Michael Harrison: A passion for performing, a heart for teaching

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Michael Harrison: A passion for performing, a heart for teaching

Coeur d'Alene Charter Academy instrumental music instructor Michael Harrison plays at least 14 different musical instruments.

His father taught band and was his middle school band director.

Harrison is a vibrant, charismatic and dedicated musician with an extensive resume. He has performed with acclaimed groups such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and the Disney All-Star Band. He has also toured internationally, performed for touring Broadway productions and rubbed musical elbows with the stars, including Wayne Newton, Art Garfunkel, Bernadette Peters, Jerry Lewis and Linda Rondstadt.

His piano instructor wife of almost 10 years even has the musical name of Melody.

"I married a song," Harrison said with a smile, seated among the rows of chairs and music stands in his band room at Charter. "It was kind of fate."

With such a background in music and a love for the craft, it's no wonder that Harrison's path has led him to be an energetic music teacher who balances his day job with swingin' performances in the evenings and on the weekends. Harrison recently became the conductor of the Coeur d'Alene Youth Orchestra and is an active member of the Hot Club of Spokane, contributing his professional trumpet playing to the band's spicy jazz sound.

"Thereís that old adage that, ĎThose who canít do, teach.í I wholeheartedly refute that. Those that can do will lead by example," Harrison said. "A lot of my students have benefited from not only seeing me on stage, but also from me bringing those kinds of experiences back to the classroom to talk about music in a way thatís more personal and not just something thatís out there, to connect the professional world with academia. I think thatís sometimes something thatís lost in education. Weíre sitting in a classroom learning about the world beyond these walls, when thereís no reason we canít experience that world."

Harrison brings his performance professionalism as well as humor into his classroom, where students can earn a trophy made of Spam cans or "dancing Santa award" for completing special tasks. He also bestows "band belts," or bracelets that are ranked like karate belts, upon students who have proven themselves worthy and reached higher levels of musical ability. Of course, this ritual is performed to the song "Kung Fu Fighting."

"We dance and I give them their belt. We have a ceremony ó 'Youíre worthy of the white beltí ó and then we dance. Itís mandatory fun," he said. "The fact that they applied themselves, seeing that sense of ownership, 'Oh, I got the white belt,' thatís what means the most to me."

Catch Harrison and his Charter students performing during the school's signature season finale concert, "From Bach to Rock," at 6 p.m. Tuesday in North Idaho College's Schuler Auditorium. Harrison said his students chose the theme and have worked on choreography and costuming to make it a well-rounded and awesome end-of-the-year performance, which is free and open to the public.

"The chamber orchestra is doing a Daft Punk tribute in the style of Pentatonix. Itís something you wouldnít think of an orchestra doing," he said. "They were the ones that chose that. They had not only the vision, but the voice and the follow-through."

What motivated you to have a career in music and teaching?

"Even though I had my certification in music education, I wasnít really sold on it. I went to a performance in Phoenix at a renowned junior high program. I was just blown away by the caliber of musicianship that you could find. You find a group of young people that just all of a sudden opens your eyes to what is possible. That, for me, just kind of sold it. I said, 'I want to do that. If thatís what they can do, I can get them to do that.' So I took an interview at a middle school called ĎUtterback,í it was a magnet middle school. I was 23, almost fresh out of college, and they gave me the job there.

I taught middle school band for seven years, but all the while balancing the professional musician side of me Ö I was almost like Clark Kent/Superman, not that I want to compare myself to Superman, but I had my day job, my shirt and tie, then as soon as the bell would ring, I would go off and do a rehearsal or a performance and make ends meet the other way too. Especially as a teacher, you have to sometimes find more than one income."

Were you musically oriented as a child?

"Music was always a part of my family. My father was a band teacher, he did that for 30-plus years. His name is Steve, heís in Arizona, retired now. Both of my parents were teachers. So growing up in a household full of not only music on my dadís side but also education, it was part of my being. And I donít think thereís any difference between playing music and teaching music. I think the best musicians are the ones that know how to convey their craft. We all are learning from each other and being able to articulate what it is we are doing is just as important. My dad was a trumpet player and band director. He was my band director in junior high. He was very supportive in terms of providing opportunities, providing that support, driving to rehearsal, driving to lessons, paying for my instruments and enabling me as a musician to do those higher level things. Not only the class bands, but things like all-state, drum and bugle corps, the local youth symphony ó Tucson Philharmonia Youth Orchestra. My brother was a trombone player, too. It was those kinds of experiences that got me interacting with people outside of the school, to meet other musicians, whether itís in your local orchestra or other programs. I think that sense of community that I found early on kept me going through college and, more importantly, shaped what Iím trying to build here, a sense of community. Just playing music is great, itís rewarding, but if you donít value the people who are doing that with you, that are like you, that have the same passions as you, the same talent, that have earned that same credibility Ö the people are going to last longer than the song.

