Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Alex: Getting His Groove On

I am celebrating my 20th year of teaching by profiling former students who are doing great things in their field. As I've watched them grow into adults, I have been impressed with an aspect of their lives and want to share them with you. I fully recognize that I was merely a small part in their growth and development, but I can't help to be proud. By highlighting these former students I hope to encourage other teachers that what we do is a noble and worthy cause. We have the ability to boost others to greatness we have never considered. 

If you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you have had that kid who will use anything as a percussion instrument.  The pen clicks, the pencil hits, the toes tap.  He is a one-man Stomp show. Of course, you want to stop him, shut him down, and keep the incessant “music” from driving you (and your class) insane. But did you ever consider that maybe, just maybe, your classroom was one stepping stone on his journey to becoming a professional musician?

Alex McKenzie was one of those students for me. I remember Alex as a very likable, very friendly kid. He was everyone’s friend and always had a smile on his face.  But, Alex also had that drummer distractibility to him. He will be the first to tell you that school work wasn’t exactly his cup of tea. Let’s just say I remember having numerous conversations with his father about how we can work together to help Alex learn responsibility.

I’m please to announce some stories can have a happy ending.

Here is how he got started in the world of music.

When I was about twelve years old I was watching the movie Home Alone with my grandma. I remember hearing the music in that movie and just becoming instantly obsessed. That day I told my grandma that I would love to write music for movies one day. Fast forward a few mischievous years to when I turned fifteen. On my fifteenth birthday my dad got me a cheap $30 music writing program that allowed me to just click in notes and make some “interesting” tunes. Trust me, you don’t want to know how AWFUL that music sounded.

Alex goes on to tell how he grew up “playing” different instruments - violin, piano, voice, trumpet, and drums. He discovered he couldn't read music to save his life. What he did have was an uncanny ability to hear a tune, then repeat it on the instrument of the day. He had at least two music teachers tell his parents that music was not his thing.

He also had parents who encouraged his musical passions and even dedicated a room in the house to practicing and writing music.

When it was time to choose a college, he was torn between his love of marine biology and music.  As a teenager, he got scuba certified and was well on his way to becoming the next Jacques Cousteau, but his musical passions got in the way.  He can’t explain why, but he headed off to music school at Travecca Nazerene University in Nashville, instead of marine biology school.

He is fairly certain that he is the first person to get every single question wrong on the music entrance exam, and his adviser tried to talk him out of the music department a few times.  But, Alex stuck with it, had some fun, and worked his tail off. I would say he learned a bit; by his senior year he started substituting for his professors.

He graduated, moved back to Northern Kentucky, and worked a few seasonal jobs while looking for the perfect “real” job.  In the end, it was a friend who helped him get his dream job.  When Epipheo called Aaron to talk about a music writer, Aaron turned them down and suggested Alex instead. The rest is history, and Alex has been there for over a year.

Never heard of Epipheo? Watch the video below and wish your job was this cool.

I could be wrong, but I think I saw Alex’s head in the video.  

(Side Note: I actually applied for a job at Ephipheo a few years ago. I was at a point in life when I was ready to leave education and was grasping at anything I was remotely qualified for. When I saw their website, I emailed them something like, “If your site is this awesome, I want to work there.” Obviously, it didn't work out for me, mostly because I found this sweet gig at my current school.)

I know you’re wondering exactly what Alex does for Ephipheo, so I’ll let him tell you.

My daily responsibility is to compose music for whatever videos are assigned to me. On average I handle about 3 ½ videos a week. I spend the rest of my week making revisions to projects that have had changes made. The best part of the job is probably the diversity of projects that I get to work on. I get to write everything from Hip Hop to Classical Orchestral to Dubstep to World music (Middle Eastern, African, Latin, etc.), and I have had the opportunity to  compose music for clients like Disney, Mercedes Benz, Intel,, and many more. Having this job has even given me the opportunity to record with Cincinnati Symphony musicians, and musicians who have graduated from Juilliard. Epipheo has a very modern tech company feel. We have a very laid-back atmosphere, they feed us all lunch on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and we even have a pool table :-D

Here is a great video that Alex worked on. (More at the end of the post.)

I mentioned in the beginning that Alex was not exactly the model student. He agreed with that as you’ll see below. What I have to come to realize from looking back at Alex and students like him is that you never know what’s going on inside the head of a student.

As a twenty-five year old man, it is hard to remember what life was really like as an 11 year old. I do know for a fact that two of the most influential teachers I ever had were Mrs. Flowers (5th grade) and Mr. Dunlap (6th grade). I went to public school until the 4th grade and the school that I went to was shut down shortly after I left. The education there was just awful and I realized that when I first came to Calvary. Mrs. Flowers had an ENORMOUS impact on my future because when I first came to Calvary I was so far behind all of the other students. I was completely lost in math and english and very fuzzy on the rest of the subjects. She worked very hard with me and helped me start to catch up with the others. Mr. Dunlap continued the trend in the 6th grade. He was the first male teacher that I had ever had, and I think that had a giant impact on me.

I can say that one thing I never got through my skull was responsibilty. I must have easily had more green tallies (we got one for every time we didn’t turn in an assignment) than anyone in my class. I honestly just always wanted to create and I despised doing work that involved memorization or just repeating someone else's knowledge onto a piece of paper. I was a bad duddler and was constantly distracted in class by something as simple as a clock ticking in the background. To me, that clock was a metronome for me to beat box to :-D

The area where Mr. Dunlap impacted me the most had to be respect. My dad has always been an extremely hard worker and so I never saw him that much between eleven and eighteen years of age. Like I said, Mr. Dunlap was the first male teacher that I ever had, and at the time that was very scary to me. He wouldn't let me get away with most of the things that I got away with in the past, but that definitely prepared me for middle school and high school. I honestly think that I would have gotten into much more trouble in high school if I wouldn't have had him to help guide me. Also, I remember learning A LOT in his classes. It may not have looked that way because of how few homework assignments I did, but he always had a knack for making certain subjects interesting. I was also still behind the other kids after coming from public school, but by the time I made it through Mr. Dunlap's class and hit middle school I felt caught up.

While I’m quite pleased that I was able to have a positive impact on Alex and helped him get caught up on subject matter, I also see this as a reminder that not every student fits neatly into the box we've created our schools to be. If mathematical logic or written language aren't your forte, school can be very difficult, but it’s hard to ignore Alex’s musical intelligence. If I could have had that year back, I am certain I would have continued to keep my standards high. I would also think I would have tried to meet Alex halfway (or at least 33%).  

In the end, I’m proud to have had Alex in my class, and can’t wait to hear some of his music gain popularity with the Epipheo brand. And, I’m looking forward to getting together for that cup of coffee he mentioned in an email a couple weeks ago.  

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