Forgive me Stevie Wonder for slightly reordering your lyrics, but I think you’d agree that it’s hard to reach your highest ground without the help of teachers. Being a teacher is often a thankless job. Nobody gets rich or famous for being a teacher, yet the contribution teachers make to society is invaluable. So, in honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I’d like to take the opportunity to thank some of the teachers who helped me reach my highest ground.
The Teachers Who Made Me What I Am Today
My saxophone teacher from the age of 9 until I was 18, Erik is largely responsible for my love of music. Seeing that my career has largely centered around music and technology, Erik can largely take credit for planting the seed and nurturing the music branch of that tree. When I began to take an interest in the piano and composing Erik was quick to urge my parents to get me piano lessons. And when my parents wanted to buy me a new saxophone as a graduation present it was Erik who took me to the best New York area music stores to find the perfect sax. Beyond music, Erik was an extremely positive role model throughout my formative years. He taught me to treat others with respect, be accountable for my mistakes, and value my time and the time of others. For all of the above and much more I am grateful for the impact Erik had on my life.
By the age of 13, I had taught myself to play piano, I was beginning to compose my own music, and I was slowly collecting a variety of audio electronics. I owned a Yamaha SY55 synthesizer with an onboard sequencer, a Tascam four-track recorder, and boxes of random audio cables. Recognizing my newfound passions Erik Lawrence convinced my parents to get me piano lessons and introduced me to David Snider. If Erik was my music guru then David was my technology guru. Upon realizing my knack for creating music and tinkering with anything music electronics-related, David managed to convince my parents to buy me my first computer (an Apple Mac) and my first audio software package (Mark of the Unicorn’s MOTU – Performer). He took my meandering teenage hobbies and turned them into a focused passion that would ultimately drive a large part of my career. David brought much more than technology to my life. He taught me how to play Jazz piano, something I still do to this day. In fact, 30+ years later I can still play the song Misty exactly the way he taught to me. While David may not remember this, he called me in the early days of my freshman year of Music school to wish me luck and give me some advice on avoiding some of the pitfalls of a musician’s life. It seemed inconsequential at the time but the fact that he cared enough to do that is remarkable.
Eileen M Curley
In the first quarter of my freshman year of high school, I had a failing grade in math. This was not acceptable in the Flaks household, so my mother reached out to the teacher to see if she had any advice on how I could improve my grade. Ms. Curley selflessly gave her own free time to provide me with extra help. It quickly became apparent that my problem with math was unrelated to my aptitude and purely a function of not paying attention and not doing the work. In no time at all, I went from an F to an A. That year I scored a 99 on New York State standardize math exam (the regents) losing only 1 point for carelessly not carrying a negative sign down to my final answer on one question. When Ms. Curley received the results from that exam, she took time out of her day to directly call my house and excitedly tell my Mother how well I did. My time with Ms. Curley was a turning point in my life. Little did she know that I would ultimately go on to be a math major in college, leading to a career in math and computer science.
William (Bill) Garbinsky (a.k.a. Mr. G)
William Garbinsky was a musician first and a high school music teacher second. He loved music and he gave innumerable hours during and after school to help students like me become better musicians. He taught the concert band, wind ensemble, marching band, and jazz band and I was a member of all of them. He gave band nerds like me a place to call home and surrounded us with a like-minded peer group that made us all feel like we were part of something bigger. Mr. G even took time out of his day to teach AP Music History and Music Theory classes to the small cohort of students who were interested. Thanks to those Advanced Placement College Credits I had some free time on my schedule when I entered a college, which I promptly filled with math classes. Sadly Mr. G passed away some years ago but I hope he knows what a difference he made in my life and the lives of countless others.
James (Jim) McElwaine
I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Conservatory of Music at Purchase College. I was even more fortunate to study under James McElwaine. Professor McElwaine was a Physics student before going full bore into music. So, when he stumbled upon a kid in his music program who was taking calculus classes as electives, he embraced it and pushed me to pursue it further. Beyond encouraging me to explore the math program, Jim recognized my passion for everything audio electronics related, and he opened every door he could, including getting me jobs running live sound for campus events, running the conservatories recording studios and he even got me my first real paid gig as a recording engineer. Professor McElwaine’s willingness to embrace and encourage my odd trajectory through music school played a huge role in my ability to progress into a master’s program that ultimately allowed me to go from using pro-audio equipment to building it.
