Mr. Schneider was my band teacher in school. He was a fascist dick; all the other kids hated his guts. I thought he was awesome. And even though everyone else disliked him, they all became better musicians because of him.
There are four basic varieties of teachers: 1) easygoing and competent 2) easygoing and incompetent 3) uptight and competent 4) uptight and incompetent. Schneider was the third variety. I think it’s competence that really makes or breaks a teacher. If a teacher’s competent, then they have my respect. If they’re incompetent, well, I’ll do everything in my power to lead a classroom revolt.
Schneider had my unfailing loyalty and respect. And I didn’t know it at the time, but he wasn’t just teaching me how to be a decent percussionist, but also a decent person and dedicated contemplative.
I started band when I was in fifth grade. The first challenge was for us to find our instruments. So, Mr. Schneider took out all of the instruments that district owned and told us to try them all out one by one. We didn’t have to play Beethoven’s Fifth on them or anything, just a few notes. Then he gave us a + or – on each one.
I sucked at blowing. Flutes, trumpets, oboes, trombones—minuses across the board. When I was done, by two pluses were on the tuba and snare drum. Instead of just giving a plus for me on the snare, he also drew a circle around it. Some subtle (or not so subtle) hint on what he thought I should choose. I thought tubas were kind of ridiculous, so drums it was.
I was a tiny kid and pretty much as far from athletic as you can get. I was so psyched when my Pearl snare drum showed up in its hard shell case. Until I picked it up. Smallest kid in the class and I had to choose one of the heaviest instruments to lug around.
We had band practice every other day, so each Tuesday and Thursday morning, I had to lug that gigantic monstrosity onto the school bus and navigate to empty seat. I was an introvert’s introvert, so one good thing about it was that it prevented anyone from sitting next to me.
I’m not sure how other grade school music teachers do it, but Mr. Schneider didn’t let us get into the music right away. Our first task was to learn everything about our instruments and how to take care of them. We had to learn what all the parts were called and give an instant answer when he pointed to one.
We also had to learn how to put them together, and he wouldn’t let us play until we could assemble them in under a minute. If we went over, then we spent the rest of the period putting them together, taking them apart, and learning music theory. It was almost militaristic.
Some of the kids didn’t have much of a problem since their instruments only had a few pieces. But I had a fucking snare drum. Case open, standing ready, aaaaand Go! (This video skips two steps I had to do: raising the stand to accommodate, uh, standing, and then a quick tuning with the drum key).
Schneider didn’t discriminate between us. It didn’t matter how simple or complex the instrument was, or how big or small we were; he held us all to the same standard. And he never rewarded us for doing something right or punished us for doing something wrong. The reward and punishment were in the actions themselves.
When I put that snare together in under a minute, I was overjoyed. But he didn’t say, “Good job,” or give me a pat on the shoulder. He said, “Alright, now pick up your sticks and get ready.”
Mr. Schneider was almost the opposite of my parents. My mom loved me unconditionally, and always encouraged me and praised me when I did something well. I love her for that, but for some reason, Schneider’s no nonsense approach to things kind of… completed the circuit. I was lacking that aloof disciplinarian in my life, and I needed someone to fulfill that role. Kindness comes in many forms; not all of them are warm and fuzzy.
Schneider was a nice, easygoing guy in general. But when it came to music, when it came to teaching us music, his only goal for us to be good musicians. He wasn’t there to be our friend, and he didn’t care of we liked him or not. He only cared about making us better.
We couldn’t even start playing until we settled down. When he stepped up to the podium and folded his hands, that meant it was time for us to shut up, pay attention, and have our instruments in their “resting positions.” He’d stand there until we did.
One time, in high school, everyone was in a particularly rambunctious mood. He stood up there and waited for over ten minutes. Even after we finally settled down, he just stood there until even the memory of all the noise and excitability left our minds. Then he stepped up, and raised his baton, that meant it was time for us to move our instruments to the, “ready position.” Then, four bobs of it in the air, and away we went.
I almost quit band when we I got to drum rolls. Rolls are tough because, no matter how someone explains them, it’s something that just kinda happens. Then once it does, you know how to do it, but you can’t really explain it to anyone. Meditative absorption is kinda like that too.
I just couldn’t fucking do them. I practiced for hours until my hands hurt (and until my parents and neighbors had headaches). I ran out of hope. I was done.
“I can’t do this!” I complained to him.
“You can do it, I know you can. But if you want to quit, I’m not going to stop you. But it would be a shame.”
So I kept at it. Then, finally, there it was: a perfect roll. It felt like Christmas morning. Like five Christmas mornings put together. I was so excited to show him. When I did, he handed me some sheet music, and said, “Great! Now, try playing this.”
Always onward, never a time for basking in success. Always onward.
Mr. Schneider quit when I was a Junior in high school. He went on to become the principal at another school, and eventually a superintendent. I’m not sure if I would’ve liked him in those roles or not. I respect rules when they have a practical purpose. I can’t obey a rule that exists just to be a rule. One of our principals loved enforcing arbitrary stipulations, and I helped motivate my classmates to defy him at every opportunity.
I didn’t do it directly. I just misbehaved anonymously and the mischief caught on. So, I’m not sure if I would’ve respected Mr. Schneider if he approached being a bureaucrat the same way he did being a music teacher.
Mr. Schneider was like an old-school Linji/Rinzai Zen teacher. He was stern but skilled. He had only one intention: to help us develop our skills. He could be infuriating and intimidating. He was a good-natured man, but he kept his distance from us. Probably because, as the old saying goes, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” Sometimes we respect someone more if we don’t know them well, if we don’t see their human qualities.
That was never it for me, though. Laid back or stern, I don’t care—I’m only concerned with competence. A good teacher is competent. But, maybe a great teacher is able to adjust their severity to each situation. That’s a quality a lot of Caodong/Soto teachers have. They can go from warm and gentle to cold and harsh at a moment’s notice. It’s not always beneficial for a student to know what to expect from their teacher (or life in general). In Zen, it’s unhelpful to get too comfortable.
Mr. Schneider gave me my first lessons in discipline, determination, concentration, and accountability to others. The same principles that go into studying music and learning to play an instrument also apply to studying Buddhism and learning to meditate.
The instruments are our minds; our thoughts, words, and actions are the music they make.
We’re all born with everything we need, we don’t have to order anything from a catalog. We don’t have to lug anything with us onto school buses or struggle to assemble it in under a minute. There isn’t even any sheet music to learn, except how to rest for a few measures and listen to the melodies and rhythms everyone is playing so that we can harmonize.
In Zen, we’re not learning a new song. We’re just learning about what makes a song a song. We’re learning how to ad-lib skillfully, and how to care for our instrument. Most of all, though, we’re learning where music comes from.
All of this allows us to ease the dissonance in our lives by showing us how to harmonize with the bigger picture. And it all rests on diligence, discipline, and the earnest motivation to grow for the sake of all living beings.