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4 Influential Men in My Life

By John Gardner

“Individuals who made it out of poverty usually cite an individual who made a significant difference for them.” -Ruby Payne, PhD

“I can cite four.” -John Gardner

On Thanksgiving Day 2014, I learned that James Copenhaver, my elementary and high school band director passed. I am reposting this tribute I wrote about four years ago in honor of the four most influential men in my life. Sadly, they are all gone now.

They are Carl Evans, who pastored my home church during my high school and college years, Robert Roden who taught me to another level of clarinet during high school, Phillip Miller, my college clarinet professor – and James Copenhaver who was my band teacher in 5th, 9th and 10th grades.I have tried to live my teaching life in such a way that maybe I might have such a positive impact on someone else’s life.

James Copehaver

Copenhaver honored for 34 years service as Director of Bands at the University of South Carolina

Copenhaver honored for 34 years service as Director of Bands at the University of South Carolina

James Copenhaver was my 5th grade band teacher and got me started on the clarinet at Tenth District in Covington, Kentucky. This was HIS first year of teaching. One of my first experiences of his teaching technique was his correction of an incorrect hand position I had. He came over to me, turned that gigantic college ring around so that the ball of it was facing downward and started patting me on the head (felt like poking a hole in the top of my head) while very calmly explaining why I should hold the horn differently.

I had different teachers for 7th and 8th grade before joining the Holmes High Band where Mr. Copenhaver was the director. My freshman year was his 5th year and the band, under his leadership, was established as a powerhouse in both marching and concert competitions.  One of his first talks with the incoming freshmen went something like this:

“Welcome to the band. You’re in the band. If you want to be in this band, you can’t be in anything else. You can’t have a job and be in this band. You can’t be in sports and in this band. You will be spending all your time in this band and won’t have time for anything else.” 

Freshman John Gardner in front of Holmes Sr Building. The Holmes uniform was flashy, colorful and complex, with a cape, cross belt that was the devil to get on correctly, brades and shoe covers.

Freshman John Gardner in front of Holmes Sr Building. The Holmes uniform was flashy, colorful and complex, with a cape, cross belt that was the devil to get on correctly, braids and shoe covers.

JC decided that I should play Alto Sax in marching band. He brought an instrument to my house one day after school. He was probably there no more than a minute or two. The instruction went something like, “Here’s a fingering chart. Figure it out by band practice tonight.”

Copenhaver was a strict task master. Push ups and laps were a part of most rehearsals. In concert band, one of his periodic punishments was to have someone stand with arms out to the side, parallel to the ground. Try doing that for 5-10 minutes. One of the rules for marching rehearsal was that we had to run a lap for each minute that we were late – or 10 laps if we failed to wear our white marching shoes. I recall one time returning from a doctor’s appointment and realizing that I couldn’t get home and get my shoes and make it back to school on time … and was literally calculating which would give me the fewer laps to run.

Here’s a story I don’t remember, but that my mother told. She claimed she was sitting in the bleachers one day watching a rehearsal and heard from the megaphone, “Gardner, you march like a cow.” Later, as Mr. C. walked by, she says “mooooo” and when he turned with a surprised look she says, “I’m the cow’s mother”.

Copenhaver was a chronic smoker and as one of the band geeks who was always in the bandroom, I was tasked multiple times with, “Hey Johnny….would you walk over to the store and get me a pack of cigarettes?” That was prior to the over 18 rules, of course.

Military inspections used to be part of some competitions. To practice those he would carry his paddle with him. Once we were at “attention” he would walk slowly in front of each of us, asking for instruments to inspect, checking to see who moved. If you made an error (i.e. moved, had an instrument that left a mark on his white glove, etc), he would say while he was in front of you, “that’s ‘one’”, but it might be 10 minutes before he would come up behind you and whack you with that paddle. And if you moved, he’d do it again.

