March was Music in Our Schools Month. The Alabama Music Educators Association asked people to post pictures and stories about their musical lives throughout the month. I always return to the story of how I was introduced to the world of school music in sixth grade.
My middle school band director, Tony Williams, died in 2020 — the same year as my college band director, Johnny Long. Both of them were from Guntersville.
Mr. Williams was 23 or 24 the first time I ever heard his voice over the telephone, when he cold-called students to ask them to come to beginner band.
My parents had been in choir rather than band, and didn’t really understand nor have the need to buy a new instrument for me. Band instruments can be pricey so the sticker shock for parents is still a topic of discussion to this day for those of us who work in the business.
At the instrument tryouts in the Goodwyn Jr. High School lunchroom, I ended up on a school-owned baritone horn. All we had to do was buy the mouthpiece and the beginner band book.
The bad thing about this baritone, at least to me as a 12 year old, was it was spotty and smelly. The case had been beaten up pretty good and was partially made of exposed cardboard. There was no handle to it, rather a rope affixed to the case with duct tape. Once you got to the actual instrument inside, it smelled and tasted really funky.
While I’ve heard many descriptions over the years of what a beginner musician sounds like, nothing really has come close to what emanated from my instrument: something akin to a donkey braying. I’d hit a high Bb before the F every time. Then because I was so scared to draw a breath on this thing, it took me a little longer than the people around me to make a sound.
Every morning, getting this instrument out of my mom’s car in front of the whole world (well, it seemed that way, but it was all the students gathered out in front of the school) was nothing short of humiliating. Invariably, I would drop the busted instrument case and the spotty baritone would tumble out, leading the assembled horde of mean middle schoolers to laugh out loud at this portly little pseudo-band geek.
Rather than take the abuse, I asked my mother to start dropping me off early — as in, before a soul arrived on campus. I just couldn’t take the embarrassment. So she started taking me earlier and it was just me and the lunchroom ladies and janitors on campus. My baritone and I would sit on the curb in the teachers’ parking lot.
Mr. Williams drove a mustard-colored Datsun he called the Honeybee. He’d somehow gotten it from an Iranian he knew who was deported. He arrived early each day and began to acknowledge me. One day, Mr. Williams said, “Want to come to the band room? I can maybe give you some extra help on that horn.”
Just those few words of encouragement — life changing.
So, each day now began with my dawn-breaking arrival to the school and Mr. Williams letting me in the building. I was now a private lesson student in the studio of Morris Anthony Williams, or Tony to all his friends.
Several of these lessons went by, and all of a sudden one day, frustration boiled over. Mr. Williams asked me when I was going to start caring about band and actually practice.
I did what any beginner would do. I started crying and trying to explain myself unintelligibly.
“I just try so hard, and this thing smells and tastes bad, and when I play I sound like a donkey, and people are laughing at me when I get out of my mom’s car, and I hate myself and want to die…”
Mr. Williams had this strange look on his face, but I noticed he was looking more at the horn and the case than at this overwrought preteen.
He asked, “which school instrument is that?”
Through my tears: “No. 12, the one with the duct tape and the rope and the cardboard, and the…”
Mr. Williams interrupted, “I think that’s the one somebody urinated in last year. Let’s see if we can get you another one.”
Suddenly I snapped out of my desperation and the wheels started turning about what to do next — quit the band.
Mr. Williams checked his inventory. “We don’t have another baritone, but that mouthpiece also works on the trombone. Trombone is what I played in school.”
I made it through that day, but when my mom picked me up that afternoon sans baritone, I could barely contain myself: “Somebody peed on my baritone!”
We went to Art’s Music Shop that afternoon with the mouthpiece, and they took me to a little room where we could try out instruments.
There it was — a trombone, just like Mr. Williams’ horn. And when I put the mouthpiece in, I didn’t make the donkey sound! Because it had a slide, I could actually change notes for the first time.
Thus began my journey, with Tony Williams as my trusted guide.
In my yearbook, he wrote: “You are really a special person and have a wonderful life ahead of you.”
Imagine what that meant to this fat, pimply kid. In middle school, everybody hates everything. For a teacher to show kindness like that meant everything to me. And he demonstrated this to all of us.
Musically speaking, we were a fine band program. We traveled to competitions in Nashville, Orlando and Atlanta during those years. During Tony’s third year at Goodwyn, our band was selected to perform at the Alabama Music Educators Association annual convention, which is about the highest honor for a band program in the state. All of the movers and shakers in the music education world took note of our band program at Goodwyn.
We earned Superior ratings – 1’s – at every contest entered. Mr. Williams was the portal through which we all began to learn about other artsy events in our town, whether it was an off-Broadway show being performed or a college or military band playing a concert, he made sure we knew about it and even drove us to the performances.
Mr. Williams had an uncanny knack for identifying our strengths. An example would be the music department newspaper, which he called CRESCENDO. He chose students to put it together and unlocked the teachers’ lounge for us to use after school. Boy, oh boy, the thrill of hanging out where the dittos and mimeographs and ashtrays and Coke machines were — all while the faculty wasn’t there.
The last day of junior high, I distinctly recall several of us sitting around crying until he ran us off campus. Within a year, he was gone.
It was always a mystery why Tony was in the profession for such a short time, even though he had experienced such massive success.
Flash forward to 2010. My middle school band was playing a piece composed by John Kinyon called “Astro Overture.” It was special because it was the first piece Mr. Williams had taught us for competition all those years ago. It’s kind of a salute to the Space Age as it was written in 1969, the year people from this state put us on the moon.
We earned a Superior rating. Brimming with pride, I tracked down Tony Williams and emailed him a recording of my band performing it.
“I'm really proud of you for all you have accomplished,” Mr. Williams wrote in reply. “One of these days I'm going to have to order a hot cross bun at a bakery, just to see what all the fuss is about.”
We began to email and Facebook one another every few months until his untimely passing in 2020.
Tony Williams may have worn different hats or had many different roles, and one was that his home in Nashville was used for Miranda Lambert’s music video, “The House That Built Me.” Somehow, that seems very appropriate.
Michael Bird is a music teacher for Tallassee City Schools.