Frank Manna was a master teacher who built a legendary high school band by making his students pass through a crucible. At times as ruthless as Terrence Fletcher—the jazz band instructor in the movie Whiplash—Manna demanded absolute perfection from his students. His teaching style would not work for everyone, yet there is something praiseworthy about it and perhaps in need of emulation in our times. Teachers should not be afraid to be demanding; they should study the legendary taskmaster of Chicago’s South Side and learn to do it well.
He was my high school band director. My first encounter with Mr. Manna was at a marching band practice that felt more like bootcamp. I was part of the last all-male class at Marist High School, toward the end of Manna’s teaching career. It also happened to be the highlight of Manna’s musical career: the band was going to the Rose Bowl parade—the “granddaddy of them all”—and Manna was not going to let any young freshmen screw it up.
The first day of practice was almost like a scene out of a movie. Lined up in a row, we freshmen boys stood in formation, quaking in our boots, waiting for the arrival of the reincarnation of Napoleon to survey his troops. I came to learn that students of all ages had a healthy mixture of fear and admiration in his presence. Manna was a large, intimidating man of Italian heritage from the South Side of Chicago. One could be forgiven for thinking him a friend of Tony Soprano’s.
Manna meant business, and his appearance sold it. With a prominent Roman nose and a gold chain that shone through the jungle of chest hair popping out of his polo shirt, he managed his class like a commandeering Roman general. In Manna’s world, there was no difference between a marching band and the military. People outside the school recognized this, making it perhaps the only place in the world where students were extremely proud to wear the get-up and step lively.
The success of the marching band was all thanks to Mr. Manna. He set the bar very high, and students knew they had it coming if they showed up to class unprepared. The wrath of Manna was hot and it didn’t feel good to suffer its blaze. But feelings did not matter. Manna was like the master mountaineer leading, and sometimes dragging, his young group to the heights. The journey was difficult, and many gave up, but those who stuck it out appreciated the view from the heights and were transformed for the better. Thanks to Mr. Manna, we were the highlight of the 5 ½ mile stretch of the Rose Bowl Parade, and it was thrilling to be a part of that.
Education could use more Mr. Mannas. And while his tactics would not always be appropriate today, there are a few lessons to be taken from his single-minded passion to draw excellence from all of his students. Like Terrence Fletcher, Manna became a band director not to “conduct but to push people beyond what is expected of them.” Fletcher, in a way, was right that the more demanding way was “an absolute necessity” that would otherwise deprive the world of the next Louis Armstrong, the next Charlie Parker. Like him, Manna made you want to practice till you bled, and in those drops of blood, perfection was to be found. Sadly, Fletcher was right that the world has become content with imperfection.
Manna, however, differed from Fletcher in one significant way: he did not share the fictitious teacher’s belief that the most harmful words in the English language are “good job.” He pronounced them, just once, to me, and it meant the world.
Students need support and encouragement but they also need the crucible if they are to realize the fullness of their God-given abilities—to suffer a little for the sake of greatness.
Here are a few lessons we can learn from traditional teachers like Mr. Manna:
Initially, do not be friendly with students
One of my first mistakes teaching was that I was too friendly the first day of class. The first note sets the tone for the rest of the song. If the first note of authority is not loud and clear, the students hear weakness and take from you. Students test their teachers to see who is in control. If the teacher doesn’t come across as the alpha dog, then a student will. I’ve seen entire semesters fall apart because the students who were in control would not permit the teacher to teach. Remember that the first couple of days with the students are like the first year of a marriage: it sets the tone for the rest of the marriage.
Mr. Manna did not come close to making this mistake. He was the silverback gorilla and his students were subordinates, but there was never a doubt that he had the best of intentions for the band. His presence instilled order and good behavior.
He seemed not to like freshmen, and if you were not passionate about the band, he did not have time for you. You had to earn his respect with hard work over the long haul. Once you thought you had his respect, falling at ease and perhaps becoming a bit careless, you were quickly put in your place, which was back at square one. Only in their spring semester did the seniors become his peers. That’s because they had made it; they passed the band equivalent of Navy SEAL training.
During band practice it was not uncommon to see a Manna-launched baton or drumstick flying through the air. Students had an ingrained reflex to duck just in case they were the target. This never happened to me, but I was sometimes not-so-gently set down. Mr. Manna had an impeccable ear that did not tolerate the slightest imperfection. Even amid a band of 150, he could identify who was out of tune or not in time. He himself had mastered every one of the instruments, and he was especially hard on the drummers because they were the backbone of the band. He knew the fundamentals that went into the making of a perfect band and he worked them. The result was an art, beautiful to behold. It served the whole community. This would have not been possible without Manna’s demand for perfection.
Teachers must identify and demand perfection in the fundamentals. For instance, theology teachers should make sure their students have a good foundation in the Scripture (the “soul” of theology) and that they know the basics of orthodox Christology. Without those fundamentals in place, the art of theology will not properly develop and serve mankind.
Be passionate about your craft
Mr. Manna’s style of conducting his high school marching band reminded people of Leonard Bernstein’s. His passion and enthusiasm for music rang through the whole of his existence. The song he happened to listen to that morning probably set the tone for the rest of the day, absorbing everyone he encountered into the tune. Music was in his body, especially in his face and its expressions. As a musician, this was helpful. I never really had to look down at the minute music notation to see how I should be playing. The music was in his eyes, and he brought you into that music. The last scene of the movie Whiplash reminds me of this. The young jazz drummer Andrew Neiman, who had abandoned the drums after having passed through the sheer hell created by Fletcher, returns to the instrument once more, determined to take control. Earlier, Fletcher had humiliated him before an audience, but instead of giving up Neiman comes back and astounds his teacher by perfectly playing the notoriously difficult “Caravan.” The master finally recognizes the disciple’s achievement and Neiman blossoms. Beautifully shot, the movie ends on Fletcher’s approving glance at Nieman as they together perfectly bring “Caravan” to a close.
Every now and then the Absolute shines through us, particularly in such moments, bringing the world to wonder. The passion for beauty demands absolute commitment to your craft. Mr. Manna made all his students lovers of music because in and through him, the Muses sang.
I remember Mr. Manna as an embodiment of Aristotle’s magnanimous man (magna + anima = large soul). He walked with dignity and held his head high, only honoring what was good and true. And while most students complained about his ways from time-to-time, they also admired him, worked to please him, and perhaps secretly wanted to be like him.
Anyone who met Mr. Manna noticed his larger-than-life personality. While a strict taskmaster, he was extremely funny and we would often break into peals of laughter at his unexpected asides during class. He’d say things no one else dared to say, rough and all. His lines were so good students compiled a secret book of “Manna quotes” that was frequently updated. Because there was no artifice in him, Manna could only say what he said, and most of his remarks were full of truth. He called a spade a spade, and did not tolerate any nonsense, so his grades always reflected your true standing, and they inspired all of us to keep trying harder.
Teachers like Mr. Manna are sorely needed today—men and women willing to abandon a false or superficial idea of friendship in order to tap into and draw out the sparks of light and excellence within each student. Such teachers become legends.
I’ve always felt bad for those students who missed out on being in Mr. Frank Manna’s band. He formed us into a ‘band of brothers’ on a mission of distinction, managed via the virtue of discipline. We thought those who missed out on being in the band were ill-fated, and held their manhoods cheap.
To such master teachers, we owe tremendous respect. May all instructors strive to emulate this demanding style and perhaps be borne into legend.