I am starting a new series about my friends. The people who have been supportive, encouraging and inspirational in life. I wanted to begin with Russ.
Russ and I have known each other our entire lives. We grew up in the same neighborhood together. He was a year ahead of me in school. We played in Jr. High and High School band together. He was my section leader for my last year of playing saxophone in band before I was switched to playing the tuba. He was always encouraging to me, I was not as advanced as some of the others. He was always doing thing things ahead of the rest of our friends, like special programs during the summer, arranging music, conducting, piercing his ear and even putting a blue streak in his hair. He was already an excellent saxophonist before he graduated. After he graduated high school, he went on to accomplish great things. It would almost 20 years before I saw him again.
I saw an article about him in the local entertainment paper about how he and wife started a music and arts school. A few weeks later, I ran into him during Market Square Day, a festival of crafts and arts and entertainment held in downtown Portsmouth every summer. He had a booth representing the school. I was very happy to see him and proud of him for this accomplishment. We talked for a bit. Since I had recently purchased a saxophone and really had no means to learn much, he encouraged me to come take a class at the school.
The Portsmouth Music and Arts Center (PMAC) was born almost 6 years ago. It started with 12 students in the high school band room. Through hard work, dedication and the gift of picking an excellent faculty it has grown to approximately 350 students. The students range from 9 years old to over 60 years old. There are all kinds of classes and lessons for just about any instruments, ensembles and any level.
I started off in the jazz band. It was perhaps too big of a first step since I hadn’t played in 22 years. I was so intimidated by the level of the other players. I asked Russ, if I could take lessons with him before I took any of the ensemble classes. He had another idea. He suggested I join the wind ensemble class to get my feet wet and get back in the swing of things. He was the instructor for this class, so I did. It was a much easier class, as Russ use to call it, the 5th grade band for adults. Every fall and spring there is a school concert, which showcase all of the ensembles. After I was finished with that, I decided maybe I didn’t want to play anymore. It seemed that I didn’t know what I wanted, at least that is what I thought at the time. That story is for another time.(Chris)
A couple of years went by and I got back into the jazz class. It was a lot different. Though Russ wasn’t the instructor sometimes he would come in and play with us. It was such a treat for me to standing next to my friend and playing together again. I also joined the saxophone ensemble class, in which he was the teacher. I was still having some confidence issues even though I knew my playing had improved. I had written several compositions that were played at these concerts, but still. Whenever I had questions, Russ always took the time to help me. He approached me one day and said,
“James, I want you to come by next tuesday, I have an opening for a lesson.”
I jumped at it. A one on one lesson was perfect. He has done that several more times for me and I am so grateful for it. He was so patient with me and helped me with so much. When I said I was moving to Savannah to become a musician full time, he was thrilled. I was home for a month last December till mid January of this year and though the school was closed for Christmas break he still had work to do. He let me come and practice as much as I wanted to. He even came in and played with me and continued to give me lessons and answer my questions.
Even now, if I have a problem or if I hit a stumbling block, I can call Russ and he will still take the time to answer my questions. I so look forward to playing with him again. As I look back, Russ has become more than a friend to me. He has become a mentor to me as well. He never lost sight of his vision for the school he started, and he never loses sight of the vision his students have. Thank you Russ.
To visit the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center, and perhaps make a donation, please click below