It’s a Monday afternoon, and John West is rehearsing a wind and brass ensemble at Western Carolina University. West had already been teaching here about 15 years when most of these students were born.
“Clarinet section, can you give me more on those 16th notes there?” he asks his students. “Just a little early on that last leg. Deee-dahh, da-da-deee-dahhh. Wait for that, alright?”
On the eve of his retirement, after 35 years at the university, West said his job has evolved beyond teaching and conducting. West takes the podium a final time March 28 in a concert in the university’s Coulter Building.
“I’ve gone from starting off as kind of the older brother type the father type and now I’m the grandfather type,” he said in a conversation with BPR. “I’d like to think my students have respect for me and come to me for advice, not just music advice but personal advice as well.”
West grew up on Florida’s east coast and considered studying the sciences while at the University of South Florida. That changed with some encouragement from the school’s music director.
“I always enjoyed playing music and the better player I got and the more I learned about music, the more I got into and realized it was vital to my being,” he said. “With each of these possible careers, gosh, do I want to be doing this for the next 45 years, and music was the only thing where I said ‘Yeah, I do.’”
West was just three-and-a-half years out of high school when he landed a job teaching music at his alma mater. Once he earned his doctorate, Western was the first university to offer him a position.
“When I came here, I had no idea I would stay here the rest of my career,” he said. “I would not have bet on that.”
West began as a saxophone instructor, marching band director and director of the band program—a heavy workload at a time when there were about 60 music majors at the university. Today, West said there are about four times as many music majors while the staff has only doubled.
“The quality of the typical incoming student has gotten much better. The ensembles we have, I think, have gotten steadily better over the years,” he said. “And I’d like to think I’ve gotten better as a teacher, both in teaching and conducting.”
Some of that improvement, he said, has come in areas they don’t teach about in music school.
“Band directors are counselors. Ask any of them. They know that’s a big part of their job,” West said. “You may kind of be on the other end of that as a student and realize you need to come to your band director for advice, but when the tables are turned, that’s when you realize it’s a big part of your job.”
Recruiting students has long been a vital part of West’s work, and a more challenging one for a university with limited financial resources.
“If a trumpet player comes and has a lesson with our trumpet teacher, and that connection clicks, then that student is very likely to come here,” he said.
West didn’t surprise anyone with his retirement—it’s been five years in the planning—and he’ll go out the way he came in.
“I got this baton when I was a graduate student at Florida State and I’ve conducted every performance at Western Carolina University with this baton, for 35 years,” he said while removing the baton from a clear, protective tube.
“It’s been lost twice but it found its way back to me,” he said. “And now I make batons, but I still use this one, because I’m sentimental about it.”