The Band Director’s Lessons About Life (2)

“My Story” – Part 1

(This week is the second installment of the book, “The Band Director’s Lessons About Life”, which TCRN is publishing as a series during 2020. This week, band director and spiritual author Donald Lee explains a bit about his own journey as a band director.)

How did I come to this? Of course, there’s a story.

Teaching is my second career. I became a schoolteacher in my early forties, though I had planned to do it twenty years earlier. Like they say if you want to make God laugh—make plans. But plan we must, which is part of why it’s hard for me to conceive of a bitter and vengeful God. He simply can’t stop laughing at us.

Music was my first love, and I was determined to be a musician. But life took me on a detour, and I spent nearly twenty years in the fertilizer business. In 1999, we had just bought a new house and taken on a bigger mortgage. I had a good, secure job. The kids were all teenagers and wanted more room. I wanted a garage. My wife wanted a bigger kitchen. The dog wanted a bigger yard. It was natural. The house was perfect. It was a great plan. God laughed. In the midst of moving in, I got laid off.

The company was going through a big organizational review and was laying off hundreds of people. At this point in my life, my kids were in high school, and my wife and I were beginning to contemplate an “empty nest.” I would miss our kids. Despite the hassles that came with raising teenagers, I loved them dearly. But as a school band director, I could still have both music and kids in my life. Music had been lacking in my life for many years, and kids would be lacking soon enough, so I decided to return to my first love—music.

Love for music can become a personal lifestyle

Accordingly, in the fall of 1999, I returned to university to complete a second degree in education. Two years later I started my first teaching job at St. Cecilia Junior High School in Edmonton. It was the start of a fun, rewarding, and challenging career as a band director. Teaching is the most demanding job I have ever had—and I’ve had a few. But I managed my band-directing career terribly.

As a band director, you want to stay in one place for quite a long time—long enough to develop a program and run it. Most subjects in school are courses. Band is a program. You might teach seventh-grade math or English and not teach those students ever again during your career. But in band, you teach the same students year after year. You watch them grow. You help them develop as musicians and as people. You develop a relationship with them throughout their formative years. It’s a special opportunity, a joy, and sometimes a frustration.

I did it all wrong. I taught at St. Cecilia Junior High School for three years, then took a position at a senior high school in our district. The band director was taking a year’s leave to complete a master’s degree, so the school needed a band director for just one year.

That winter, as our youngest son was completing high school, I looked into teaching overseas. My wife was reluctant to leave Canada but eventually agreed to the adventure. “But as soon as we have grandchildren, I’m coming home”, she said. That was our deal. I accepted a job at the American International School of Kuwait. It seemed like a good plan. God laughed.

While Kuwait was an enjoyable experience overall, I did not find the “great international students with professional parents” I had been expecting. Most came from rich Kuwaiti families and had little interest in band. I needed to go farther east. Asian students—they were the good students. They came from the oldest culture in the world, a culture that highly values education and art. Go east, young man! And, so, as my two-year contract ended, I looked to Asia for my next international teaching opportunity.

I ended up with a choice of several Asian international schools: in Lahore, Pakistan; Chennai, India; or Pattaya, Thailand. None of these was really what I was looking for, but the Lahore American School seemed to have the fewest problems and the most opportunities of the lot. That’s where we decided to go. This was 2007, and the situation seemed to be slowly improving after the 9/11 disaster had sent most expats out of the region. It seemed like a good plan. God laughed again.

Things are rarely as they seem. Almost as soon as the ink on my contract was dry, the situation in Pakistan went downhill. In the summer of 2007, the Red Mosque affair blew up in Islamabad. Islamist militants holed up inside the mosque. The army surrounded them and eventually stormed the mosque, killing a bunch of the militants. It set the country on edge. Opinions were divided, passions aroused. The whole country gradually slipped into political instability. By the time we left Pakistan, the army was engaged in a full-scale war to dislodge the Pakistani Taliban that had taken control of the Swat Valley.

One of the most impressive mountain landscapes in Pakistan

Once that two-year contract ended, I looked around the world for a better job but didn’t connect with any. I had become picky. I wouldn’t work for peanuts, and I wouldn’t go where we didn’t want to live. I ended up without a job, and we had to return home to Canada. In my eight years of teaching band, I had been at four different schools, had not built a program anywhere, had no tenure, and no job. Not at all what a band director wants.

We returned to Canada in July 2009. The annual recruiting cycle was over everywhere. My wife and I rented a little house in central Edmonton with the idea that I would try to find enough work as a substitute teacher to make ends meet. Living centrally, I could easily go in any direction each morning, depending on where I found a job. I had been practicing and doing some performing in recent years. I intended to also do some private teaching and get some gigs around town. That was my plan. God laughed. He had a better plan.

Check next weekend to read the rest of the story!

Donald Lee is a spiritual author and speaker. This article is part of a weekly series for 2020 in which TCRN is publishing his inspirational book, The Band Director’s Lessons About Life: Volume 1 – 50 Parables on Life’s Performance Cycle, in serial form – one parable per week. You can learn more about the author at his website:, or order a copy of his complete book on Amazon.

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