4 Influential Men in My Life

As I was preparing some storytelling and memory sharing for a high school band reunion that I was unable to attend because of a band contest, I started thinking about who has had major impact on my life. Outside of family, there are four people who have significantly impacted my life and affected especially my teaching philosophies. They are Carl Evans, who pastored my home church during my high school and college years, Robert Roden who taught me to another level of clarinet during high school, Phillip Miller, my college clarinet professor – and James Copenhaver who was my band teacher in 5th, 9th and 10th grades.I have tried to live my teaching life in such a way that maybe I might have such a positive impact on someone else’s life…. Here are my top four.  

Carl Evans

I was a college sophomore when one of the five guys renting a room on the same 3rd floor of a Civil War era house started trying to convince me to ditch my religion for his. He was relentless, day after day, month after month ….and gradually, he started making sense. I thank God that Pastor Evans had instilled enough trust for me to send him a note asking him to explain what this guy was saying that was starting to mess with my mind. He called me on the Thursday afternoon that he received my desperate note to tell me that he would pick me up at the Greyhound station Friday evening when I arrived back in town. When I tried to explain that I wasn’t planning to go home that weekend, he responded; “Johnny, I’m not asking you to meet with me at your convenience….I’m telling you that you are coming home tomorrow, except you’re not going home….you’re coming with me….and if you’re not on the bus, I’m driving to Lexington to pick you up.” He rescued me during that all nighter, and I shutter to think what path I might have gone down if he hadn’t cared enough to confront me. Pastor Evans was the preacher who came to Huntington from his retirement in southern Kentucky to preside over my deacon ordination.  

Robert Roden  

Robert Roden


By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was told I had potential to be a decent clarinetist. I was interested in pursuing music as a career….and my high school director (more on him later) insisted I study with this particular teacher named Robert Roden. At the time, he was one of the most expensive teachers in the area and there was no way my single-parent mother (who is also a polio survivor) was going to be able to pay his fee. Robert Roden had a full studio of students and really didn’t want any more, but agreed to let me “audition” as a favor to my band director, James Copenhaver. It was after my audition that he made me this “deal” for lessons:    

“Okay, Mr. Gardner…here’s our situation. 1) You DO need clarinet lessons 2) I CAN teach you 3) you CAN’T afford me. I teach the 1st chair clarinetist at Simon Kenton HS, the 1st chair clarinetist at Campbell County HS and YOU are wanting to be 1st chair at Holmes. So, I’ll make you a deal. I have a bad heart and am not supposed to do strenuous work…..so if you are willing to cut my grass and shovel my snow anytime I need you, I’ll teach you how to play that clarinet until the day you show up at one of your lessons with me unprepared. Do we have a deal?”  

Until I show up unprepared? Now that’s pressure, but it was the only chance I had and I took it. In my first year with him, I made All-State Band as a freshman. By the time I was a senior, I was 1st chair in the All-State Orchestra, the top spot in the state. Also senior year, Mr. Roden did something really unique. Since he taught the 1st chair clarinetists in the three biggest area high schools, he gave all three of us the same solo to take to the same contest, turning it into a bragging rights contest for those three schools. The Simon Kenton girl went first and she got a (I) rating. The Campbell County girl also got a (I). By the time I went, the room was so jam-packed with students from all three bands that the judge said they could leave the door open for those who couldn’t get into the room. When I got up to play, the judge, who was the clarinet professor at Eastern Kentucky University says, “Hey John….I don’t think I’ve ever heard this solo at a high school level venue and I’ve already heard it two times today. Can you tell me why it is so popular in Northern Kentucky?” I explained that we all three were studying from the same teacher. His response, then, was something like….”So you’re under some pressure, right?”      

When I finished, Mr. Roden stood and applauded and so did the judge, scoring a (I+) on my sheet.  He called me over and told me to “always play in such a way to make people stand up.”I played that solo for scholarship auditions at Morehead State and Eastern Kentucky universities and got full tuition offers from both, but went to neither. 

Robert Roden certainly did teach me how to play, and he did it without my ever hearing him play. He told me if I wanted to be even better, that I should go to the University of Kentucky and study with Phillip Miller, who had studied at the Paris Conservatory. Mr. Roden was one of 165 fatalities in a fire at a supper club in Northern Kentucky where he played in one of the stage bands. He got out of the burning building once, but went back in to get his music. And the really sad connection is that my dad was one of the Asst Fire Chiefs of the Covington Fire Department, one of the groups fighting that particular fire. Music can be replaced.   

