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Shifting Trajectories

In the summer of 2008, I was working a corporate gig focused on data insights, a job that I surprisingly really enjoyed. Part of that had to do with my developing love of data and how data can tell meaningful stories. Another part of that had to do with my team, a small but mighty group of talented and smart people with a fantastic boss that nurtured our success and kept us as insulated as he could from the declining health of the company’s corporate culture and morale. I became great friends with that team in a way that I never expected.

Then, out of the blue, my former roommate and colleague sent a blast email to his friend network saying, “Hey, there’s a full-time drumline position opening up with the Tulane University Marching Band.” One application, two phone interviews, and one live interview later, I found myself driving across the country to start a new life as a full-time athletic band educator in New Orleans.

As I look back on my career with Tulane Bands first as a percussion instructor and then as an assistant band director, I characterize it as a jagged upward line. I’ve had my struggles, and I’ve been far from perfect, making mistakes both small and large. It’s in my nature to do my best to not shy away from my failures, to focus on them as a means to continually improve and not be complacent in my role, to ensure that I am doing my best to truly serve my students and the community that I feel responsible for.

That said, if I step back and look at what I’ve done more broadly, I recognize that I’ve left a lasting positive legacy with Tulane Bands and I am beyond grateful that I have had the vehicle to do so for over ten years. While it’s true that I’ve been able to personally take advantage of some amazing opportunities as a composer, arranger, performer, and educator at Tulane and in New Orleans (I’ve been paid to be on TV, to travel both nationally and internationally, and I can tell some great stories including one about how one of our color guard members hit Scott Bakula with a flag and one about how one of my students bonked one of the New Kids on the Block on the head with his sousaphone), none of that compares to the knowledge that I’ve touched the lives of some truly amazing human beings that have been a part of Tulane Bands, and that they have touched mine.

The overall trajectory of the organization is still accelerating. Seeds are being planted for its short-term and long-term future that I am very excited about. But as those new chapters start being written, I’ve come to the heartbreaking realization that it is finally time for me to step down as Assistant Director and hand the megaphone to a fresh voice.

I say ‘finally’ because this has been in the works for a few years, a gradual mental shift of “if I were to leave this job” to “when I leave this job”. My initial plan for this shift was to leave at the end of the 2019/20 academic year, but when COVID-19 caused an abrupt end to Tulane’s spring semester and all of the students left campus suddenly without me being able to give a proper goodbye, I was left with a feeling that I couldn’t truly close my Tulane Bands chapter, so I decided to stay on to help spearhead the adjustments needed to run the organization through COVID shutdown and help keep the organization as stable as I could. As we approach the end of this academic year and the beginning of next year poised to bring operations back to relative normal, I feel like I have the means to achieve the closure that I could not have in 2020 and can now leave my position with Tulane Bands properly.

My primary motivation for leaving has depth and nuance but is at its core very simple: if I stay in the job much longer, my emotional and mental health will decline to such a degree that my will to serve the organization will drift below my acceptable professional standard. For years I’ve tried to amplify what I love about the job as motivational fuel to overcome the roadblocks that have contributed to my decline. Primarily this had to do with dedicating myself to the student experience and their success, not only in how I taught or arranged, but also in my connection to them and my advocacy to truly listen and fight for their needs and wants. I have not always hit this mark, I’ve sometimes been way off target, but I’ve had enough success and grown from both my successes and failures that it has driven me to continually push for what I felt was right despite the external roadblocks that I’ve had to push against.

Years of pushing and fighting those roadblocks has taken its emotional toll on me and this has resulted in the unfortunate reality that while what I love about this job is a very long list compared to what I dislike, what I dislike has become so dominant that it has tainted everything that I love about it. That dominant negativity has eroded my overall conviction and what has manifested in its place has been a slow but steady growth of my own self-inflicted roadblocks that has already made the organization suffer in ways that I view as warning signs.

When there is so much about the job to love, and I’m still struggling to be my best self, the message could not be clearer. Tulane Bands deserves me at my best. When I am no longer capable of that, how can I justify staying?

It is so tough to step down. I love teaching the students and getting to know all of their individual personalities. Tulane is a wonderful university to work for, and I respect its overall mission and approach to education and its dedication to its community of students, staff, and employees, particularly when COVID-19 hit. Tulane Athletics under AD Troy Dannen has established a relationship between athletics and bands/spirit that is unlike any I have ever been a part of, a world-class standard for how an athletic program should partner with spirit and the Tulane community at large. I’ve worked with and collaborated with some amazing people who have respected what I have to offer while also teaching me so much, keeping me on my toes, and pushing me in ways I needed to be pushed.

Tulane Bands has also been such a central force to my cultural life and identity. I’ve been recognized by strangers in the city as a director of Tulane Bands. My creative and musical vision has had a national and international audience, and my ability to run and produce events has earned the respect of some high profile people and organizations. I’ve made lifelong friends with so many people, from peers, colleagues, and students both current and former.

As tough and as sad as it is, I know that stepping down is the right decision for both the organization and for me. In one sense I view it as an act of love for Tulane Bands. I know I’ve done a great job and could even continue to do a decent job, but the organization simply deserves better than my present self, an energy that is different and fresher than what I have to offer.

In another sense, and honestly more importantly, i view it as an act of self love. I think about what has led to this gradual but steady decline in my mentality, and it makes me frustrated, exhausted, and resigned. I need a change, a fresh perspective and injection to my career and life path, and while my new trajectory is uncertain and my future could be written a few different ways, now is the right time for me to devote myself to pivot and plant fresh seeds and flourish in ways that are completely my own, whatever ways those might be.

And flourish I will, and there is no doubt I have Tulane Bands to thank for it.

So I end this long chapter of my life with mixed feelings. I’m beyond excited to explore my new trajectory, to move forward with a new sense of purpose and focus. I mourn the loss of a job and a life that has defined a majority of my professional career that I am proud of and has given me so much, but I take comfort in knowing that stepping down is not the same thing as walking away or saying goodbye. Tulane Bands and I will always be a part of each other in some form. I hope that it looks back at my time with it with as much fondness and love that I look back towards it.

7 thoughts on “Shifting Trajectories

  1. WOW! So well said sir! You have my utmost respect. Please stay in touch as you move forward, John

  2. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in touch, Mendel, but I do periodically keep my eyes on influential people from my past. Very well said! I’m glad you had to opportunity to touch so many people. Best of luck in your next chapter!

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