On Dreams and Milestones

I’m like my mom in that sometimes I have a little sixth sense when something is coming, a sense I have grown to trust because it has proven to be pretty accurate over the years. Mom’s sixth sense was finely honed, and I always trusted her when she had one of ‘those’ feelings. Something was about to happen. I had felt it all day, that little niggling sensation that today would be the day, the day a very special letter might arrive. Dan was still at work when I went down the long flight of stairs to the mailbox and pulled out the small stack of mail. As soon as I saw ‘The University of Alabama at Birmingham’ on one of the envelopes, I froze. My Spidey Sense hadn’t let me down- this was what I had been waiting for for weeks! I stood on the stairs and opened the envelope…

As I read the words, I felt such joy, but I also felt a deep longing for my mother. I thought of how excited she would have been, how proud she would have been of me to have reached this career goal, the highest rank in my profession. We would have done her signature “Toot-diddle-ooh-diddle-oody-ooh!” dance that we always did when I came home with straight A’s, made first chair- or any good news. (To execute said dance, you hold hands while chanting the above phrase several times, jumping up and down, one leg at a time in time with the words….I have no idea where it came from, but it was 100% Heavy D.) I saw our neighbor and good friend Jil drive up and park her car, and I ran to her, jumping up and down. She had been sitting in her car reading, and I think I scared the living daylights out of her (you really should never suprise anyone like that in Southside Birmingham…lots of crazy people around here).

Jil! Jil! I just got some good news and need a hug! Dan isn’t home from work yet. Help me celebrate!

Jil laughed and started cheering, giving me a wonderful hug before she read the letter. At that moment, my Dan drove up in his Mini Roadster with the top down, waving and smiling at us. I shared the good news and he began cheering, too. As soon as he put the car in the garage, we met in the sunporch. He read the letter out loud, then set it on the table, took my hands in his, and began Mom’s special dance. I felt her there with us, smiling, dancing along. This was her achievement in so many ways- I never would have been enjoying a career that I love if she hadn’t supported me and sacrificed for me every step of the way. Thank you Momma.

Me in all my junior high band geek glory…

I’ve always loved animals and thought at first I was going to be a veterinarian when I was in junior high. When we had to euthanize the family dog, that was the end of my love affair with becoming a vet, as I knew that I could never do that part of the job- my heart is just too soft. I had joined band in 7th grade, playing a plastic Bundy clarinet that Mom had traded a prized antique necklace for to a neighbor who had a daughter graduating from high school who didn’t want the instrument anymore. I can still see that necklace so clearly, can remember how precious it was to my mother. She gave up so much, so many of her treasures over the years to pay bills or help me follow my dreams.  It had to really hurt sometimes to let go of things that meant so much to her. 

I chose the clarinet because my boyfriend in 6th grade, Jim Wood, played it. Not the best way to choose an instrument, but it seemed to turn out pretty well in this instance. My boyfriend promptly quit band, I quit the boyfriend, but stuck with clarinet for good. It turned out that I had an affinity for the instrument, and a determination to get past the hideous squeaks and squawks of beginning playing. I loved being first chair and practiced harder and harder to keep it.

Senior year…still a geek. 

As a very shy young girl from a broken family with no money to speak of, the clarinet gave me something that I needed desperately; it made me feel special because I was good at it, giving me an extremely positive place to channel my energies and focus, and surrounded me with the brightest and best students in the school, some of whom would become life-long friends. The clarinet and band  gave me the family that I so desperately needed to feel a part of, a family that worked hard together to make beautiful music, and I was so fortunate to end up in one of the best band programs in the country at the time. My band directors, Vince Aguero at McLane Junior High, and Lonnie Keen, at Brandon High School, were the father figures I so needed, giving me wonderfully positive examples of what men could be. They, along with my orchestra directors, Bev Sutherland at McLane, and Linda Groh at Brandon High, made me want to give back to students the love of music and sense of purpose they had given to me. My mother was at every single band booster and orchestra booster meeting, at every single concert I played, suffering through many, many hours of practice at home at a time when it certainly did not sound good. She really should have been given some sort of medal for surviving all of that ear rattling racket over the years.

Scenes from Hudson Middle School…

I went to Florida State with the dream of becoming a band director, also falling in love with performance. I taught middle school band for five years, always intending to go back to school to continue the study of my instrument. On to the University of North Texas, the largest music program in the country, for my Master’s in Clarinet Performance, winning a Graduate Teaching Fellow that enabled me to get college teaching experience teaching clarinet and Class Woodwinds while I was earning my degree. At the end of my degree program, I won ‘Outstanding Master’s Student’ at UNT and also an Assistantship to Florida State to begin a doctoral program in performance. My future was mapped out…but I had also applied for one college job- just to see what would happen. I won the clarinet and music education position at Mars Hill College (now University) in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina, entering at the basic rank of ‘Instructor’, and fell in love with the mountains and with teaching at the college level. I got to do my two favorite things- teach and perform- and they paid me to do it. Not much, mind you, but to me I was the richest woman in the world. I loved the students- some of the most wonderful young people I have ever worked with, and my colleagues are still friends to this day. 