1969-70 Holmes Band played at the Kentucky Music Educator's Association (KMEA) convention, the National (MENC) Convention in Chicago and as the Honor Band (Grand Champion previous year) at Virginia Beach Competition. I am 2nd chair clarinet.

1969-70 Holmes Band played at the Kentucky Music Educator’s Association (KMEA) convention, the National (MENC) Convention in Chicago and as the Honor Band (Grand Champion previous year) at Virginia Beach Competition. I am 2nd chair clarinet.

One of my most memorable recollections of his harshness happened during band camp. It was a really hot afternoon and we were not getting this drill, he named “La-Ti-Da”. He told us we would practice the drill during our water break. So, when it was time for that water break, he stood the band at attention and made us watch him dump the water out of the cooler (actually, I think it was a trash can) and then announce….. “Ok, so La-Ti-Da.”

My most memorable solo encounter came during a day at summer band. It was a break and several of us were entertaining ourselves by going through the Science building and using a fingernail file to slip into all those specialty on/off switches. If the light was on, we turned it off. If off, we turned it on. It was on one of my turns (I even remember which switch it was), I got the file kinda stuck in the switch. As I was trying to get it out I hear, “hurry up, Copenhaver’s coming”. Yeah, right, right? I wasn’t going to be fooled by that one. Everybody else scattered while I kept struggling until I got my file out. As I turned around ….. gulp …. There he was. He told me to wait for him in his office. I could see the paddle on the wall. I knew I was gonna get it. I was trying to convince myself not to cry. In what seemed like an eternity later (I think he gave me all that time on purpose) he walked into the office and closed the door. Instead of yelling at me, he calmly asked me to sit down. He sat down, facing me and said in a deafeningly soft a voice, something like….“Johnny, I’m disappointed in you. You’re better than that. That’s all I have to say. You can go.”That was much worse than the paddle could have been – but he knew me and knew it would be. What a master teacher.

Several years later, I visited Morehead State University to participate in a conference that Copenhaver was a part of, and even shared a dorm room with him for a night…and he blew me away when he confessed that he maybe shouldn’t have used all those extreme tactics. In fact, I recall him using the words, “that was wrong”. I was crushed.

Right or wrong, tho, it is hard to argue with success. During my freshman and sophomore years (the two with Copenhaver as director), the Holmes Band never lost a contest. In some of the contests, we would receive a standing ovation from the other bands as we entered the stadium.In addition to local area competitions, we travelled to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to participate in the “Contest of Champions”. We were Grand Champion (video below). We also competed in a week long contest at Virginia Beach, Virginia. That competition included parade, an inspection, concert band and field show components. We were declared Grand Champions.

copenhaver-conductorOur concert band was invited to perform at KMEA (Kentucky Music Educator’s) convention as well as the MENC (Music Educator’s National Convention) in Chicago. So, tactics and all, it is hard to argue with success. Following his 6 years at Holmes, Copenhaver went back to school and then spent a few years at Clemson University before putting in 34 years at the University of South Carolina. It was Copenhaver who got me connected to my clarinet teacher, Robert Roden, convincing him to give me an opportunity when I couldn’t afford his fee. And I suspect he had a hand in my full ride scholarships to summer music camps at Morehead State University and Eastern Kentucky University …..and to my selection for participation in the United States Collegiate Band that toured Europe and the USSR the summer between high school and college.

Just a few years ago, he was a clinician at Tennessee Tech University during the time my older son was a music major there. I got to visit that weekend and I think it was perhaps somewhat a memorable moment for him to see a second generation of musicians; a music major son of a music major student.

Aside from the fact that he is an amazing role model, what Copenhaver taught me was the concept of having high standards and high expectations and not accepting anything less than a best effort, no matter who you are. I can only imagine how many band directors there are in the world now because of his teaching.

