McKinney, Texas – It’s Thursday morning, about a week into the school year, and Faubion Middle School Band Director Brian Beck is standing before a group of trombone-wielding middle school boys in his beginner band class.
Beck has a trombone of his own perched on his shoulder. He’s not playing scales or leading them through a piece of music. They’re learning to hold the instrument. And, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it.
Faubion Middle School Band Director Brian Beck (center) and Assistant Band Director Kara Kazyaka (left, in tan sweater) with their 2015–2016 Honors Band.
“Your job is to look like me,” Beck says as he demonstrates the proper technique. “You don’t just pick it up,” he tells them. “Take your fingers and wrap them around this tube…and pump some iron,” he jokes as he lifts it smoothly onto his shoulder. His students chuckle and give it a try, mimicking his movements. Beck points excitedly toward a kid who gets it right, “Oh my gosh, that’s really great!”
He shows them how the instrument should rest on the hand and reminds them that holding it properly is the first step to playing it properly. Professionals hold their instrument properly.
He begins to walk around the circle offering feedback, and he is frank both in his praise and in his critique. He urges the boys to look around and “find someone who’s doing better and copy them.”
This is Brian Beck in his element—among his students, talking a mile a minute, sharing his love of music and guiding them to the place where they can realize their potential. He believes in them, and after a while, they will begin to believe in themselves.
It took Beck a little while to discover where he belonged, to believe in himself, to find his gift. But, once he did, it changed the course of his entire life.
He went from elementary school pariah to star pupil to all-state musician to full-ride scholarship recipient to published composer to award-winning McKinney ISD band director.
And, it all started the day he picked up a trumpet.
A Rocky Start
Beck attended school in a Dallas-area district, and his early academic career in the 1980’s was by all accounts a disaster. He struggled with organization and an inability to focus. His reading comprehension was a constant struggle, and at least one teacher pegged him early on as a “bad kid.”
“I was never disrespectful. I was mischievous,” admits Beck. “But, I never hurt anyone. I never stole anything. I never used foul language.
“I was the one kid that was really hard to keep on task. Because back then, there weren’t a lot of group projects like there are now. There was not project based learning. It was all the desks facing the board; the teacher wrote the assignment on the board and then sat at her desk and scowled at us as we wrote silently for an hour in second grade.”
Beck was forgetful; he had difficulty keeping up with his assignments. Once he made a zero on a test because the teacher distributed them backside up, and Beck missed the instructions to turn it over and answer the questions. What he saw was a blank sheet of paper—so he drew pictures on it. It wasn’t until he turned it in and saw the incredulous look on the teacher’s face that he realized there was a test on the other side.
Open house/meet the teacher nights offered a special kind of torture as Beck would follow his mother from room to room, listening dejectedly to the same litany of deficiencies repeated by one teacher after another. He was a smart kid with a lot of potential—but there was always a “but.”
He hated school.
But, one impulsive decision in fifth grade changed the trajectory of his education—and, ultimately, the course of his life.
A Fork in the Road
Beck was well acquainted with the school hallway. During his elementary school years it was a common disciplinary destination for a student like Beck. “Brian, go sit in the hall.” He was a frequent visitor.
Faubion Middle School Band Director Brian Beck
On one such occasion, he looked up to find a group of fellow fifth graders parading by—the “good kids” as Beck puts it. Among them, walked Becky, a girl who represented everything that was the opposite of Beck’s academic experience. She was his nemesis.
“Some class walked past me—all the smart people. They were walking straight down the row with their hands behind their backs singing hymns, or whatever. I looked up and there was Becky. I did not like her. We were in every grade together our whole life, and Becky was super smart and super good and she did everything right.
“‘I said, where are y’all going?’ She said, ‘We are going to go try out our instruments for band.’ And, I said, ‘Oh cool, I’ll come with you.’ I just left class, left the hallway, latched myself onto the end of the line and marched myself down there. Because I figured my teacher probably wasn’t going to come outside looking for me.”
