A Moment With Mr. Blackburn


photo taken from jordanband.org

Riley Reeves, Sophomore Editor

I recently sat down with Jordan’s new band director, Patrick J. Blackburn, to talk to him about his experiences thus far and his thoughts about Jordan and the future.

The band room is a busy place to be! As I entered Mr. Blackburn’s office after school on the day of the interview, I was one of many students streaming in and out, all with a purpose. The students chatted easily with each other and Mr. Blackburn; the openness and sense of community the band room had was clear. As we began our interview, the sound of eager students practicing their parts for the upcoming show was our vibrant soundtrack.

First I asked him to introduce himself. Mr. Blackburn has been teaching for fourteen years. He spent five years at W.G. Pearson Elementary, where he built a program from scratch, and has spent the last eight at Sherwood Githens Middle School, growing the program with much success. He went to school at UNC-Chapel Hill for both undergraduate and graduate school and has a Bachelor of Music in Performance with a concentration in Euphonium, and a Master of Arts in Teaching. “We have to know just about every instrument we teach,” he says when I ask how many he knows how to play, “but my heart is in the low brass.”

This year has been a chaotic one for the experienced teacher. When he got the call “out of the blue” this summer that the Jordan band teacher position was open, it was hard for him to make the decision to leave the incredible program he had made a name for at Githens Middle School. Ultimately what made the choice easier for him was his ability to grow as a teacher and a person. He confessed that he had always wanted to do high school band, “but life had never worked out that way.” He expressed regret at having to leave his students and the Githens community, saying “the people make all the difference in the world to me.” But as someone who has lived his whole life putting other people first, it was time for him to make the decision based on what his life needed. “I’m halfway through my career, which is scary. If not now, I don’t know if I’d ever have the energy to do this,” he admits.

The transition from middle school to high school band teacher hasn’t been easy. “Right now I feel like I’m a stranger in my own program,” Mr. Blackburn revealed. “When you’re familiar with a program it’s easier because the machine is already there. You’re just tweaking here and there. With such a major change, we’re reinventing the whole machine. And that’s something very difficult for everybody,” he explained, jokingly adding “I mean, I fear change anyways, and here I am now, biggest change of my life.” More seriously, he continued, “This is harder than my first year teaching. Easily.” As an educator, he’s still learning, too. “I’m having to learn to teach much more difficult music that I haven’t really worked with since college,” he told me.

Being an arts teacher is already challenging enough. The arts in education are often undervalued. Mr. Blackburn described a common narrative: “The thought that because we are not a standardized-tested subject, that we just don’t matter. ‘Oh, that’s electives, they don’t count.’” That’s why one of his long-term goals is to increase the size of the band. “In a school of two thousand, I want to have huge marching bands. Not just numbers for numbers sake, but to provide more of a quality education; to give more kids the opportunity that I had, of being in band, learning to play an instrument. Because we all know what the arts can do for your brain, especially at the high school level– to be prepared to move on to college and to be successful at the highest level. Because music does make you smarter, it makes you succeed better, it’s all but proven fact.”

Besides, Mr. Blackburn has never been one to back down from a challenge. “I’m putting my time in,” he declared, and described to me his day, which was far from over with Little Shop of Horrors rehearsal and a two-hour booster club meeting still to come. “I actually got to eat lunch today, though!” he laughed.

Though recognizing his personal struggles, Mr. Blackburn above all empathizes with his students. He knows they’re adjusting to the change, too. Noting the struggles of the seniors, he said, “I really feel for our upperclassmen because they’re… so used to having a certain way and then all of a sudden their world was turned upside down. I completely understand and empathize, but ultimately it’s how we handle the situation, and being able to look forward. And that’s not just the kids, that’s me too.”

Making things easier for Mr. Blackburn are the other art teachers, who he describes as “so supportive.” He went on to say “we’re all really good friends, too, and that’s been amazing,” and “the teachers look after each other a lot. They genuinely care about the well-being of other teachers. I can speak specifically about our arts team; I’ve noticed that everyone’s genuinely really supportive of each other.”

Mr. Blackburn’s favorite thing about his job is being able to connect and work together with his students. “I really like the talking and getting to know the kids, but also working hard to do what we need to do. The most rewarding thing is working with the kids that want to be here and actually care,” he told me.

I asked him what his favorite teaching moment was, and his answer was touching. First, he laughed. “Oh, I’ve got a million,” he said. “When you teach something that’s so passionate, like an art, and you get to know the artists that are creating the art, every success you see is just such an amazing feeling. There have been so many times I’ve gotten done with a spring concert, and the hands go down, and the kids stand up, and you can see the pride in them. And you know they gave everything they could to be as successful as possible. Not just for them but for all of us.” He then began to get emotional, tearing up, and not for the first time in our interview, it became clear how much he really cares about his students. “This last concert [at Githens], that last song…” he was at a loss for words. “I miss that,” he said simply, recovering. “But yeah. Seeing the individual successes. I mean, I’ve had a kid playing trombone at Carnegie Hall before. Got kids majoring in music. Just getting to know the individuals and getting to see their successes and knowing in some way that, not just me, but my class had something to do with it. I love that. It makes all the difference in the world.”

I asked Mr. Blackburn what he thinks about the “band nerd” stereotype. He dismissed it immediately. “The band is such a family, and people genuinely care about each other. It’s very much like an athletic team, you spend so much time around each other, you get to know each other beyond just the bell-to-bell, and so that’s something every kid should experience. Especially in these formative, teenage years. Band is one of those things that’s like, I get to come in and play an instrument every day. I get to make music with others that I can’t do by myself. And then when you put together those randoms dots on a page, and put it on stage with forty of your friends, and then you get done, and you stand up, that feeling that you have of accomplishment is something that everyone should feel.” He smiled. “And if that makes me a band nerd, fine. Okay. I love it.”

One thing you might not know about Mr. Blackburn is that he has had a career in the performing arts as well. “I did the singer-songwriter thing for several years,” he explained. “I was in several groups. I really enjoyed the performance aspect of it, and it was something fun to do on weekends. It wasn’t for the glory or the money; it was just a release for me.” He advises that everyone have a similar release: “It helps your soul. It helps your mind, it keeps you at peace.” Don’t expect to see Mr. Blackburn in concert anytime soon, though; now, he’s more into visual arts. “I haven’t played a show out in like three or four years. Time flies!” he said, laughing.

As we wrapped up our interview, I asked him about his plans for the rest of the year. There’ll be a pep band at every home basketball game, a Valentine’s Swing Dance for the jazz band in February, and of course the spring concert. As well, Mr. Blackburn looks forward to the marching band season kickoff, auditions for next year’s advanced classes, and to the musical. This is his first experience with a musical from a director’s standpoint, and he’s really excited about it! Looking towards next year, he says “I’m going more towards what I’m used to, which is getting more out into the community, getting out of the state, traveling with the bands and all that. But one step at a time.”

To learn more about the Jordan Band Program, including their important dates, visit their website at http://www.jordanbands.org/Come see Little Shop of Horrors this Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and be sure to ask your counselor and Mr. Blackburn about fitting band into your schedule next year!