What follows is a video from his final (and best) band at Holmes as it performed at the Contest of Champions in Tennessee. Because it is copied from an old, overused film, there are some gaps and jumps in the audio and video, but you can see the incredible accuracy of a military style of ankle to the knee marching that no one does (or can do) today.

Carl Evans

I was a college sophomore when one of the five guys renting a room on the same 3rd floor of a Civil War era house started trying to convince me to ditch my religion for his. He was relentless, day after day, month after month ….and gradually, he started making sense. I thank God that Pastor Evans had instilled enough trust for me to send him a note asking him to explain what this guy was saying that was starting to mess with my mind. He called me on the Thursday afternoon that he received my desperate note to tell me that he would pick me up at the Greyhound station Friday evening when I arrived back in town. When I tried to explain that I wasn’t planning to go home that weekend, he responded; “Johnny, I’m not asking you to meet with me at your convenience….I’m telling you that youare coming home tomorrow, except you’re not going home….you’re coming with me….and if you’re not on the bus, I’m driving to Lexington to pick you up.” He rescued me during that all nighter, and I shutter to think what path I might have gone down if he hadn’t cared enough to confront me. Pastor Evans was the preacher who came to Huntington from his retirement in southern Kentucky to preside over my deacon ordination.

Robert Roden

Robert Roden

By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was told I had potential to be a decent clarinetist. I was interested in pursuing music as a career….and my high school director (more on him later) insisted I study with this particular teacher named Robert Roden. At the time, he was one of the most expensive teachers in the area and there was no way my single-parent mother (who is also a polio survivor) was going to be able to pay his fee. Robert Roden had a full studio of students and really didn’t want any more, but agreed to let me “audition” as a favor to my band director, James Copenhaver. It was after my audition that he made me this “deal” for lessons:

“Okay, Mr. Gardner…here’s our situation. 1) You DO need clarinet lessons 2) I CAN teach you 3) you CAN’T afford me. I teach the 1st chair clarinetist at Simon Kenton HS, the 1st chair clarinetist at Campbell County HS and YOU are wanting to be 1st chair at Holmes. So, I’ll make you a deal. I have a bad heart and am not supposed to do strenuous work…..so if you are willing to cut my grass and shovel my snow anytime I need you, I’ll teach you how to play that clarinet until the day you show up at one of your lessons with me unprepared. Do we have a deal?”

Until I show up unprepared? Now that’s pressure, but it was the only chance I had and I took it. In my first year with him, I made All-State Band as a freshman. By the time I was a senior, I was 1st chair in the All-State Orchestra, the top spot in the state. Also senior year, Mr. Roden did something really unique. Since he taught the 1st chair clarinetists in the three biggest area high schools, he gave all three of us the same solo to take to the same contest, turning it into a bragging rights contest for those three schools. The Simon Kenton girl went first and she got a (I) rating. The Campbell County girl also got a (I). By the time I went, the room was so jam-packed with students from all three bands that the judge said they could leave the door open for those who couldn’t get into the room. When I got up to play, the judge, who was the clarinet professor at Eastern Kentucky University says, “Hey John….I don’t think I’ve ever heard this solo at a high school level venue and I’ve already heard it two times today. Can you tell me why it is so popular in Northern Kentucky?” I explained that we all three were studying from the same teacher. His response, then, was something like….”So you’re under some pressure, right?”

When I finished, Mr. Roden stood and applauded and so did the judge, scoring a (I+) on my sheet.  He called me over and told me to “always play in such a way to make people stand up.”I played that solo for scholarship auditions at Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky universities and got full tuition offers from both, but went to neither.

Robert Roden certainly did teach me how to play, and he did it without my ever hearing him play. He told me if I wanted to be even better, that I should go to the University of Kentucky and study with Phillip Miller, who had studied at the Paris Conservatory. Mr. Roden was one of 165 fatalities in a fire at a supper club in Northern Kentucky where he played in one of the stage bands. He got out of the burning building once, but went back in to get his music. And the really sad connection is that my dad was one of the Asst Fire Chiefs of the Covington Fire Department, one of the groups fighting that particular fire. Music can be replaced.

