Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My Visit With a Wonderful Man...

I wrote this on December 23, 2009, just days before the passing of a man who had a tremendous impact on my life. A year has now passed since the death of Robert Nygaard, and in his honor, I post this as the first entry on my blog:

When I heard that my high school band director was very ill, nearing death perhaps, I found myself wishing that I could see him one more time. I moved away from the high desert after high school, and just recently returned to the area after many years living out of state. I realized that I actually could go see him! Then the whole litany of concerns and excuses started running through my head: "What if I go, but he's sleeping? I don't want to interrupt his time with family. What if he doesn't remember me, or I just don't know what to say?" I finally realized that my reservations had much less to do with Mr. Nygaard than to do with me; when we visit someone nearing death, honest people have no choice but to confront our own mortality, and examine how we've lived our lives so far. But I always find that, despite my initial fears and reservations, whenever I have the opportunity to be with someone nearing death, they teach me so much not only about how to live this life, but also about how to prepare for the next. So I called and found out that Mr. Nygaard was able to receive visitors, and then I went to see him.

It was a brief visit, but a beautiful one, a time that I will always cherish and will never forget. But what I want to share is not so much about the visit itself as what I've realized in these past few days as I think of all that I've learned from Mr. Nygaard. Let's start at the very beginning....

It was the summer of 1992, and I was very excited to have been accepted into the SunDevil Marching Band at Apple Valley High School, under the direction of Robert Nygaard. The band had an excellent reputation, and I was amazed at all that I'd heard about them. As an incoming freshman clarinetist, I received a packet of music that Mr. Nygaard had chosen for the next school year's field show, and was informed that I was to practice and memorize the music in preparation for summer band camp. I looked over the music, and thought it all looked pretty good - maybe a little bit of a challenge, but nothing that I couldn't handle. Then I flipped to "Russian Sailors Dance." I had never seen that many black notes on a page. It seemed all at once terrifying, impossible, and awe-inspring - in a word, it was glorious. To be honest, I had never really practiced my clarinet much before that - I never really had to, and still always did well. But this was something entirely different, and there was a man known to some as the "Draagyn" to whom I'd be reporting - I figured it was better to practice than to risk the wrath of the Draagyn's flames. I practiced that piece all summer long, so much that as I type this, 17 years later, I still know every fingering to the clarinet part of the piece. I knew from that moment on, I was going to have to work harder than I'd ever worked before, and that I was going to learn more than I had ever learned before. And thanks to Mr. Nygaard, I was not disappointed.

I have heard it said that the modern world does not want teachers but witnesses, and that if it does listen to a teacher it is because they are first of all a witness. Mr. Nygaard was a true witness. He didn't just ask us to work hard - he worked harder than all of us, and inspired us to keep up with his pace. He took us where we were, but pushed us to do more, to be better, to become greater versions of ourselves. But he didn't just ask this of us - he did this himself, too, as evidenced when he quit smoking in his final years directing the band. Many have fondly recalled his love of Jujubees, which took the place that the cigarette pack had once occupied in his shirt pocket, and some have said that he chewed those Jujubees with greater vigor when he was upset with the band. One band alum said that he thinks Mr. Nygaard chewed the hardest when addressing the tenor saxophone section - I think we all needed Jujubees to deal with the tenor saxes, and the tenor sax players probably wanted Mr. Nygaard's discarded cigarettes to deal with each other! But in all seriousness, Mr. Nygaard was a great model of conquering bad habits and always striving to be your personal best for the good of everyone you live and work with.

Mr. Nygaard allowed those of us who were in the band, dance team, drill team, and tall flags to not only flourish as talented individuals, but to become a part of something much bigger than anything any of us could have done or been by ourselves. We learned the value of practice, focus, determination, teamwork, and we collectively rose to a higher plane than ever before. Mr. Nygaard was sometimes hard on us, but always because he wanted the best for us; he loved us as we were, but far too much to let us stay there. And when he would express his disdain for field shows that looked to him like a "floating porkchop," I think that he wanted all of us to strive for greatness and even for perfection. By choreographing mirror image field shows, Mr. Nygaard not only expressed his deep appreciation for order and symmetry, but also knew that these kind of shows were the hardest to do well since the symmetrical formations easily reveal imperfections when not done properly. This never stopped him, or us, however, from striving for the very best. Because, after all, even a slightly imperfect mirror image testified to a symmetry and order that was greater than all of us, and in our striving for perfection we all experienced a little taste of greatness and, dare I say, grace. This is what made Mr. Nygaard's Marching SunDevils truly great. And thanks to him, even in our weakest moments, we were always much better than a floating porkchop.

During our visit, I was able to thank Mr. Nygaard for inspiring me to earn a degree in music education and performance, and he asked me what the future held for me. I told him about being busy with my two young girls, and shared a bit more about my life. He said, "You're a wonderful girl, and I know you'll be a great mom." As for me, I didn't have to ask Mr. Nygaard what his future holds. We both know that he is nearing the end of one journey, and preparing to begin another. And so in my heart, I say to him now, along with so many who love him, "Mr. Nygaard, you're a wonderful man. And I know you'll be a great saint."

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