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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

The Whole Orchestra

Updated: Jun 25, 2023

This column was published June 24, 2023 in the Manhattan Mercury.

 

Heading into senior year at Wichita Heights High School, one goal dominated my thoughts. To carry as few textbooks as possible. I purposefully loaded my schedule with non-textbook electives. Drafting 3, which was basically Architecture 101 (I designed a Brady Bunch-esque split-level rancher with two fireplaces, a laundry chute and wet bar), and Yearbook, which, in hindsight, was the first developmental milestone of my journalistic lineage.

With two years of treble clef baritone proficiency under my belt, and as a member in good standing of the symphonic/marching band, I approached band director Cleo Rucker at the end of junior year. All the teachers had nicknames, mostly sprouted organically through teenage groupthink. We stayed up all night thinking up one for Mr. Rucker, who became “C.R.”


“Are there baritones in the orchestra?” I had one more hole to fill in my “fewest textbooks” scheme.


“No…” C.R. was eyeballing me closely and solving a problem. “…but I could use a third-chair trombone.”


C.R. in 1975

The embouchure is the same, he explained. I’d just have to master the trombone slide positions, oh… and learn how to read bass clef music. Piece o’ cake. C.R. loaned me a beater ‘bone for the summer, and it sat in a corner of my room, untouched, gathering dust, until the first day of Orchestra class senior year. I caught on to the trombone slide positions quickly, but reading bass clef music was akin to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. That quarter note with the hashtag at the bottom of the staff is not A-sharp, it’s F-sharp.


I’ll just fake it, I thought, but C.R. was on to me. He wasn’t angry, just frustrated in that way teachers get when they see kids not putting forth the effort. But he also had no intention of letting me get away with my lack of judgment. He gave me an A in Band, a C-minus in Orchestra.


C.R. was being generous.


I ended up carrying two textbooks. U.S. Government for the fall semester which I aced. Algebra 2 year-round, which I flunked. Mostly because it fell between first-hour Band and third-hour Orchestra and the band room was near the parking lot. Second-hour was often spent at a nearby arcade drinking “milkshakes” and shirking other expectations.


At age 87, we lost C.R. last week. For all its faults, one of the positives about social media is finding out about things like the deaths of high school teachers who tried to steer you down the straight and narrow.


Another memory of C.R. sticks with me, maybe because it was so reflective of the times. He had arranged to have the Mighty Falcon Marching Band (his moniker) march in the 1973 Cotton Bowl parade.


After the game (Darrell Royal’s Longhorns upset Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide), we’re lining up to board the bus. C.R. is counting heads, while simultaneously inhaling a Salem Menthol like somebody was gonna take it away from him. I mean seriously sucking it down to the filter, with haste and extreme prejudice. He had to know the optics of smoking in front of the kids in the band were not ideal, but the nicotine jones waits for no man.


C.R. was a music man. His bands, orchestras, ensembles, trios, duets and soloists always seemed to take home top honors and associated hardware at annual competitions. His obit describes him as “a passionate musician and educator, using his expertise to affect the lives of all children for whom he had influence.”


Completely against my will, C.R. expanded my treble clef brain, to allow me to begin to see the big picture and hear the whole orchestra.


What more can you ask of a teacher?

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