For most musicians, a hand injury impedes work, creating a distance between them and their music.
For Tony Brown, a hand injury was the deciding factor that led to a career in music.
While attending Mehlville High School, Brown competed on the football field and played the clarinet in the band. When a football scrimmage sophomore year ended in a dislocated finger, Brown decided to step away from the sport and focus on music.
“The doctors said if I did any more severe damage to it, I’d lose that portion of my finger,” he said. “At the time, I said, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just stick with band.’”
Sticking with band gave Brown the exposure to 24-year Mehlville Band Director Don Kinnison. Brown was a transfer student who lived in St. Louis, so Kinnison would often give Brown rides home after rehearsals.
“We had talked about being a band director and music and somewhere along those rides home, I decided I wanted to be a band director pretty young in high school,” he said.
Brown earned a scholarship to the University of North Texas, and after graduation, taught for a year at Sinton High School in Texas. Brown said he wanted to be a band director in Texas, where like most things in the state, band is big.
“It’s all about the excess,” he said. “The programs are very large, there’s a lot of resources that go into band and football.”
Kinnison would change Brown’s life again when he called the young teacher and asked him to apply for the assistant band director position at Mehlville High School.
Kinnison advised Brown to spend five years at Mehlville, a much larger school than Sinton, and go back to Texas with that experience.
Nineteen years later, Brown is the director of bands at Mehlville High School, and Mehlville and Oakville’s .
Brown was nominated by several members in the community and then won by in a poll of the top nominees.
“It is nice to be acknowledged,” he said. “But parents are the real heroes of the program. Without what our parents, do, without their dedication to our kids, our program wouldn’t be much. I just kind of steer, I’m just the rudder, you can still float without the rudder.”
Brown also credits the band’s success to the four assistant directors and tutors in the program.
“They are the workers, they’re the ones that come in and grind it out,” he said. “I don’t feel like I single-handedly am the person that makes what we do here happen, it’s a collective of parents and teachers and also teachers throughout the building, the web goes deep and goes far.”
Even though Brown stayed at Mehlville rather than returning to Texas, he’s tried to incorporate some of the big band mentality into the program.
Through the Mehlville Band Parents Association, Brown organized Thursday night bingo every week at Bandwagon Hall. Over the last three years, this bingo night has funded specialized tutors and .
“The thing about Mehlville that is we have fairly limited resources within our school climate. The thing that has been most promising, and this is the charm of Mehlville, we’ve always had a strong commitment to people,” he said. “Our resource is the people and that’s what is the magic.”
Directors from universities all over the country have traveled to Mehlville to teach the students. Bingo allows the band to do things that are unprecedented in the state of Missouri, such as the tutoring provided.
“Our kids can come into this program and have everything at their disposal to leave here and be competitive anywhere,” he said.
Brown said he's made it his goal to have every band student attend college after graduation.
As early as middle school, band students travel to universities to see different campuses, planting the thought that they can attend college, Brown said. In March, the high school band and visited two campuses while performing for Hurricane Katrina victims.
“We’ve made strides in changing the philosophy in our program the last couple of years,” he said. “If there’s something you can do very well and you’re very good at it, that’s a good feeling, it’s powerful.”
Brown said he wants his students to succeed regardless of their career paths.
“I want the kids playing at a high level, I want them achieving at a high level, but most importantly, through their voyage, I want them to be more competitive in whatever they choose,” he said. “The music in reality is probably 50 percent, the other 50 percent is being a good person.”
Before and after class, students flock to the band room to hang out, or quietly knock on the band office door to confide in the director. Brown said he wants to make kids want to come back the next day, whether it’s stopping outside practice to avoid geese droppings or volunteering at bingo.
“What kept me here at Mehlville was the music, but there’s a wholeness, a pureness about our kids, they’re just good people to be around,” he said.
Brown thinks he made the right decision by staying at Mehlville. His parents still live in their St. Louis City home, and Brown has made his own home with fellow band director Jennifer Garrison Brown in Soulard.
His wife of 10 years also attended Mehlville High School and the University of North Texas before returning to direct band at Washington Middle School. The two have a 3-year-old daughter named Evangelina, Eva for short. The name means “bringer of good news” and “life,” and was not a name the two often encountered while teaching.
“I think she’s (Eva) made me more focused, more focused and more directed,” he said. “I have become more thoughtful in some of the things that we do, having that impact on our kids and maybe in the future, somebody having that kind of impact on Eva as well.”
Brown said he enjoys golfing outside work, but it’s a rare escape from the band. He and the other directors often work up to 80 hours a week between afterschool practices, football games and competitions.
“I don’t know if we ever do leave it,” he said. “It’s a lifestyle really.”