I canít tell you all how many of the songs that I played, but I can tell you a lot of the people that I played with, and a lot of my friends currently, are musicians from high school or college or former experiences."

How would you describe your relationship with music?

"Itís a love-hate relationship. Itís in that pursuit of perfection that we all live, and every musician struggles with the notes on the page and the very tangible imperfections, the triumphs on a daily basis in rehearsal and tribulations, too, whether itís the physical limitations. You know, musicians have to overcome the physical limitations of embouchure or bow technique but at the same time, when you do push through that and you can get to the part where the music lives ó again, the music is not on the page, and itís not in your hands or in your face ó the music is that sort of abstract, but it only exists when you get out of the way of it and when those imperfections are gone. The struggle with music is just life, and every artist talks about their struggle. But itís through that challenge, through that persistence to what lies beyond I think thatís where we grow, and I grow every year as a teacher through what weíre doing. We start at ground floor, not knowing which end to blow in, and somehow over the course of years, beautiful music can be made."

Do your students realize that you've done so much extensive work performing in groups and with celebrities?

ďSome of them do. Some of those were in the context of like, ĎIím in Tucsoní and so-and-so came through and they needed a trumpet player so they called me. As far as the touring thingís concerned, I have my experiences. I wouldnít say Iím a big fish. On paper, thereís some great resume-builders there, but in the grand scheme of life, the more you know, the more you realize how much you need to know. I think some of them can see that not only am I talking the talk, but Iím walking the walk."

What are your long term goals with your own music and continuing on as a teacher? "Iíll always be a performer in some way, shape or form, and sometimes thatís finding paid opportunities, sometimes itís just volunteering. I think Iíll always be teaching in some way.

ďMy long term goal is to always become a better musician and to become a better teacher, simultaneously Ö Itís that pursuit of being better at whatever that I think keeps us all sane. I intend to keep teaching, but like I said, itís sometimes a very tough battle, itís an uphill battle sometimes, whether itís with the financial end of what weíre doing or the political end of education. I try to remove myself from that.

Sometimes the minutiae and the seemingly trivial aspects of my job can overtake me and the actual teaching thing can take a second seat. Being a teacher is a lot about other things than teaching. Itís about grading and discipline and paperwork and emails and that sort of stuff. If we can keep on trying to maximize the music and the human elements, maybe that means one less email, maybe that means finding balance, I think thatís ultimately what weíre after."

With the experience that you have, with performance and music and your own family history, what are your hopes when you look out at your students every day?

ďWe are learning the music craft, but I donít know that my goal is everybody becomes a professional. Thatís never my goal. There are some folks that definitely go on to pursue music, whether itís education, performance, or something else. Iíve got several students that have, in recent years, made that leap of faith. And itís nice to see that people are prepared for the real world beyond and at the same time, have a lifelong appreciation (of music and the arts). If they go off and major in business or medicine, they can have this, something that theyíre good at, something that they have taken ownership of.

Many of the best musicians I play with in the community have Ďday jobs.í I play with a veterinarian and I play with a saxophone player who's an engineer. And theyíre professionals. Theyíre at the top of their game, but to be able to do music for musicís sake and not necessarily to pay the bills, I think thatís ultimately what my hope is, that in whatever way, shape or form, music will be a part of their life. Maybe itís through their children, or maybe itís bringing music to their family experience.

Whether they decide to do this for a living or just put up their instrument after school, thatís beyond me. But the skills that we learn in music ó the leadership, the perseverance, the passion, the grit ó I think the one thing that I believe is because I have grit as a musician, that that will carry over and so even that confidence in myself, regardless of what profession or what task Iím being asked to do, I know enough about myself to put myself into that, and that same thing I hope applies to my students."

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