Phillip Miller

miller-2I played that flashy solo that got me that fancy rating and standing ovation and felt pretty good about it. When I finished, Mr. Miller was rubbing his beard, as if in pain….and eventually said, “Not too bad, but ya know, NASA can teach a monkey how to wiggle its fingers.” That should have been a warning.The third man who majorly impacted my life was that clarinet professor at UK that Mr. Roden had recommended, Phillip Miller. Mr. Miller came to Holmes High School to audition me. It was four years later that I learned that the reason he made the trip was to get me on an orchestra scholarship before the band director could tie me up in the band program. I think those guys hated each other.

During several of my sessions freshman year at the UK School of Music, Prof Miller regularly commented variations of, “That was pretty lousy….I can’t tell if it is you or that crappy clarinet of yours.” I realized that, if I was going to graduate, I was going to have to get a new clarinet. Not that the one I had was bad. It was a Selmer Series 10 – top of the Selmer line at that time. By the end of the year, I had purchased a Buffet R-13, the only clarinet Prof Miller would accept.

I wondered why he made me do a full Junior Recital and an hour-long (instead of a half hour) Senior Recital. I didn’t find out until second semester senior year when I was scheduled to student teach when Prof Miller was furious to discover that I was an education major. He thought I was a performance major. Turns out, that when he auditioned me, he turned in paperwork for me to be a performance major on an orchestral scholarship. The band director turned in paperwork for me to get a band scholarship. The Director of the School of Music went to the band director and explained that I could not have both of those scholarships, so the two of them decided to discard Prof Miller’s recommendation without telling him.

My senior recital was in the concert hall rather than the recital hall and I had a very good crowd. My biggest problem in playing has always been endurance and we had the pieces organized so that I could get through them as long as I played them in a certain order. But, right before going out, Miller knocked one of the clarinets off a table and bent a couple keys, so he told me to go out and play something else while he fixed that horn. I was so terrified about the change of order that I forgot to be nervous.

My last semester at UK, the orchestra was playing some really major works full of clarinet solos. Unfortunately, the earliest I could get from my student teaching school to orchestra rehearsal was about 10 minutes late.  He told me if I couldn’t get there on time, I couldn’t play the solos and would have to play 4th clarinet. I argued that I had earned my spot and wasn’t playing 4th. So, he kicked me out of orchestra and told me he had wasted four years of his life on me. What an ending.
He was one of the meanest humans I ever had to deal with, but he did teach me how to play clarinet pretty well. I would like to think that I could have made it in the performance world, but that really wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be a band director, inspired by the band director I had.

Posted in High Schools, Personal experience, Repost, Teaching, Teaching Music

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11 Things Small Business and Fire Departments Should Have In Common

By John Gardner

My dad was a 32-yr career fighter, retiring as an Assistant Chief for a moderately sized full-time department that had about 10 stations throughout the Covington, Kentucky (Cincinnati area). I recall a childhood time when my siblings and I were visiting him at the firehouse. When the alarm sounded, he abruptly pointed to the wall, said “Stand right there ’til someone comes for you.” Immediately, 10 doors (5 front, 5 rear) open, the intercom is announcing location and status, and people are hustling from every direction. Twenty seconds later, the building is open, empty and quiet. One of the dispatchers invited us into his area while our mother scrambled to come pick us up. 

As a small business owner, I believe some of my Dad’s Fire Department practices could help Small Business when it comes to putting out fires. Here are 11 things Small Business and Fire Departments should have in common.