During my nine years at Mars Hill, I honed my craft, working hard to become a better teacher and player, finally winning a very competitive grant from the Appalachian College Association to pursue my doctoral degree in clarinet performance at the University of Kentucky. A wonderful part of the grant program was that I ‘had’ to come back to Mars Hill to teach for at least two years, so I was able to focus entirely on my degree program without worrying that I had no job to go to afterwards. I came back to Mars Hill, winning tenure and promotion to Assistant Professor. During my DMA program, I fell in love with learning again, beginning work on a dissertation that would change my life and greatly impact the direction of my career and creative activity- studying with master teacher and legendary Broadway clarinetist, Kalmen Opperman, in New York City.

I completed my dissertation on Opperman’s pedagogy, and published a book of clarinet solos, deciding that I was ready for another challenge- a move to a larger university program. I was incredibly fortunate to win two jobs in the same week, North Dakota State University in Fargo, and a much younger and smaller program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The decision shouldn’t have been difficult- NDSU was a well-established program and the people were wonderful. However, something called me to Birmingham. I like to build things, and the young program would enable me to make my mark, to see what I could build. I found Birmingham to be an arts-rich community, providing many opportunities for me to perform and be inspired by great musicians. It was also closer to my mother in Florida, and I knew that she would need me in the not-too-distant future. Decision made- I accepted UAB and didn’t look back.

The Amicitia Duo, with my best friend and amazing musician and teacher, Diane Barger. 

UAB is a Research One institution, with rigorous standards for achieving tenure and promotion. I was fortunate that since I had been recently tenured at Mars Hill, UAB allowed me to opt to go up for tenure and promotion in three years rather than the requisite six. I worked hard with my colleagues to build the program and made a name for myself in the community as a performer and teacher. I met and married Dan at the end of my first year, and built a very happy life with him in a funky 1920 home atop a hill just three minutes from my office. After three years, I won tenure and was promoted to Associate Professor.

Performing in Assisi, Italy, with the International Clarinet Professors Choir…

Years passed. My studio grew in size and quality, I began work on a book about Opperman’s life and work, and became more active in the International Clarinet Association, being chosen State Chair Coordinator, and then winning two terms as Secretary of the Board. I had wonderful opportunities, presenting and performing at conferences all over the world, continuing to learn and grow, always hoping to be a better teacher and player, to set a good example of professionalism for my students, giving back what my many wonderful teachers had given to me. I served on several university committees, including the Faculty Senate, Promotion and Tenure Committee, and the Faculty Affairs Committe, along with committees within the Department of Music. I was fortunate to become an artist for my clarinet maker, Backun, reed maker, D’Addario, and ligature maker, Silverstein. 

I realized that I was becoming one of the ‘old timers’, having been in the department for fifteen years. I finally decided it was time to submit my materials- to apply for the top rank, Full Professor. I felt so much pressure, as I would be the first woman Full Professor in our young department. Hopefully- if things went well- I could break through the barrier and be an advocate for my younger colleagues. I put together the huge dossier of materials, requests were sent for outside reviewers to judge my materials, my colleagues met to discuss and vote, then my case went on to be reviewed by the College of Arts and Sciences Promotion and Tenure Committee, then on to the Provost and President, finally to the Board of Trustees. Months and months of waiting and worry…all waiting for the arrival of one letter. One very important letter.

It’s all about my students- the reason I do what I do. 

I am nothing but humbled, and excited about what comes next- I have big goals for the next part of my career. Most of all, I am grateful; grateful to my wonderful teachers who believed in me and gave me the experiences and encouragement I needed to be successful, grateful to my mother for her love, her sacrifice, for telling me, “Honey, you can be whatever you want to be- follow your dreams.”  I feel a a huge responsibility to give back in thanks to Mom and my teachers, and I will always do my best to teach my students well, to inspire them, and to help them know that any dream can be achieved through hard work, dedication, and a bit of luck. 

And now, as my mentor Kal Opperman would say, “Next, on to the next!” There is work to be done, there are things to learn, and I am excited to see what the future holds. 


11 thoughts on “On Dreams and Milestones

  1. Congratulations, Denise. And be assured…your Mom is looking down with pride and doing the dance for you!

  2. Oh, my; this is wonderful. What an accomplishment! The product of many years of hard work. But you clearly enjoy your students, and that makes it even better.

  3. Congratulations, Denise!
    Your hard work, and dedication, has carried you to this wonderful milestone …….
    We are all doing the “happy dance” with you! ☺

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