As schools prepare for summer break, many will say goodbye to beloved, long-serving teachers who are retiring. Among them is Bear Irwin, a music teacher at Mill River Union High School. Irwin entered his first classroom in 1970, and is retiring this year.
The chaotic thrum of trumpets, timpani, brass and woodwind warming up is the white noise of Bear Irwin’s day. What’s fascinating, however, is how quickly he turns that into the harmonic sound of an orchestra playing together. Once Irwin cues his students to begin playing, his hands and body never stop moving; coaxing and pointing, tapping and stabbing with his baton like a wizard casting a spell.
“It is fun!" exalts Irwin. "This is not fair. Other people are standing at some machine making 100,000 widgets a day. I get to be with a whole bunch of different people. You know, I have five different ensembles here," says Irwin. "Isn’t there a Chinese proverb that the person who loves their work never really works a day in their life?”
From his students' perspective, it also doesn't appear that Irwin consider his vocation to be work. "He’s more than a teacher to us," says Mill River senior Christian Brand. "He’s more of a friend.”
Brand plans to study music education in college next year, in a large part because of Irwin. Brand says Irwin commands respect from students and gets it because students sense how much he cares. “So when he raises his baton, everyone just clicks right on. They just know they’re going to make music," explains Brand. "Time to be quiet because we’re going to play for him and us.”
Irwin returns the sentiments and calls his students wonderful people. “What I often say is, if you could magically be the same age, you would want them to be your friends. Each one has a great sense of humor, which I think plays out in those rehearsals, and they have a great respect for each other," says Irwin of his students. "It really is the most important thing we learn in ensembles. We’re learning to do music, but what we’re learning that’s way more important – that transfers to everything else – is [that] there’s an awareness of everyone else in the room.”
All the arts are important, says Irwin. But painters paint alone, sculptors sculpt alone and writers write alone. Music is different, he says, because it can involve others.
Irwin stands before his classroom, energetically directing the musicians. "Good! So as soon as we’re an ensemble, right, we’re a matching pitch, integrating rhythms, balancing dynamics and blending tone," he calls out to them as they play. "I don’t think we’ll hear the tempo change if everybody plays that half note so loud all the way through it.”
Irwin says playing music in an ensemble teaches valuable life lessons, such as being accountable. "That’s the important thing that they learn, and they learn it pretty fast, and that’s an attractive quality. If they’ve been in a chorus or a band, they’ll be a great member of every community they’re in for the rest of their lives because of that awareness of others and that sense of discipline and responsibility," he says.
Jazz saxophonist Jonathan Lorentz graduated from Mill River in 1994 and says Irwin was a huge influence on him. “What impresses us as students is that he’s got an amazing amount of musical knowledge and ability," says Lorentz. "His trombone chops are just phenomenal." Among many professional associations, Irwin has played with the Vermont Jazz Ensemble.
Lorentz says Irwin's musical talent is the first thing you see, "But then as you get to know him, the human connection is just remarkable," Lorentz says of his former teacher. "He can communicate and really treat the students as people, not just as kids. He really treated us as people and that’s the thing that I hope to carry with me when I go out into the world.”
In addition to more than 40 years in the classroom, Irwin has helped organize and run many state and regional music festivals, and marched with his students in countless parades. But the 67-year-old says he’s looking forward to having more time to make music.
Teaching has been his vocation since 1970, beginning in Enosburg Falls, and he admits it will be strange to leave the classroom. But pointing to his full white beard, he says it’s time. “You know, those seniors that I taught – they’re 45 years older too!" he says, laughing. "Some of them are retired! For me, I didn’t really think about retiring. That’s kind of an indicator.”
Releasing his class at the end of the school day, Irwin looks out at the classroom and beams at his students. "Thank you for your focus. I love working with you guys," he tells the class. "Stay safe this weekend, you’re very important to me."