Hitting a high note

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Bruce PearsonIt was a deal he couldn't pass up. When Bruce Pearson was a music education major at SCSU during the '60s, he studied piano with music professor Ruth Gant. "If you'll promise you'll never take another lesson from me again," the longtime professor teasingly told the young man at one point, "I'll give you a C." Pearson was quick to reply: "It's a deal!"

He managed to earn that C on his own, but Pearson nonetheless happily granted the request made by Gant, whose name graces one of the recital halls on the SCSU campus. "I'm still no piano player," he admits with a huge smile. Despite that shortcoming, the SCSU alumnus went on to become a world-renowned music educator, composer, conductor, clinician and author.

Pearson is also the author of the most widely used music instruction series in the world.

Regarded by many as the single most important publication for beginning band instruction, his "Standard of Excellence Comprehensive Band Method" is on music stands all over the world and is now published in English, Chinese, Spanish and Italian.

Pearson's own introduction to music lessons many years ago was initiated by his mother's "prompting." She handed him the clarinet she had played in high school: "Here's your instrument, get on with it," she said. The clarinet looked and smelled bad, Pearson recalled with a grin as he talked about his abrupt introduction to music lessons – but get on with it he did.

Actually, his mother's clarinet did not continue to be his instrument "of choice." After a high school football accident took away two front teeth, teeth he needed to play the clarinet, the band director switched him to the saxophone. Later his parents gave him one as a high school graduation present, and now it's his favorite woodwind. The clarinet, in fact, has since been turned into a lamp base that graces Pearson's office.

Pearson played hockey at SCSU, but it was his studies in music education that proved to be the perfect base for a successful career. "St. Cloud State is particularly good at teaching people to be child-centered rather than subject-centered," he said. He recalled the time he bluntly critiqued a classmate's music performance, after which the professor took the time to teach him how to be more tactful and inspiring. "My training changed who I was," he said, and he believes it's the reason colleagues praise his teaching style.

Following graduation from SCSU in 1964, Pearson spent more than 30 years in elementary, secondary and college classrooms. His work has earned him such prestigious awards as the Midwest International Band and Orchestra Directors Clinic Medal of Honor, presented to him in 1998 at a conference attended by 14,000 band and orchestra directors from around the world, and the 2001 SCSU Distinguished Service to Music Award.

Despite his success in front of the classroom, at one point Pearson decided to act on a longtime desire to be a pediatrician. After a summer stint as a medical orderly he changed his mind. "I didn't know if I could be effective seeing kids suffer and not be able
to help."

It was that same determination to help children that led Pearson, 25 years ago, to begin writing music instruction books. "I was dissatisfied with the instructional materials out there – so, with necessity being the mother of invention, I wrote my own." Not only did he write his own, he introduced a new instructional concept: manuals in his series can be used to teach every instrument in a band – but, if the instructor chooses, there's a whole lot more.

Say, for example, that students are learning a piece of Mexican music. In addition to the music lessons, the instructor is provided with everything – from information sheets to tests – that would be needed to connect the music lesson with Mexican geography, history and culture. There may be a lesson on speaking Spanish, recipes for Mexican foods, music for a Mexican hat dance, lyrics for a Mexican song and tips for composing music in a Mexican style.

The high-energy professional has also spent a considerable amount of time, of late, working on the answer to a question that has always stumped parents and educators: Which musical instrument would be best for a child?

Pearson pointed out that about 50 percent of those who begin music lessons in fifth or sixth grade are no longer playing by 12th grade. One of the main reasons for the high "drop out" rate, he says, is that the youngster has unfortunately chosen the wrong instrument. His child-centered training and desire to help children make it difficult for him to accept that: "When kids play a few years and hit a wall – that breaks my heart."

To keep his heart intact, Pearson has partnered with a computer software firm to develop a program that makes it possible to determine, in less than half an hour, which instrument is the best fit.

Pearson elaborated a bit on the soon-to-be-released program, which addresses 10 factors that can predict musical success. For example, one test pairs multiple instruments, e.g., clarinet and violin, playing the same chords. The youngster chooses which sounds he likes best, which helps identify his timbre or sound preferences. Another test assesses the potential musician's ability to keep a steady beat – a student without that knack "would be wise not to choose drums."

Pearson also worked with a software firm to develop an interactive program, one of the first, that makes it possible for a student to practice music, then receive instant computer feedback on what needs improvement, and be able to e-mail the performance to the instructor – immeasurably improving the value of music practice.

In addition to writing a new teacher's manual and about 20 student manuals for his best-selling series every year, Pearson finds time to compose several pieces for concert and jazz band, conduct professional development seminars and in-service teacher training in school districts across the country, edit and write for a 12-page newsletter that reaches 60,000 music professionals, teach summer school courses, and train music teachers around the globe, from Australia to Italy, Taiwan to Florida.

Pearson, 62, who lives in Elk River, Minn., has no plans to retire. He may not be the world's most renowned pianist, clarinetist or pediatrician, but the educator, writer, composer and leader in instrumental music instruction wants to continue to enhance the lives of young people. As he told music educators in a recent newsletter: "We ... have the greatest job in the world! We have the privilege of providing inspired influence by helping young people to love music, love learning, love others and love themselves, all while making beautiful music."

- Marge Proell

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