Randy Ross' Learning Story


I believe that learning is optimized when every student has an effective educational advocate(s). In my experience, great educational advocacy is exemplified by stalwart ‘door knockers’ such as Mr. Bishop. As a college-prep math major in high school (many moons ago), it was not until my junior year that I could take an elective. I opted for a course in music theory. It was the first course in music theory I would take in school. Not knowing how to navigate courses in my high school’s music department, I enrolled in the first course in harmony (Harmony I). On the first day of class, it occurred to me that I knew everything that would be covered in that course. After the teacher quizzed me, I was shipped off to the second course in the sequence — Harmony II. After sitting through the first lecture in this class, again I felt I knew everything that would be covered. I was quizzed and the teacher transferred me to the third course in the sequence, Harmony III. I knew all the technical theory that would be covered in Harmony III as well. However, the course would cover one area that totally stomped me — ear training. So I remained in Harmony III.
So how did I learn music theory before arriving at my high school? The story begins during my preadolescence when I happened to meet Mr. Bishop, a well-known music maestro in the unincorporated working-class community of Florence-Firestone in Los Angeles County. He was tall and lean as Jack Sprat, and his hair was Santa Claus white. One day, I tagged along with my tuba-playing neighbor to band rehearsal and watched from the sidelines. At the end of rehearsal, Mr. Bishop introduced himself and asked if I would like to play in the band. I did not play an instrument and did not have money for lessons. Mr. Bishop assured me that money was not an issue, and so I began to take music lessons on an ancient gray metal clarinet whose keys were held together with rubber bands. The rudiments of playing a woodwind instrument are replete with soporific routines reminiscent of Morse Code — playing squeaky dots and dashes seemingly ad infinitum. My boredom or frustration led me to quit taking music lessons.
Several weeks passed; I thought I was home free. Then there came a knock at the front door. It was Mr. Bishop bearing a pleasant, twinkly countenance. He asked if I were ready to return for music lessons, and he noted that I had a lot of musical potential. I said No and explained that I had chores aplenty or had to hawk newspapers. Weeks would pass and then there would come the knock at the door. ‘Hi, Randy, are you ready to return for lessons? You have great potential to become a superb musician.’
Awash in all this mild-mannered, dispassionate pestering, eventually I would return, continue my lessons until I hit a new technical wall. And again he would knock. Our relationship went on this way for several years, until he no longer had to come knocking. The upshot is that through my music lessons with Mr. Bishop and hours upon hours of home practice (that drove some neighbors to shout expletives out their windows), I had internalized all the major scales, minor scales, and basic chords pursuant to my execution of a range of sophisticated etudes. Through this stop-and-go musical journey, I had unknowingly acquired more knowledge about music theory than was typically taught at my high school to music majors.
While my career took me elsewhere (public policy analysis), I yet consider myself a serious jazz musician. With regularity I’ve been tooting on woodwinds for over four decades. Whenever I slack up on my musical development (which has evolved into a habitual and remarkably rewarding lifelong pursuit), I feel the warm knuckles of Mr. Bishop rising to knock on my door.