Fire Departments

  • The Facility is well cared for. There are assignments (often seniority based) for sweeping/moping, washing/waxing, cooking, dishes, janitorial, supply maintenance, inventory and more. Rookies get the grunt jobs, but everybody has assignments and responsibilities with accountability.
  • Saving time is paramount.Vehicles are always facing the door for quick departure. Driver doors are left opened. Boots and pants are kept close to the truck (or the bed) and set for the firefighter to step into the boots and pull up the pants. Coats and helmets are on the truck to be added en route. When the bell rings, things happen and seconds count.
  • Equipment is organized and ready. Hoses have been carefully cleaned, inspected and rolled, and tools have been cleaned and stored so everyone knows where they are. Tire pressures, water levels and fuel have all been checked and readiedEfficient access is essential.
  • Skill sets are in place for lots of contingencies (types of fires, whether people are at risk, etc). Sometimes things don’t go the way they’re supposed to.
  • Practice, practice, practice. They practice driving through the streets (need to know every street, location of every fire hydrant), practice moving through smoke and fire, climb ladders, spray water, use the tools, lots of speed tests, inspections and homework. Ready to perform.
  • Group and Individual Goals plus Assignments are clearly defined, understood and bought into. There is no discussion about who gets to shoot the water cannon or hook up the hoses. They already know who is primary and secondary in hose control or who is going up the ladder first. Avoid unnecessary drama.
  • Coordination, Collaboration and Communication are essential. Control the traffic lights, mobilize police, roll the ambulance if needed or in doubt, notify the hospital and street departments, hold the trains, and get the business owner on the line. My dad always said, “We’ll be there in under 90 seconds”.
  • The Chain of Command is absolute. On a fire fun, the police are in support mode. Everyone has expertise and input, but primary is to trust and obey, for there’s no other way.
  • The only pic I have of my dad at a fire and he is there in street clothes. As the Asst off-duty Chief, he’s there getting his hands dirty.

    Firefighters know who they work for and will sacrifice to serve. When someone calls 911, firefighters will do what firefighters did on 9/11.

  • No firefighter is ever left behind.Period.
  • When the gig is over, get ready for the next one. The trip back to the firehouse can be exhausting, but some things can’t wait until tomorrow.


Small Business

  • The Facility is well cared for. What does your work area look like at the end of a day? Are there water bottles, messy desks, stacks of mail and reports? Unless you have a fantastic janitorial staff, make assignments. Delegate. What is your expectation for facility cleanliness and functionality?
  • Saving time is paramount. When it is time to start, is everything ready? Is there an agenda, task list or to-do list for the day?
  • Equipment is organized and ready. Desks are clean, waste baskets empty, floors swept, restrooms supplied, light bulbs in, etc? When that important phone call comes in, you don’t want to have to spend time getting ready to handle it.
  • Skill sets are in place for contingencies. Have you cross trained employees so that you can still function if the secretary, receptionist or warehouse manager are out sick or otherwise unavailable? Can you still answer phones, respond to emails, texts, faxes or social media messages, know where to find records when needed to answer a customer call or complaint, load or unload the truck and know where to place or retrieve product?
  • Practice, practice, practice. Schools have monthly fire drills even though there hasn’t been a school fire-related death in over 60 years. They also practice tornado drills and, increasingly, active shooter drills. Hopefully they never encounter any of those, but if they do — they have a better chance survival because they practiced. Having a list of procedures or contingencies is good, but nothing is better than practice. Practice your cross-trained assignments.
  • Are Group and Individual Goals plus Assignments clearly defined, understood and bought into? When a fire fighter makes a mistake on scene, someone can die. Business is not usually life and death, but do your order fulfillment personnel understand what happens when they make mistakes?

One of the most effective practices I put into place was to bring in a salesperson to talk to our order fulfillment crew and explain to them what happens to his customer, his income and even their jobs when orders go out with too many errors.

