Music educators give lessons in perspective, success and longevity

Last updated July 21, 2023


By Jerry Salley ’90


As part of the “50 over 50” project led by Sue Samuels ’87, Furman’s director of bands and music education coordinator, several students have been spending Summer 2023 getting to know 50 music educators over the age of 50 through transcripts of previous Zoom interviews.

Samuels started the project in 2020 as she reflected on her own life as a music educator and considered how she could remain vital in the profession, she said. She decided to interview other music educators, “looking for that secret sauce” that kept them engaged – and that might also inspire current students dubious about a career in education.

The subjects, ranging in age from 50 to almost 90, may not be familiar to most, but “they’re big names to us,” said Samuels. “They’re all considered outstanding in the world of music education,” she said. “These are all people who’ve made a lifelong career and who are still active.”

The 50 interviewees – including Jay Bocook ’75, retired director of Furman’s athletic bands and a member of the Drum Corps International Hall of Fame; and Les Hicken, professor emeritus of music and Samuels’ predecessor as director of bands at Furman – were asked how life experiences have shaped their perspective, success and longevity.

The students have been reviewing the transcripts, helping edit them for readability to prepare for publication. Samuels also plans to assemble the over 50 hours of footage into several different mini-documentaries exploring different themes covered in the interviews, such as starting out in the profession and motivations for staying in it, teaching philosophies, mentoring and the lifelong learning process.

Along with learning advanced research methods in a high-impact learning experience typical of The Furman Advantage – an educational framework that provides every student an individualized educational pathway and opportunities for high-impact learning experiences – Samuels said “it’s been pretty cool to see these students make the connection with 50 longtime music educators that they would have never had the opportunity to meet otherwise.”

Carlyle McDowell ’25 made a connection with Elizabeth Jackson, a music educator and conductor at Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota. In her interview, Jackson recalled abandoning the choice of majoring in biology at the University of Minnesota after realizing she missed music in her life. Many of her current students may not be “superstars,” Jackson noted, but they still love music as much as she did.

“Those are the kids that I feel a special connection with, because that was me,” Jackson said in the interview. “They have every right to be a music teacher if they want to. If they love it, they can learn to do it.”

McDowell, who wasn’t sure of her educational path until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down her high school band, could instantly relate.

“I felt this huge lack in my life,” remembered the student, who chose to major in music education. “And I realized that there’s never going to be a time that I can live without music. After my senior year, I went to Summer Orientation here, and I thought, ‘I gotta teach band.’”

While pursuing a different major, Rebecca Wirth ’26 was similarly inspired by the music educators, understanding that the “secret sauce” that has helped them persist in their passion can also boost her along whatever path she chooses.

“I think this research has acted as a vehicle to teach life lessons,” said Wirth, who is considering a double major in history and music performance. “Listening to the interviews has given me perspective on what it means to be human — what it is to connect with other people, be vulnerable, face shame, overcome obstacles, grapple with uncertainty and do everything you do with love. I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from doing this project because of all these things.”