Beck followed them to the cafeteria. “Everyone has their paperwork. I don’t have any paperwork. I have no idea what I am doing. Everyone else probably has signed letters from their mother, notary sealed with their passport and finger prints. I don’t know what they have. And then we line up, and the lady says, ‘What instrument do you want to play?’ And, a couple of rows over is Nicole. Nicole is beautiful. Nicole is signing up for an instrument called the cornet. I said, ‘I’ll take one of those cornets.’ I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just skipping class.” Beck says.
So he went home, took out the form and showed it to his mother. “She had been waiting six years for me to bring something home from school and actually show it to her. The notion of being in band had already made me more responsible. That’s the first time I ever remember opening my bag, and saying, ‘Mom, look what I did.’”
But, his mother was understandably skeptical. She was onto the “Nicole” angle, and Brian had shown interest in activities before that didn’t last long—like his short-lived stint as a Cub Scout and the time he wanted to learn karate. Furthermore, he couldn’t keep up with his homework, and they were going to entrust him with an instrument worth thousands of dollars?
“I said, ‘Please, mom, I really want to do this.’” And, it might have been the first time, he had ever shown any excitement about anything related to his education before. She signed the paperwork.
“My mom gave me the speech every parent gives their child: ‘Listen this is a lot of money, so if we’re going to do it, we are going to give our very best, and we’re going to practice every night. We’re going to do it right,’” says Beck.
(right, Brian Beck picks up a trumpet for the first time.)
As it turned out, Brian failed to win the heart of the beautiful Nicole. By the time school started the following year, she had transferred to the saxophone section. However, he ended up with perhaps a greater prize—the cornet.
“The first time I picked it up, it just felt like it was part of me,” he said. “The other kids didn’t know how to put it together, let alone make a sound. Not only did I just put it on my face and make a sound, but I took it home, and I started playing scales. The very first night, I learned the theme song to Dynasty which had a very famous trumpet solo,” Beck says. “I learned the theme song to Mighty Mouse the first week of school.”
He just picked things up by ear from the t.v.
His parents were nonplussed. “Did they teach you that at school?” his father asked.
“No, we’re still learning how to hold it,” Brian said.
“Do you know how to read music?” his mother chimed in.
“No, not yet.”
“Well, how did you know which buttons to push?” his mother asked.
“Well, there’s only three buttons. How hard could it be?”
And therein lies Beck’s gift. Music is not complicated to him. It’s as natural as breathing. He can write music as easily as he writes words. And he hadn’t even realized that he possessed this gift.
He suddenly went from being the difficult child in every class to being the star pupil in band.
Open house rolled around again. “We all dreaded it,” says Beck. “We get there and hear, ‘Brian is a horrible kid. I don’t like teaching Brian.’ ‘He has a lot of potential, but he doesn’t know how to pay attention.’ Then we get to my band class, and my mom is just beat. She feels powerless.
“She walks in, and the teacher says, ‘You must be Brian’s mom.’ And, she’s expecting the worst. My band director says, ‘Your son is a joy to teach.’ And, my mom starts crying.”
“It was an answer to prayer,” says JoAnn Beck, Brian’s mother. “You worry about your child growing up, getting educated and finding a career path and having a life of their own. Most parents worry about that. I worried about whether he could make it to the 4th grade from the 3rd grade.”
The drive home that evening was quiet. When they pulled into the driveway, Mrs. Beck put the car in park and looked at her son. “Brian, tell me about your band class,” she said. And as he burst forth excitedly with a million details about band, it was obvious that something had changed. Something very important.
His parents embraced it with their full support. They ordered private lessons, and once he was no longer restricted by the slower pace of band class, Beck’s talent took off. He burned through one music book after another, playing pieces well beyond his years. There was seemingly no musical challenge that he couldn’t master.
However, another hurdle stood in his path.
Clearing the Path
Although things were going great for Beck in band, he continued to struggle in his other classes. And, one day his mother came home with ominous news. There was a new rule called “no pass, no play” and unless he took care of business in those other classes, there would be no more band concerts or performances or contests for Brian.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s not going to work,’” says Beck.
It was another turning point. A switch flipped somewhere in his mind, and he finally found the motivation to truly apply himself in his other classes.
The next report card that he brought home was filled with A’s and B’s.
“You’re telling me…you could have been doing this the whole time?!” his mother exclaimed.
