(Editor's note: this story was inspired by Jill Tucker's feature profile of Tim Wilson in the April 21, 2017 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle.)
Mr. Wilson is shuffling sheet music on his music stand and darting around the front of the room. It’s fourth period at Lavonya DeJean Middle school in Richmond. His Advanced Band class is warming up, and a few stragglers are still collecting their instruments and finding seats. According to Mr. Wilson, we’re behind schedule.
“You guys, it’s four minutes after the bell rang and I have one trombone player on the first note!”
Mr. Wilson usually has a recording playing when students walk into the room. They immediately begin to play along, which gets classes off to a running start. Today, it’s Handel’s oratorio, “See the Conquering Hero Comes.”
When the band hits its stride, Wilson’s eyes light up behind thick glasses and he smiles. He holds a baton, but the music is moving through his whole body when he’s up on the podium.
“Trumpets!” he cries, and cuts the band off mid-song, “You’re too late!”
Mr. Wilson started the music program at DeJean Middle School a little over four years ago. He teaches some math classes, too, and it’s not unusual for him to work through breaks or fill in for other teachers. He seems to be in perpetual motion. You’d think he’s been doing this forever, but he had a really different role in music before this.
“Prior to this I was the principal trumpeter at the San Francisco Opera from 1980 to 2003, and I then took a medical retirement.”
Mr. Wilson took that retirement because he started to go blind. He wasn’t ready to give up the trumpet, but in 2003, doctors diagnosed him with glaucoma, and he chose retirement rather than risking what was left of his sight.
“Glaucoma is a disease where the pressure is too high,” he explains. “What happens is there’s a trampoline-like piece in the back of the eye that the optic nerve exits through. And when the pressure goes up, that expands backwards and exposes the optic nerves to pressure where they used to be on the outside of the eyeball.”
An exposed optic nerve sound painful, but Mr. Wilson assures me it isn’t. He didn’t even know he had glaucoma until he struggled to read his sheet music. But that’s not the reason he had to retire from the Opera.
“Glaucoma pressures are exacerbated by certain things. Like having a baby, bearing down on the toilet, lifting weights or, oh, blowing into a high pressure instrument.”
Like the trumpet. Mr. Wilson already had an advanced case when he was diagnosed. Doctors told him that he could continue playing—go for the stellar career—and risk total blindness. Or, he could stop. He says the last opera he played was Lady Macbeth of Mstensk by Dmitri Shostakovich.
“It was 20/20 hindsight when I realized what a wonderful thrilling relationship I had to the greater society being able to communicate through my trumpet. It wasn't until I couldn't play the trumpet anymore that I felt like I’d lost the ability to speak in society and I realized that was my connection. It was the musical language that I stirred the hearts of 3000 people every night. So for several years I would cry every time I heard a symphony orchestra. Because I wanted to be making that noise that was touching my heart.”
But Mr. Wilson found a way to speak that musical language again.
“I came out of retirement when my kids were grown and in grad school and working and I said “What am I going to do with myself? I’ll teach middle school. Math and music.”
This trumpet virtuoso has nurtured at least 500 students through the music program he started here in Richmond. Even though the position was just a job at first, Mr. Wilson quickly recognized a need in the community. Lavonya DeJean is a Title I school, which means it gets extra government support because most of the students come from low-income families. At DeJean, 98 percent of students are socio-economically disadvantaged.
“When I first came there was no band program,” Wilson tells me. “Well, I quickly fell in love with these students. With their resilience, with their potential, as well as their accomplishments. And I asked myself, ‘If this was my child, what would I want for him or her?’”
He says he couldn’t stand his students not having the same opportunities as his own sons. So he ended up buying hundreds of instruments for the school with his own money.
“Clarinets, trumpets, flutes, saxophones, french horns, drums… to outfit five periods of bands. I was aiming for two instruments per student. I didn't get that far, but I did buy a lot of instruments for my students.” He says the word “my” with pride in his voice.
Mr. Wilson estimates that he’s put $300,000 dollars of his savings into the music program. He pays his assistant Mr. Perry through his teacher salary. He regularly works 12 and 14-hour days.
“The demands on a music director are great,” he explains. “And there are a lot of after hours, weekends, summertime activities.”
The school needed the resources, but what the students really appreciate is the effort. It’s taken a toll. Mr. Wilson is having some health problems again, and he’s taking his doctor’s advice to slow down. No more band, no more commute. Take it easy.
“I’ve built something quickly and now it needs a younger impresario to take it over. So, I made the choice to step aside and I’ll be teaching mathematics next year,” Wilson says. “I’m not young chicken anymore,” he adds with a laugh.
The instruments will stay, but Mr. Wilson’s departure won’t go unnoticed. “I hope he stays," says Steve Lopez, a 7th grader with another year at deJean "I’m going to miss him when he’s gone.”
The band starts practicing, so Samantha Hernandez and I walk outside. She says she’s going to miss him too, but she’s sticking with band.
“I can’t not do band after Mr. Wilson!” She says, sounding shocked. “He’s the one who first encouraged me to play music. It makes me feel peace. And free, and calm, and with myself.”
Every student I spoke with wanted to stick with music. Even the ones moving on to high school next year.
Back in the classroom, Mr. Wilson strikes up the next song. They make it through two bars before he cuts them off.
“Trumpets! It sounds like this: bawp bawp bawp bawp.”
Mr. Wilson says he’s happy, and tired. And he’s getting a lot of attention for the program he’s built here. The city of Richmond is even giving him a formal honor. But he resists the idea that it’s about him. What it’s about is the students.
“It’s up to them to make their way in life. It’s just up to me to get obstacles out of their way and put resources in their hands.”
He built a culture of music at a school where most students wouldn’t get the chance to pick up an instrument. But Mr. Wilson says it’s not about what he’s done, it’s about what he’s doing.
“It’s the performance, not listening to the recording afterwards that I find rewarding. It’s the doing, not the reveling in.”
He cues the band to start the song again. This time, they’re nailing it.
“One, two, three, four,” he counts. “Yes!”
Mr. Wilson turns to me with a triumphant grin. He’s beaming from the lectern. Arms jumping and flying, he aims his focus first at the low brass, then the trumpets and the woodwinds. The percussion section leans over their drums, poised like cats, not taking their eyes off him. He’s bouncing from the knees, tipping forward on the balls of his feet as though he might take off in flight.