us above that.
often put us through a drill called “sight-reading.” The procedure involved placing
sheet music faced away from us on our music stands. Then, on a given signal, we
turned the music over, and Mr. Mahan, without giving us a chance to study the
new piece, would give us the downbeat to start playing. Later, when we went to
a band contest, we had a chance to use this skill he had taught us. Our band always
excelled in sight-reading, and we won so many contests that our reputation reached
far beyond our area. Before each competition, he would recite a poem that ended,
“Sooner or later, the one who wins is the one who thinks he can.” It was his equivalent
of a football locker room pep talk before a big game, and it made us perform wonders.
The work ethic he instilled in us remained into our adult lives.
I enlisted in the Marines in World War II, the going was much easier for me than
most because of the marching skills and the ability to take orders without question
that I had learned under our band director. Upon finishing boot camp, I applied
for the base band. Some of the musicians had played professionally in jazz bands,
and I thought I didn’t stand a chance; however, when sheet music was placed before
them, things changed. Forty-four auditioned that day, but only three were chosen.
I was one of them, thanks to Jack Mahan.
I worked for almost 40 years
in a business that was very demanding, with little margin for error. Only the
strong survived, and many fell by the wayside during that time. I truly owed my
longevity to the legacy bestowed upon me during my high school band training.
In 1994 I attended my class’ fiftieth anniversary at Union Grove, and Jack
Mahan was there. I tried to tell him how much he had affected my life, but, due
to his poor state of health, he didn’t seem to comprehend. When I returned to
the school reunion a year later, I found that he had died since our last meeting.
As I drove home afterwards, I thought about him, and I hoped that, somehow, he
knew how much he had changed my life.