Todd Carr

Todd Carr has always had a love for music. Long before he could even read and understand the notes, he would stand at his parent’s oversized record player and wave his arms in the air as the song played, conducting the melody.

“I actually believed that whatever the conductor did, that’s the notes that would come out,” he said with a chuckle. He explains his habit of constantly having the radio on in his room, crediting his dad whom never turned off his own radio that played in the garage.

In recognition of Music in Our Schools month during March, I visited with Carr about his love of teaching music. His passion for both teaching and music comes to him naturally as he comes from a family experienced in both fields. His parents both had musical talents; his dad sang in church and his mom played clarinet. Carr recalls his junior high years when he took part in piano lessons alongside his mom. The passion for teaching led back several generations, his great-grandfather, grandfather and his father were all teachers and his mom worked as a secretary at the high school.

He believes the teaching could spread to yet another generation. He laughs, “My kids want to deny it, but I think they’d be good teachers.” Carr met his wife Bobbi Jo while attending college at South Dakota State University (SDSU) and proposed to her in front of the school band. They’ve added two children to their family: Joshua, a senior in high school who sings and plays the horn, and Sara, a freshman trombone player, singer, and actor.

Upon graduating high school, Carr admits that he didn’t follow his first career choice. He attended Augustana University in Sioux Falls to become a computer programmer and admits to picking this field because he listened to those around him who suggested that he wouldn’t make any money teaching or making music. Though he liked the school, after two years into the program he realized he wasn’t on the right path. One semester, while taking three programming languages at the same time, he recognized that he might make a good living, but he wouldn’t be happy.

He started his schooling all over again at SDSU, attaining his master’s degree in music education. Deciding to switch his major and fall back into music was a wonderful feeling for him. He had missed the aspect of working with other people, in the computer field he completed most of his work alone. His influence for teaching music to others came from his 7th grade band director, Joe Silko. He admired how well Silko connected with students.

Carr explains the excitement that he felt for music after learning from Silko. “That was like a fire that would not ever go out,” he recalls. Other students of Silko were motivated enough to pursue musical careers as well.

He strives to teach music to others with the passion he first felt for it. He explains, “I knew that, the way I felt about music is the way that I wanted other kids to feel about music.”

His 25-year long teaching career began with teaching choir, band and general music in Bridgewater, SD. He landed in Yankton in 1992 and is the Band Director at Yankton High School. Gwen Wenisch comes from the Yankton Middle School to assist with the freshman students and the marching band. He tries to teach his students skills that can be used outside of the classroom. Along with teaching them to be good musicians, he encourages them to learn how to be good people and work together with others.

Though Carr can play all musical instruments enough to demonstrate the technique, he admits that he’s not an expert musician on all the instruments. He laughs, “I can play them all badly,” and admits that he feels the clarinet is the hardest instrument to play. He learned first on trombone and later learned bass guitar as a junior in high school.

His musical ability gave him the skill to play in a variety of music bands throughout his life and played everything from heavy metal to country to variety music genres. He now substitutes about once per month as a bass guitarist for a band at the Assembly of God church, a group that he credits for being very talented and passionate.

He explains, “I’ve learned that everything I played in all those other bands, I’m actually using it here.” He continues, “Two months ago, I was using things I learned from Rush songs, and last weekend I used some licks that I learned playing Iron Maiden songs.”

His favorite instrument to play is the trombone but he has had a great time playing bass guitar. He is trying to master playing the guitar and singing at the same time. Like his musical experience, Carr likes to listen to everything across the spectrum. Though Rush is his favorite band, he finds himself listening to whatever he is in the mood for. He found that heavy metal musicians had so much passion and energy behind their music but is now finding those traits in the Assembly of God group as well.

He explains how music unifies people. “The musician has a need inside to give, to let it out. Audiences have a need to hear, to relate. If you put a live musician in front of a live audience, there’s a two-way communication that can happen, which really, I think, is the essence of it all. We can’t quantify it, can’t put our finger on it, it’s just there.”

Carr explains that he has two favorite moments of each school year, hearing the first note from the band students and the last note from them at the end of the year. The first note he explains, as you can imagine, often doesn’t sound great. By the time the year rolls around to his other favorite moment of hearing the last note, it’s apparent to him how much the students have progressed. He’s always surprised that, though everyone starts on a different level, they can all progress together to the next spot of improvement.

“Being in band is the best example of a long-term project you can put together,” he states. He explains how most band students start on an instrument in 5th grade and if they can push through the struggle of the initial learning phase, they can continue working toward becoming a good musician and have a rather large sense of accomplishment at the end. He compares this as parallel to marriage, life or a job.

He encourages parents to guide their children with perseverance. “I think the biggest resource is parents that have patience. Whatever it is, from singing to art, encourage those kids to continue to work, to continue to practice.” He recommends being supportive of the child and taking every opportunity to be creative with them, for instance painting or pulling an old instrument out of the closet to play.

The biggest challenge Carr faces during the school year is time. “Kids are so busy. They have a lot of responsibilities to deal with, at home, at school, so many more have jobs. They don’t have the ability to commit like we did when I was a kid.” He embraces the challenge and tries to get the student progressed as far as he can with the time they have and the resources that they use.

Reflecting upon his own time as a music student, he recalls a favorite moment. During his last marching show with the band at SDSU, he was overcome by a strange thought that he would never play his trombone again. He played the last long note in sync with the band and when the music stopped, he threw his trombone slide as hard as he could, sending it sailing into the air. He then dramatically wedged his trombone straight into the ground in front of him, marched off and left it there. Though he ruined his horn, he later created use for it by turning it into a fountain at his home.

“People haven’t forgotten it. You know, you want to leave your mark somehow,” he laughs heartily.

Carr has his own creative outlets besides music, tinkering with computers and tearing them apart and playing old 80’s video games. Though he spends his life teaching others, he never stops learning himself. “I grow every day. I learn something more every day. I think I’ve grown more patience, troubleshooting skills, people skills. You have to continue to change.”

As a teacher, Carr takes much pride in the teachers that they are creating. Several students under Carr’s leadership are doing exactly what he hoped for, thinking about music education. “That’s why we’re teachers, to pass on the desire to share what we’re feeling.”