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Mr. Mitchell and Me | Arts & Culture

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Mr. Mitchell and Me
Mr. Mitchell and Me

If you’ve lived in the D.C. area for a while, you’ve probably heard of DeMatha, the Catholic boys’ school in Hyattsville, Maryland. And if you have heard of DeMatha, odds are that it’s because of the school’s nationally renowned athletics program, which has boasted such names as legendary basketball coach Morgan Wootten, basketball Hall of Famer Adrian Dantley, NFL Pro Bowler Brian Westbrook, and NFL broadcaster James Brown, to name just a few. To most with a passing familiarity with the school, DeMatha is synonymous with sports. When I told people that I attended DeMatha, I was frequently asked “What sport do you play?” My response of “I don’t play a sport,” was always met by befuddlement and a perfunctory “Then why do you go to DeMatha?”

Let me tell you.

Less heralded than DeMatha’s athletics program, but no less impressive, is its music program. Over the last four decades, the DeMatha bands have accumulated several rooms worth of trophies, been showered with accolades, and produced thousands of musicians and music educators. And it all started with one man: John H. Mitchell.

On May 12, in front of a capacity crowd at the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Mr. Mitchell conducted the DeMatha Wind Ensemble for the last time. I was fortunate enough to be in attendance, along with dozens of my fellow DeMatha band alums who came out to pay tribute to an extraordinary man. Recently there have been numerous articles written about Mr. Mitchell and his career, including this one in the New York Times, so I won’t waste words repeating what’s already been written. Instead, I’d like to write about my time playing saxophone at DeMatha and what I learned from Mr. Mitchell.

As I watched Mr. Mitchell lead his final performance with the Wind Ensemble, it did my heart good to see him do so with the same energy and passion as when I first saw him conduct, nearly twenty years ago. Back then, I wasn’t as impressed with the Wind Ensemble as I should have been. Having seen some of the sheet music for the program, I was under the false impression that it was not difficult to play. So during that first concert, I whispered to my father, who has been in awe of the Wind Ensemble since that very show, “It sounds hard, but the music is easy.” At thirteen years old, I was impossibly naïve.

Anyone who has ever made a serious attempt to become a decent musician knows that there’s far more to good music than just playing the right notes at the right times. Mr. Mitchell instilled that idea into every member of the Wind Ensemble over hours of rehearsal, during and after the school day. Each student reinforced it with hours of individual practice and private instruction. Months of effort were poured into producing a seemingly effortless performance. That’s what set DeMatha bands apart from other high school bands.

When I attended DeMatha, there were three concert bands: Concert Bands I and II, and the Wind Ensemble. The Wind Ensemble was the varsity squad, and its members were driven by the same competitive spirit that existed in any of the school's sports teams. Solo auditions at the start of every year would determine the initial seating order. Subsequently, a lower-chair musician could challenge the person immediately in front of him to take his spot. It was like a back-up outperforming a starter and taking his place in the line up. Just as Morgan Wootten's players spent inestimable time honing their skills, so too did John Mitchell's musicians.

I spent two years in Concert Band I under Mr. Mitchell's direction. I was saxophone player, and a stubborn one. Many saxophonists, trumpeters, and percussionists were encouraged to switch to a less popular, but ensemble-essential, instrument. I stuck to my sax and I regret nothing, even if I hindered my own chances of advancement. I took private lessons with the wonderful Chris Vadala, with whom I would continue to study throughout my entire undergraduate career at the University of Maryland. I cut grass in the summer with my father to pay for a Selmer Super Action 80 Series II alto sax, the Cadillac of saxophones.

I finally reached the Wind Ensemble in my senior year, playing tenor sax. If you find a copy of the 1995 DeMatha bands album, you will hear a one-note tenor sax solo on “Shepherd's Hey.” My rhythm was always bad.

I briefly flirted with a career in music, spending my first semester at Maryland as a music major. Before long, I came to the conclusion that I was only a mediocre musician. But at the same time, I was realizing my desire to make films. Even though I chose to pursue a field outside of music, there is much I have taken from Mr. Mitchell's example.

Mr. Mitchell set the bar high for all of us. You couldn't reach the Wind Ensemble without a considerable investment of time outside of school, including through the summer months. That meant giving up free time. It meant less recreation. But the payoff was well worth it. Nothing of value comes without sacrifice and hard work. As I work now to go from struggling and broke filmmaker to professional filmmaker, I keep that in mind.

We were all willing to make those sacrifices because we knew Mr. Mitchell did the same. Mr. Mitchell lived, breathed, and dreamed music. He gave as much to us as he expected in return, if not more. Yet, never once did it seem like just a job for him. There was never a moment in which I felt he was giving us anything less than 100%. He was demanding without being overbearing and his passion was infectious. It's a model for any leader. If you give everything and show a true love for what you do, people will gladly go the distance for you. It's something that I try to practice with every film project I undertake.

I have no worries for the continued success of DeMatha bands, as it will be under the care of Mr. Mitchell's eminently capable successor, James Roper. But it will never be quite the same. In the course of a lifetime, we are fortunate if we are able to spend a small part of it in the company of a few exceptional people. It is my great honor and privilege to have spent four years of my life in the company of John H. Mitchell.

Francis Abbey, '95

Edited by Devon Freeny, '95