  • Coordination, Collaboration and Communication are essential. You have administration, management, office and warehouse staff….do all the appropriate people know what you are doing? Do you?
  • The Chain of Command is absolute. Everybody needs to be on the same team, but there can only be one coach. Encourage and welcome input, but make sure the team understands that once a decision happens, debate ends and action begins.
  • Employees know who they work for and will sacrifice to serve. If they won’t go above and beyond for you, then you have a different problem. Strive to instill pride and earn loyalty.
  • No customer is ever left behind. Period.
  • When the gig is over, get ready for the next one.

Meticulously planning and preparing for, and then efficiently and effectively fighting “fires” is something both fire fighters and small business owners should be good at. Business should be ready, but not always “putting out fires”.

The purpose of THIS post is to encourage you to be READY and SET so that when the alarm rings, you are prepared to GO!

Thanks for reading,

I wrote a tribute to my Dad, the firefighter, and included description and picture from the worst fire he ever fought…. the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire of 1977 that took the lives of 165 people, including my high school clarinet teacher. I also talk about his Fire Chief experience with accusations and responses to sexism and racism. Read more…. 

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Posted in Classroom Teacher, High Schools, Music Department, Public Schools, Sales and Marketing, Small Business, Storytelling, Teaching, Teaching Music

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Puppy Dogs and Clarinets

By John Gardner

white labrador retriever puppy dogThere is a sales technique called the “Puppy Dog” close. It gets is name from the puppy dog at the pet shop scenario:

A mother and young child go into a pet store to buy a dog. They find one, but mamma says it is too expensive.

The wise sales clerk invites the mother and child to take the puppy home for the night….with the offer to bring it back the next day if they don’t think it is worth the price.

They will NOT likely bring the puppy back.

I fell for that sales close with a car once. My wife wasn’t with me when I stopped on the lot (intentional, so I had a way out of a pressure sales situation). The smart salesperson invited me to drive the car home to show her. SOLD!

Classic music Sax tenor saxophone and clarinet in blackI used the “Puppy Dog” approach with a clarinet student (I will call her Sally). The first time I heard her play was in a middle school concert we attended to hear one of our sons. I didn’t know Sally, but I noticed her. It was probably 2-3 yrs later when I convinced her parents to let her study privately with me. She had incredible musicianship but was hindered by a mediocre instrument.

When I would ask about a step up instrument, she always responded about how busy her parents were. DAD WAS A SURGEON, so I knew the price was NOT an issue.

I went to the music dealer and asked if I could borrow a top of the line clarinet for a day. I asked for permission to bring it back, but assured them I didn’t think that would happen.

I took the clarinet to Sally’s band rehearsal at the high school. I told her to play it in the rehearsal and then to take it home that night to practice with at home. I gave her the amount of the instrument and asked her to return either the clarinet or a check. The next day, she handed me the check.


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Posted in Classroom Teacher, College Prep, High Schools, Music Department, Personal experience, Public Schools, Sales and Marketing, Small Business, Teaching, Teaching Music

On Writing Well

By John Gardner

As I continue my Virtual Assistant content finding project for BookCoverLabs.com, I picked up a book within reach from my computer desk that has both helped and is special. 

I was updating my resume, philosophy of education and other job seeking materials with expert advice from son David (English PhD). He was kindly brutal as he tore apart and reconstructed my materials. I asked if he would recommend one book (he could have recommended dozens) as an easy read for my writing improvement. A few days later it arrived in the mail, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, by William Zinsser. ISBN 978-0-06-089154-1

Zinsser states in his introduction that On Writing Well is a craft book. I go to it periodically and learn something new every time, including while writing this article.

My favorite chapters are “Simplicity” and “Clutter”.

There are Internet quote listings, but here are a few highlighted lines from my favorite chapters:

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds…

Clutter is the language of the Pentagon calling an invasion a “reinforced protective reaction strike”…

Few people realize how badly they write.

Every writing project must be reduced before you begin to write.

Anyone who thinks clearly can write clearly.

The risk in writing this article is that I break a Zinsser point.

Now that I have written, I realize that he did not use one of BookCoverLab’s beautiful covers.



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