Brooks Puts Down the Baton

Reynolds music teacher turned students into champions for 39 years
by: Jim Clark Reynolds High School music teacher Ben Brooks conducts his final symphony concert on Tuesday, May 17. Brooks is retiring after more than three decades at the school.

Reynolds High School junior Emily Brown plays alto saxophone and probably summed up what people think of her teacher, Ben Brooks, as well as anyone.

'At first I thought he was super scary and intimidating,' she said. 'But now I see him as someone who's taught me a lot and is a really funny person. I can see he loves the band, and I want to be like him someday.'

Indeed, Brown wants to emulate her musical mentor and teach music herself. She's one of the last of the lucky thousands of students who have learned from Brooks, who is retiring at the end of the school year.

The conductor

Brooks, 63, has been teaching for 39 years, 34 of those in the Reynolds School District, beginning at Columbia High School in 1977. When Reynolds and Columbia combined in the late 1980s, Brooks took over the reins of the instrumental music program at Reynolds.

It would be impossible to list in one article all the awards his program and students received during his career, but they include the following:

• More than 300 group awards, including seven state championships in string and symphony orchestras.

• Twenty concert band Mount Hood Conference championships.

• Twenty-five jazz band conference championships.

• Forty-six 'Top Five' finishes at state championships.

• Dozens of high school state solo championships over the years and hundreds of students selected to participate in All-State and All-Northwest bands and orchestras.

Brooks credits his father, as well as his own high school band teacher, Lynn Lawrence, for inspiring his award-winning career.

'My father, Harvey Brooks, was a long-time band director at Corvallis High School, and he had an award-winning program,' Brooks said.

Young Ben began tickling the ivories at age 6 and started playing violin when he was 8.

'I knew from a very early age that I was interested in becoming a musician.'

Decisive moment

A 1969 graduate of the University of Oregon who later played in the U.S. Army, Brooks said he originally wished to play violin with a symphony orchestra, and even had auditions lined up with major symphonies.

However, when he and his wife found themselves in the family way, he figured he'd better get a steady gig and began teaching at Oregon City High School. Along the way, he realized he had answered a calling.

'Teaching music has become the most important thing in my life other than my family,' he said. 'It has been a very fulfilling career.'

In particular, he said, he loved learning new music with his young charges.

'My favorite part of the job is the rehearsal process with the students - taking a new piece of music and working on it together with the goal of creating a beautiful performance.'

Reynolds High Principal Jeff Gilbert saw Brooks do just that a few years back, when Brooks invited him to watch a state music sight-reading competition.

'This is where the bands are secluded - no audience - given a piece they have never performed, and allowed only a few minutes to prepare before performing in front of a judge,' Gilbert said.

'The tension in the room was palpable,' the principal continued. 'Ben was amazing. He sprang into action and truly was in his element. If I have ever seen a more accomplished professional, I can't remember when.

'He masterfully commanded the band with expertise, direction and kindness,' Gilbert added. 'Even though the pressure was incredible - and more intense than any athletic competition I have ever witnessed at any level - he managed to smile and make some very witty comments (and) helped students to relax a bit.'

The result, Gilbert said, 'was one of the most beautiful performances I know I will ever hear. Ben was focused and exerted himself so greatly that when all was said and done, he walked from the room and was utterly exhausted. He had truly given it his all.'

Gilbert added that Brooks didn't sneak off to grab some rest, however.

'He made a point to speak with all of his students and remind them to get something to eat and drink,' he said. 'Always the teacher!'

Fellow instructor

Allan Mair, Reynolds High's assistant music director, has worked with Brooks for 24 years, and called him 'not only a colleague but a really good friend and an inspiration to me.

'I try to steal everything out of his book and do better,' Mair said.

For example, he said Brooks 'really emphasizes this wonderful concept of sound production,' teaching his students how to use proper posture and breathing to create rounder, fuller tones.

'You can have a trumpet player and a flute player and a tuba player, but Ben knows how to group all the different sounds of the orchestra into one unified sound that defines the orchestra,' Mair said.

Students speak

Brooks noted he's particularly proud of one legacy - the fact his daughter, Jennifer Brooks-Muller, who graduated from Reynolds in 1991, now teaches an award-winning band program at David Douglas High School in Portland.

Brooks-Muller said she and her father 'made a pretty good team in high school' and calls him her 'go-to guy.' She added that her father has 'very high expectations' and 'I've tried to pattern a lot of my teaching after his.'

Meanwhile, former and current students of Brooks were unstinting in their praise.

Allan Coyle, a 1991 graduate who played saxophone, said Brooks 'was a father figure to those who had a hard time talking to their parents during adolescence.

'He was kind and very stern at just the right times,' Coyle said. 'Many of life's lessons I learned from him, and many of those had nothing to do with music. Because of this, he helped me to become a man.'

Jim Frick, a 1989 graduate who studied trombone and tuba at Columbia, said Brooks drew the best out of everyone, regardless of talent level.

'My senior year, he expected only the best from me as one of the leaders of the band, and I definitely grew as a person that year,' Frick said. 'He knew exactly what to say, how and when to say it, and I never once took anything personally. I had great respect for him then and still do to this day.'

Jake Taylor, a senior and a bassoon player and drum major, described Brooks as the best teacher he's had at Reynolds.

'He takes band class and makes it something for all of us to rally around,' Taylor said, noting he spends virtually all of his free periods in the band room. 'He's kind of made this culture that gets together to make music. It's just fun to be around.'

Senior Kyle Raze, who plays trombone and euphonium, said Brooks has 'gotten a lot out of me when I didn't have a lot to give.'

He said Brooks is known for being blunt and will tell you if you need to improve, but no one resents his words 'because they know he knows what he's talking about.'

Sophomore Morgan Benbrook, who plays trombone, said she's wanted to play for Brooks since middle school.

'When I came into high school he laughed because my last name is essentially his first and last put together,' she said, noting she doesn't mind being mistaken as a possible relative.

Brooks 'strives to teach us more than just music, and he has not failed in the least,' she added. 'He has impacted my life more in two years than anyone else, and it's sincerely depressing he won't be here when I graduate - but the time I had with him teaching me was amazing, and will never be forgotten.'

The Book on Brooks

Ben Brooks has a couple pages' worth of accomplishments and accolades. Here's just a few:

• Graduated from the Armed Forces School of Music in 1970 and played clarinet with the 384th Army Band from 1970-72.

• Former concertmaster and conductor of the Mt. Hood Pops Community Orchestra, and former conductor of the Chehalem Symphony Orchestra.

• Has taught music at Portland State and George Fox universities.

• Given the John McManus Distinguished Teacher Award by the Oregon Music Educators Association in 2009

• Won the National Federation of State High School Associations' Outstanding Music Educator Award for Region 8 in 2007, and for Oregon in 2006

• Honored by the Reynolds School District Board, which named Fine Arts Auditorium the 'Ben Brooks Auditorium' in 2002.

• Reynolds district Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award 2001.

• Reynolds district Teacher of the Year 1997.