Martin (Marty) Lewinter
If my music professor was a physicist then surely, I needed a math professor who was also a musician. Lucky for me the head of the math program Martin Lewinter also happened to be a seasoned musician. Professor Lewinter taught that very first calculus class I took as an elective. After witnessing my interest in math, Marty encouraged me to take on a second degree. Before long I was pursuing two simultaneous bachelor’s degrees with a focus in music composition and math/computer science. Professor Lewinter gave hours of his time towards helping me as the math curriculum progressively got harder and he continued to push me to excel in both the math and the music program. When I started applying to graduate schools with a heavier engineering focus, I picked up some textbooks to independently review. After struggling over some of the math equations I asked Professor Lewinter for some help. I still remember our conversation, where I showed him an equation in a book and he had to explain to me that engineers used j for imaginary numbers, not i, so as not to be confused with the variable for current. It was a simple thing that just might have prevented my first year in graduate school from turning into a complete disaster!
In my junior and senior years of college, I started to dive deeper into the underlying math behind the audio tools I was using. I happened to be reading a book called the Principles of Digital Audio and found a note about the author who was a professor of “music engineering” at the University of Miami. Music engineering sounded like an awfully good way to combine four grueling years of math and music education, so I sent Professor Pohlmann an email asking if he’d consider accepting a student without an undergraduate electrical engineering degree. Ken was kind enough to respond, and he recommended I take an extra year to get some basic engineering credits and he pointed me towards some textbooks that might give me an early head start. Well, I did buy the books, but I otherwise ignored him and applied to the program anyway. I still remember being overjoyed at receiving an acceptance letter where Ken told me that he thought my math background would carry me through the curriculum. With Professor Pohlmann and the University of Miami Music Engineering program, I stumbled into a small world of like-minded folks who had a passion for math and music. Professor Pohlman took a hodgepodge of academic pursuits I haphazardly pieced together and combined them into one coherent subject that would ultimately lead to my final career as an engineer, manager, and executive on countless audio projects.
How many teachers have fed you information that you can directly correlate to your current and future earnings? Not many, but that is exactly what Will Pirkle did for me and many others. Professor Pirkle was able to perfectly blend theory and practice and teach me how to effectively turn everything I had learned into real software that did amazing things with an audio signal. Will took all the ethereal subject matter I had learned over the years and made it into something I could feel and touch. It’s that skill set along with my own willingness to pester anybody for something I want, that led me to my first full-time job with a music software company called Opcode, (ironically a competitor of MOTU) bringing me full circle back to some of my earlier education. Will’s teaching has stood the test of time and I still find a use for some of what he taught. And whenever anybody asks for advice about the audio/music engineering space I regurgitate much of the knowledge Professor Pirkle imparted on me. Without a doubt, I can say that my employability and financial wellbeing are directly tied to everything I learned from Professor Pirkle.
To All the Teachers
While the eight teachers above had the most profound effect on my life there are many other teachers who contributed to my success and I’d like to offer my thanks to all of them. And to all the teachers out there who feel unappreciated, please remember that somewhere out there, in that sea of children, is a kid who just needs a little extra push to find out who they are and be the best version of themselves. Keep fighting for those kids because I am living proof of the impact you can have.
One Final Note of Gratitude
Since Mother’s Day is fast approaching, I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the greatest teacher of them all, my Mother, Susan Flaks. My mother was there for every step of the journey described in this post. Whether that was teaching me my first notes on the piano, driving me to private music lessons, paying for that first computer, pushing me to get extra help when I needed it, paying for college, or just supporting me through my entire education, she was the root of all my academic and professional success. My mother was more than just an amazing parent, she was also a teacher for more decades than she would care for me to publicly comment on, and I know she had a positive influence on numerous students who like me, went on to be happy, healthy, and well-rounded adults, who have made a positive contribution to their communities and the world.