Phillip Miller

Phillip Miller


The third man who majorly impacted my life was that clarinet professor at UK that Mr. Roden had recommended, Phillip Miller. Mr. Miller came to Holmes High School to audition me. It was four years later that I learned that the reason he made the trip was to get me on an orchestra scholarship before the band director could tie me up in the band program. I think those guys hated each other   

I played that flashy solo that got me that fancy rating and standing ovation and felt pretty good about it. When I finished, Mr. Miller was rubbing his beard, as if in pain….and eventually said, “Not too bad, but ya know, NASA can teach a monkey how to wiggle its fingers.” That should have been a warning.  

During several of my sessions freshman year at the UK School of Music, Prof Miller regularly commented variations of, “That was pretty lousy….I can’t tell if it is you or that crappy clarinet of yours.” I realized that, if I was going to graduate, I was going to have to get a new clarinet. Not that the one I had was bad. It was a Selmer Series 10 – top of the Selmer line at that time. By the end of the year, I had purchased a Buffet R-13, the only clarinet Prof Miller would accept.  

I wondered why he made me do a full Junior Recital and an hour-long (instead of a half hour) Senior Recital. I didn’t find out until second semester senior year when I was scheduled to student teach when Prof Miller was furious to discover that I was an education major. He thought I was a performance major. Turns out, that when he auditioned me, he turned in paperwork for me to be a performance major on an orchestral scholarship. The band director turned in paperwork for me to get a band scholarship. The Director of the School of Music went to the band director and explained that I could not have both of those scholarships, so the two of them decided to discard Prof Miller’s recommendation without telling him.  

My senior recital was in the concert hall rather than the recital hall and I had a very good crowd. My biggest problem in playing has always been endurance and we had the pieces organized so that I could get through them as long as I played them in a certain order. But, right before going out, Miller knocked one of the clarinets off a table and bent a couple keys, so he told me to go out and play something else while he fixed that horn. I was so terrified about the change of order that I forgot to be nervous.  

My last semester at UK, the orchestra was playing some really major works full of clarinet solos. Unfortunately, the earliest I could get from my student teaching school to orchestra rehearsal was about 10 minutes late.  He told me if I couldn’t get there on time, I couldn’t play the solos and would have to play 4th clarinet. I argued that I had earned my spot and wasn’t playing 4th. So, he kicked me out of orchestra and told me he had wasted four years of his life on me. What an ending.  

He was one of the meanest humans I ever had to deal with, but he did teach me how to play clarinet pretty well. I would like to think that I could have made it in the performance world, but that really wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to be a band director, inspired by the band director I had.  

James Copehaver

34 yrs as Dir of Bands at South Carolina


James Copenhaver was my 5th grade band teacher and got me started on the clarinet at Tenth District in Covington, Kentucky. One of my first experiences of his teaching technique was his correction of an incorrect hand position I had. He came over to me, turned that gigantic college ring around so that the ball of it was facing downward and started patting me on the head (felt like poking a hole in the top of my head) while very calmly explaining why I should hold the horn differently.  

I had different teachers for 7th and 8th grade before joining the Holmes High Band where Mr. Copenhaver was the director. My freshman year was his 5th year and the band, under his leadership, was established as a powerhouse in both marching and concert competitions.  One of his first talks with the incoming freshmen went something like this:   

“Welcome to the band. You’re in the band. If you want to be in this band, you can’t be in anything else. You can’t have a job and be in this band. You can’t be in sports and in this band. You will be spending all your time in this band and won’t have time for anything else.”    

JC decided that I should play Alto Sax in marching band. In his only house call, he brought an instrument to my house one day after school. He was probably there no more than a minute or two. The instruction went something like, “Here’s a fingering chart. Figure it out by band practice tonight.”   

Copenhaver was a strict task master. One of the rules for marching rehearsal was that we had to run a lap for each minute that we were late – or 10 laps if we failed to wear our white marching shoes. I recall one time returning from a doctor’s appointment and realizing that I couldn’t get home and get my shoes and make it back to school on time … and was literally calculating which would give me the fewer laps to run.    

Here’s a story I don’t remember, but that my mother tells. She claims she was sitting in the bleachers one day watching a rehearsal and heard from the megaphone, “Gardner, you march like a cow.” Later, as Mr. C. walked by, she says “mooooo” and when he turned with a surprised look she says, “I’m the cow’s mother”.   

Copenhaver was a chronic smoker and as one of the band geeks who was always in the bandroom, I was tasked multiple times with, “Hey Johnny….would you walk over to the store and get me a pack of cigarettes?” That was prior to the over 18 rules, of course.   