Beck says that he could always do the work. He just needed someone to clear the path for him. “Kids need someone to clear the path. For me it was motivation. For others, it might be something else. But, for me, it was motivation.”
That motivation carried on into high school where Beck found a group of like-minded peers in band and eventually became good friends with his former elementary school nemesis, Becky. In band, he constantly rubbed shoulders with students who had a great work ethic and didn’t get into trouble. And, it was from Becky that he learned he value of “finding someone who’s doing better and copying them.”
“Hanging around Becky, that’s a good thing because Becky’s smart. Becky works hard. Becky makes good grades,” says Beck. “Well, then maybe we talk a little history, talk a little math, then Brian’s grades get a little better. Next thing you know, Brian’s taking honors classes just like Becky did. Brian’s taking [Advanced Placement] AP classes. Brian gets a full-ride scholarship to college.
“My mother used to cry herself to sleep not knowing what I was ever going to amount to,” says Beck. “Now, I’ve got a full-ride to college, and she doesn’t have to pay a dime. Because of music.”
Music helped him focus. It helped him learn organization. The structured nature of it even helped with his reading. And, it taught him to work hard.
“You don’t have to be the smartest to be the best. You just have to work the hardest. Just be the last person to stop trying. That’s how you win,” he says.
Sharing the Journey
A bachelor’s degree led to a master’s degree and eventually led Beck right back to the place where everything started to turn around for him—middle school. He knows that music has the potential to change his students’ lives the way it changed his.
“I tell these kids, ‘When you become a professional trombone player…when you have a gig at the Dallas Symphony…’ I tell them to put it in your mind. Speak it, and then start making a path for it,” says Beck. “Say, ‘I’m going to do these things,’ and then start climbing. That’s what my band directors used to teach me. I’m a living example of how it can turn your life around.”
Beck knows how to get the best out of his students—and how to have fun along the way.
He’s an exceptionally good teacher. His list of accolades is an embarrassment of riches. His bands both in MISD and in Duncanville ISD where he started his career have made frequent appearances at the annual Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) state conference, and the multitude of trophies and plaques that line the walls of the Faubion band hall testify to their success at all levels. Two years ago, his Honors Band performed at the internationally renowned Midwest Conference and was one of only two middle school bands that year to do so.
But, beyond his teaching, Beck is also a well-respected, published composer. He estimates that he has composed or arranged some 30 published pieces and has written or arranged more than 100 which haven’t been published.
His students often ask him to arrange a piece of popular music for them to play at a pep rally. He’ll arrange the song for every instrument in his band—during his planning period.
Roy Renzenbrink, who recently retired from his position as fine arts director of McKinney ISD, has seen Beck’s rare talent first hand.
“One of the unique things about Brian is that he can play virtually every band instrument, including percussion, really well,” says Renzenbrink. “I mean, really well. He’s just an accomplished musician on all the instruments. Being a former band director, I had instruments I was strong on, and I had my really weak ones. They teach you the fundamentals of all of them, but Brian plays all of them at a very high level. That is a very unique and very gifted person that can do that.
“Trumpet is his primary instrument, but he can pick up a…bassoon and go crazy,” says Renzenbrink. “That’s why he’s so great at the middle school level. He can teach those kids any of the instruments really well.”
“It just makes you sick how great he is,” Renzenbrink adds with a laugh.
Beck could have a successful career in music outside of teaching, but he loves what he does, and looking back at where he started inspires Beck to pour into his students and to reach out to kids who are much like himself.
“I inspire me. Not me now,” he explains. “Me back then—that little kid who couldn’t sit in his chair and pay attention. That inspires me because I went from that to this.
“As a teacher, I’m looking across the room, and I find me. I go, ‘There you are. You sir! You’re going to be a great trumpet player. Now sit a little bit taller.’ I encourage the heck out of them. I find something that they’re doing right, and I make it a really big deal.
“It’s the only thing I know how to do. I could not sit at a desk and wear a tie and not be around kids and teach music. I have to teach them,” says Beck.
“Kids, gather ‘round. I’m going to show you what changed my life.”
McKinney Independent School District Press Release