The blessings of being in the school band

Published 8:46 am Sunday, September 9, 2018

I recently rediscovered one of my high school yearbooks.

It’s amazing how looking at these pictures some 40-plus years later gives you a new perspective on what you thought you knew as a teenager.

I typically smiled and appeared happy during those years, but inside raged a battle to develop my own identity. Probably the greatest influence and benefit of those years was being in the high school band. I was not athletic and did not excel in any academic area. But the band was a place that my awkward adolescent self could belong and feel safe. This was mostly due to our band director, Mr. H. David Sheets.

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I first met Mr. Sheets when I was in fifth grade. He came to our classroom and introduced the instrumental classes he would teach to interested students. I remember falling in love with his passion for music and especially his belief that if a student was willing to practice at least 15 minutes a day wonderful adventures would follow. I was hooked.

My mom was a huge proponent of learning from every opportunity. She had known Mr. Sheets for years, loved what he had to offer and made sure all my siblings became involved.

Among us kids we had a saxophone player, a clarinet/oboe player, two trombone players, a flute player and two trumpet players. We didn’t have the finances to buy instruments, but Mom scoured the community to find used, unwanted instruments so that we could take advantage of this learning. No matter what shape the instrument was in, Mr. Sheets would take it to his supply closet, which we called the instrument graveyard. He would collect needed pieces from other broken instruments, work tirelessly and do his magic. He would then present a re-born instrument to us, ready to begin classes.

I instantly fell in love with Mr. Sheets. From fifth to eight grades we only saw him one time a week, but he was so patient and encouraging that he made me believe I could learn and create beautiful music. I’m not sure how he put up with all the squeaks and squawks of those first few years, but he didn’t give up on us.

But it was in high school that Mr. Sheets had the greatest impact on my growing up years. I saw him the last period of every day. It was a time that I didn’t worry about making the grade or fearing embarrassment for lack of academic skills. Mr. Sheets made band class into a tight knit group that had a totally different atmosphere than academic classes. Together, 74 students worked to learn timing and harmony and learned to work as a team, united in the goal of producing music to be proud of.

In mid-August, we met every morning at the football field as Mr. Sheets taught us our marching formations. I endured the summer heat not because I loved to sweat, but because Mr. Sheets believed in me. During football season, we would don our scarlet and gray uniforms and, with the drums playing a cadence, march from behind the high school to the band section of the bleachers. We would blare out fight songs at his bidding, then five minutes before half time, march onto the sidelines of the field, just in time to march on the field and present the fruit of our efforts. I remember counting out my steps and watching my peers from my peripheral vision to be sure I was doing my best. Afterward, Mr. Sheets would praise us for our efforts, release us to visit the concession stand and caution us to remember to return to our places by mid-third quarter.

It wasn’t just football season that Mr. Sheets filled us with purpose. It was the pep band during basketball season, the winter and spring concerts and the parades and festivals we were able to attend. As an adult, I have a greater appreciation for Mr. Sheets’ efforts and for the efforts of my mom to make sure we got to experience this. Mom often didn’t have enough gas in her car to make two trips to the high school in one night, so when we had band trips away from school Mom would spend her evenings waiting for us in the car. This would require her to have total boredom for hours. I remember her reading, sewing, crocheting, and sleeping her time away.

As a child who never had a father, Mr. Sheets secretly became my imaginary dad. His encouragement and willingness not to give up on the kids who weren’t necessarily his best students still moves me. But the best thing I think Mr. Sheets did for me was believe in me — something invaluable a teenager struggling to find her meaning in the world.

I haven’t seen Mr. Sheets in decades and I have no idea where he is or if he will read this article. But if he does, I just want him to know that his years of tireless work with kids really mattered. I appreciate you, Mr. Sheets, more than you will ever know.


Nora Swango Stanger, a Lawrence County native and Appalachian outreach coordinator for Sinclair Community College, can be reached at