Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Remembering "Ms. Z"

A lot of us were afraid this was coming, but we didn't know it would happen so soon.

Marcia Zoffuto, known as "Marcy" to friends and colleagues and "Ms. Z" to nearly all of her legions of students, passed away Sunday of cancer, surrounded by her family. She had been sick for well over a year, so much so that she retired from her position as the legendary band director at Coyle Middle School in the Dallas suburb of Rowlett, where she took the band to never-before-seen heights.

Among the band's awards: Being named State Honor Band in its classification twice (in 2002 and 2006, if I'm recalling correctly), which gave the band the chance to perform at the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) convention the next year; an invitation to the prestigious Midwest Clinic in Chicago (which I attended for the first time last year), as well as two other major clinics in Seattle and Indianapolis. The program won the Sudler Cup in 2003, and this past May, Marcy was honored with the Bayard H. Friedman Hero Award for being the most outstanding band teacher in North Texas.

A daughter of the iconic West Texas band director J.R. McEntyre, Marcy was certainly driven, intense and demanding, yet she also had a gentle, caring and nurturing side. And despite all the accolades bestowed upon her and her program, she maintained a profound sense of humility; I think she sometimes found it hard to believe that people were making such a fuss over her, because she was just doing what she was born to do.

One of the most unique things about the Coyle program has been the constant involvement of the alumni. The way that the Honor Band competition works is that a band submits a recording of performances during the school year, which go through a judging process that culminates in the finalists being announced over the summer, with the winners performing the following year at TMEA. That means that, in a middle school situation, the eighth graders who played on the winning recording would be high school freshmen by the time of the TMEA performance. But Marcy made sure that those students were involved as well, utilizing a hybrid ensemble of eighth graders and alumni (i.e. a lot of the group that made the original recording) during the TMEA performances, and some of the other festivals as well. I've never been in another situation where high schoolers retained ties to their middle school program in this manner, but such was the nature of these kids' devotion to "Ms. Z."

Of course, this intensity and work ethic wasn't for everyone; kids would sometimes burn out so much that they wouldn't even continue with band in high school. (In fact, the one articulated difference of opinion that she and I had occurred a number of years ago when she asked me to listen to an eighth grader's alto solo on one of their contest pieces and help him sound "more professional." While I assured her that we shared the goal of excellence--and that I knew exactly what she was looking for, sound-wise--I wondered if the use of that particular terminology wasn't putting undue pressure on a kid that young.) But those who stuck with the program certainly reached a level of performance rarely seen by middle-school musicians (not to mention many high schools).

The cancer that eventually claimed her came sometime during the '06-'07 year. Despite rumors of her retirement at the end of that year, she came back last year and hung on valiantly, leading the band to the Indianapolis festival by sheer force of will. As her health worsened, we didn't see her all that often, but she came in for the key rehearsals and performances and got the most out of her time.

She did retire at the end of this school year (I really wish now that I'd made it to that final concert), and we received periodic updates of her condition throughout the summer, the most recent being on Saturday, the day before she passed. I heard then that she had some major setbacks in the past week, but I had no idea the end would come so soon.

The memorial service this morning was packed; I arrived fifteen minutes early and got one of the few remaining seats in the main sanctuary. People were seated in the choir loft, in folding chairs added to the aisles, and in several rows of the lobby, where the service was beamed out to a screen. The sheer volume of people, from all walks of life (family, friends, colleagues, current and former students), proved to be a fitting testimony to the number of lives she touched.

One of the eulogists noted that Marcy had once told him, "I really want to leave a legacy." You have, Marcy. You have.

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