the end of an era: Patrick Jackson's retirement

Red must be his color. He grew up fiddling on a little red toy guitar gifted by his grandfather in Mississippi. He drives a cherry red car and every performance, whether it is on the NKMS cafetorium stage or Carnegie Hall, he wears his lucky red kimono.

Patrick Jackson, KSD orchestra teacher, began his career in KSD in 1991 with 38 students. Jackson has grown the orchestra program significantly throughout his time with currently over 405 string players in the district. After Jackson's roller coaster ride of a career in music, from a middle school band, to Interlochen music camp, to teaching students himself, Jackson plans to retire the spring of 2017.

“I have so much respect and care for my students,” Jackson said. “After 31 years [in education], it's time to give it to someone else. Someone who is young and has fresh standards to keep it going.”

Jackson may not be a familiar face to all KHS students. He spends his days running from NKMS beginning strings class, to KHS Symphonic and Concert rehearsals then back to NKMS middle school orchestra. Yet this fast paced atmosphere is comfortable for the teacher of 31 years.

Photo by Zac Clingenpeel, photo illustration by Ali Randazzo

“I decided to go out one year to teach,” Jackson said. “To get some quick cash. How stupid of me,” Jackson said cracking his signature grin.

Jackson said he went through a rough start in his career to get to the level in KSD by applying for teaching jobs no one wanted at low income schools. He began his teaching career in education at Ford Middle School in the St. Louis Public School District in 1987.

“The first red flag was it was October, and they had no teacher,” Jackson said. “The assistant principal told me the students pushed the last band director out the window, literally. I’m not sure if they actually pushed him out the window, or he just escaped through the window. I left with knots in my stomach.”

Because Jackson cared for the students music education, he did what he had to do: he kicked unmotivated students out of the program to teach the remaining students proper technique from scratch on school instruments. After just a few months of training, Jackson’s orchestra got a 3 rating at St. Louis large ensemble contest and all 1 ratings the following year, the highest score possible.

After a fellow bassist in the Missouri State Ballet Orchestra told Jackson of an opening in KSD, Jackson quickly applied and received the job as orchestra director. Since then, he has traveled with students to local and national contests, Alice Tully Hall and Carnegie Hall.

“I’ve always been a tough teacher,” Jackson said. “This [KSD] program is not really good, it's really great. Even if a student doesn’t want to major in music, they have stayed since 4th grade. They have a love for the arts and music, and they know a standard of excellence in their own life [because of orchestra].”

photo by audrey lard, pioneer staff

Through his time of teaching, Jackson believes the most important part has been the relationships he has developed with his students. Even though he is tough, a simple ‘thank you’ note left on his desk can make him break down with emotion. Those are the moments he will miss about being a teacher.

“I want my students to feel that I have their best interest like they’re my kids,” Jackson said. “Sometimes I’m a tough teacher, but I keep the bar high. My student may not be a Juilliard violinist, but I know they will go out and be great at whatever they do. I am convinced of that. There is something in the atmosphere of the program that gives them a background to be great, and that's why they stay in the program.”

Along with relationships comes musical achievements. Jackson believes it is an achievement within itself for the KSD public school program to compete anywhere in the U.S. and hold its own. Jackson said although KHS may not be a magnet school or audition school, families travel from around the country to attend KHS for its orchestra program. Because so many students in the district have this opportunity, Jackson believes students learn and grow to understand a diverse selection of music through their time in the program.

“[The music] makes me feel like we are saying something, and we try to capture what the composer intended in such a way that its awe struck,” Jackson said.

After a long career, Jackson credits his success to his background in music. He grew up wanting to be just like his grandfather who played the guitar and sang blues at Saturday night gigs. The conductor believes this environment influenced him to go into music himself. Jackson said he was not like other kids who played with toys, he just wanted to play on his toy guitar. Jackson said his grandparents supported him partly to see another generation play a string instrument.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Jackson

“Growing up in a musical atmosphere, you don’t know anything different,” Jackson said. “I was consumed with music and only wanted to do that. I would stay up ‘til midnight in high school practicing. My grandparents never told me to be quiet, or to practice more. I did it on my own and worked really hard. I still try to seek and find new ways to improve my playing level and help my students.”

Jackson still lives in a musical atmosphere. His wife was a piano major in college and their daughter is a cello professor at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee. He is the grandfather of a little boy and girl, both who Jackson said will be encouraged to play an instrument. The boy is almost 3 and already fascinated with piano, but Jackson said he will see where it goes from there.

“I really think students have respect for me, but I want them to know I have respect for them,” Jackson said. “It may not all the time come across like that, but I want them to feel like they have a voice. We may not agree all the time, but I want them to know I would listen to them.”

Although retirement means more time with family, Jackson said he gets very emotional talking to colleagues about his next stage of life. He said it is triumphant and emotional to imagine his first freshman class to his current students and the journey in between. Although he is leaving this program, he still has high expectations for the future of the orchestra.

“I hope [the program] maintains the current [playing] level or gets higher,” Jackson said. “[I hope] it continues to provide opportunities for all walks of students. There is a place here in the orchestra program for all students if they want to be a musician, journalist or even a lawyer.”

The day will come when it is time to hang up his red kimono, but the red and white Kirkwood pride will always be a part of Patrick Jackson.

Photo by audrey lard

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