Military inspections used to be part of some competitions. To practice those he would carry his paddle with him. Once we were at “attention” he would walk slowly in front of each of us, asking for instruments to inspect, checking to see who moved. If you made an error (i.e. moved, had an instrument that left a mark on his white glove, etc), he would say while he was in front of you, “that’s ‘one’”, but it might be 10 minutes before he would come up behind you and whack you with that paddle. And if you moved, he’d do it again.   

One of my most memorable recollections of his harshness happened during band camp. It was a really hot afternoon and we were not getting this drill, he named it La-Ti-Da, that he was trying to teach us. He told us we would practice the drill during our water break. So, when it was time for that water break, he stood the band at attention and made us watch him dump the water out of the cooler (actually, I think it was a trash can) and then announce….. “Ok, so La-Ti-Da.”    

My most memorable solo encounter came during a day at summer band. It was a break and several of us were entertaining ourselves by going through the Science building and using a fingernail file to slip into all those specialty on/off switches. If the light was on, we turned it off. If off, we turned it on. It was on one of my turns (I even remember which switch it was), I got the file kinda stuck in the switch. As I was trying to get it out I hear, “hurry up, Copenhaver’s coming”. Yeah, right, right? I wasn’t going to be fooled by that one. Everybody else scattered while I kept struggling until I got my file out. As I turned around ….. gulp …. There he was. He told me to wait for him in his office. I could see the paddle on the wall. I knew I was gonna get it. I was trying to convince myself not to cry. In what seemed like an eternity later (I think he gave me all that time on purpose) he walked into the office and closed the door. Instead of yelling at me, he calmly asked me to sit down. He sat down, facing me and said in a deafeningly soft a voice, something like…. “Johnny, I’m disappointed in you. You’re better than that. That’s all I have to say. You can go.” That was much worse than the paddle could have been – but he knew me and knew it would be. What a master teacher.   

Several years later, I visited Morehead State University to participate in a conference that Copenhaver was a part of, and even shared a dorm room with him for a night…and he blew me away when he confessed that he maybe shouldn’t have used all those extreme tactics. In fact, I recall him using the words, “that was wrong”. I was crushed.   

Right or wrong, tho, it is hard to argue with success. During my freshman and sophomore years (the two with Copenhaver as director), the Holmes Band never lost a contest. In some of the contests, we would receive a standing ovation from the other bands as we entered the stadium.In addition to local area competitions, we travelled to Murfreesboro, Tennessee to participate in the “Contest of Champions”. Sophomore year they changed the rules when they added a “Governor’s Cup” which could only go to the highest ranking Tennessee band. So we were the Grand Champion but did not get the Governor’s Cup.We also competed in a week long contest at Virginia Beach, Virginia. That competition included parade, an inspection, concert band and field show components. We were declared Grand Champions.   

Copenhaver at USC


Our concert band was invited to perform at KMEA (Kentucky Music Educator’s) convention as well as the MENC (Music Educator’s National Convention) in Chicago. So, tactics and all, it is hard to argue with success. Following his 6 years at Holmes, Copenhaver went back to school and then spent a few years at Clemson University before putting in 34 years at the University of South Carolina.It was Copenhaver who got me connected to my clarinet teacher, Robert Roden, convincing him to give me an opportunity when I couldn’t afford his fee. And I suspect he had a hand in my full ride scholarships to summer music camps at Morehead State University and Eastern Kentucky University …..and to my selection for participation in the United States Collegiate Band that toured Europe and the USSR the summer between high school and college.  

Just a few years ago, he was a clinician at Tennessee Tech University during the time my older son was a music major there. I got to visit that weekend and I think it was perhaps somewhat a memorable moment for him to see a second generation of musicians; a music major son of a music major student.    

Aside from the fact that he is an amazing role model, what Copenhaver taught me was the concept of having high standards and high expectations and not accepting anything less than a best effort, no matter who you are. I can only imagine how many band directors there are in the world now because of his teaching.  

What follows is a video from his final (and best) band at Holmes as it performed at the Contest of Champions in Tennessee. Because it is copied from an old, overused film, there are some gaps and jumps in the audio and video, but you can see the incredible accuracy of a military style of ankle to the knee marching that no one does (or can do) today.  

Have a great Band reunion, Mr. Copenhaver. Wish I could be there on 9/11, but I have a rehearsal, a parade and a competition that day. On the other hand, perhaps I could slip away and see if anyone would notice.  

Thanks for reading,


3 thoughts on “4 Influential Men in My Life

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