In 6th Grade I Almost Didn’t Join Band

I’ve spent 35+ years working in the field of music,, yet in sixth grade I almost didn’t join band! The choices were to go to choir, drama, art, band or to stay in the room and read. I love reading, so I decided to stay in the room. After about a week of this, it grew boring. My band friends talked about how much fun band was, so I decided to give it a try.

I met the director, Mr. Derrio. He looked at me – looked at my mouth and said, “You look like a clarinet player.” Even as a professional musician and having taught band for many years, I am not sure if he could really tell, if all he had left were clarinets, or if he needed clarinet players.

Playing the clarinet was something I had a natural talent for. I practiced regularly. I had a passion for playing, I looked forward to it, it helped my confidence. Not having a dad around made me somewhat of a mama’s boy. I wasn’t very skilled at sports. I didn’t know much about outdoor activities like hunting, fishing, camping and shooting. 

I can look back now and realize that I was more gifted emotionally than the average person. Most people in the arts are gifted in the same way. This gifting makes us more sensitive and caring. It also allows us to be hurt by people more easily. The result for me was a lot of bullying and teasing in school.

Mr. Derrio had a huge impact in making music important to me. He was kind and patient and excited about music. He always had a funny comment or joke about the music. He never raised his voice or yelled. 

Band was the highlight of my day. About April of that year, Mr. Derrio had a heart attack and was gone from school for quite awhile. We had a substitute who had retired long ago. I’m sure he tried his best, but he just did not have the energy to keep up with a group of 6th graders, and we pushed the limits daily in his class. 

Mr. Derrio came to visit one day and was wearing sunglasses to hide his tears. Almost all men were like that in the 70s; men did not cry. I don’t know how many times I was told by the men in my life to quit crying and act like a man. It wasn’t until I was about thirty that I felt comfortable expressing my emotions.

***James is a middle school teacher and motivational speaker. Find out more about him at This is an excerpt from his book (available on amazon), Sad Boy, Joyful Man: Your NOW Doesn’t Determine Your FUTURE.