A lot has changed since 1995.
Twenty-six years ago, Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise sat atop the year-end Billboard Top 100 chart. Today, it’s Save Your Tears by The Weeknd and Ariana Grande who, by the way, were five and two years old, respectively, when Coolio’s ballad was king.
But there’s one thing that has remained steady throughout the decades, at least in Clarksville High School’s band room: Mrs. Robbin Johnston.
The Maryland native has degrees from West Virginia Institute of Technology and Austin Peay State University and, for the past 26 years, has worn every hat that a music teacher can wear for CHS.
“Wait until you see all the trophies,” said assistant principal Shannon Cummings as he walked me to “Ms. J’s” office. “You’ll be blown away.”
Lo and behold, the Clarksville band room is more awards than wall, and soon they’re going to run out of space to put the inevitable trophies coming in the near future.
But that won’t be Mrs. Johnston’s problem — after spending 26 years as the school’s band director, she is stepping away as the head of the program and officially retiring.
“It’s been the biggest honor of my life; it has been,” a teary-eyed Johnston said.
But it’s the right time.
Music has always been a major part of her life. She started as a violinist before taking up guitar. Then came the clarinet. And for the little girl who grew up wanting to be a music teacher, in her own words: “The rest is history.”
“I recognized that this was my passion, it was the thing I loved the most, was making music and being able to see someone else realize greatness,” Johnston said. “Wherever that greatness is on their scale, because there’s greatness in little things and greatness in big things.”
She taught at Greenwood Middle School and Northeast Middle School along with one stop in West Virginia before being approached to take over at CHS.
“When I came to Clarksville High, it was such a mess here,” Johnston said. “It had been languishing, the program had been languishing. There had been personnel changes, it was really kind of struggling.”
Since she’s arrived, Johnston has helped develop the concert band and marching band while founding the winterguard, drum line, independent guard and high school guard — among other things.
Perhaps her most memorable contribution to the band for the general public is the establishment of the school’s fight song, Stand Up And Cheer… And there’s a funny story behind that.
“I had trouble finding an arrangement of the fight song, and I went to some of the other teachers who had been in the building and went through some of the old annals and I was like ‘where is, I know there’s a fight song,’” Johnston said. “And I found this arrangement, and lo and behold, here it is. One of my all-time favorite — as a kid — composer, arranger (wrote it), of one of my favorite band pieces.”
Not only did this arranger create the fight song for the school she went on to teach at for 26 years, they also wrote one of the first songs Johnston played as a member of a band — and the last one the band will play under her direction on May 13.
The piece, Exultation, will be joined by a myriad of other pieces — some that come straight from Johnston’s personal collection of favorites, some come from the students’ loves, some are chosen for their message and some are for just straight-up fun.
The last show will also feature a tune called The Nine, a song about Brown vs. Board of Education and nine African American students who had to be escorted into Little Rock Central Schools by the National Guard and 101st Airborne Division. They’ll pair that with the classic rock opera Bohemian Rhapsody and a tune played entirely on the backs of chairs.
“I try to not just get really focused on just band music, but how can I incorporate a variety of styles, music and vocal music,” Johnston said.
“Twentieth century things, we’ve played wine glasses, we’ve flown tubes, we’ve beat on barrels, just everything in the form of self-inspiration. We’re going to play chairs in this last concert. They’re going to play on chairs. The percussion kids are going to play a piece using the backs of chairs… Then they’re going to play Bohemian Rhapsody. So how epic is Bohemian Rhapsody? Whatever I can do, not every day is a great day, but hopefully you feel better after you’ve had some music that day.”
But Mrs. Johnston hasn’t stayed around this long just for the music and especially not for the trophies.
“It’s not about the trophy; it’s about how that performance made you feel, and I think that that’s how the kids learn that it’s fun to work hard, to be good,” Johnston said. “That’s what’s fun about success, but the work comes first. That’s what we’ve tried to model. Bring in the best people we can bring to help those kids achieve that. Work as a collaborative team.
“My assistant director, Janice Cook, there is honestly no way any of this would have happened without this lady. She is the unsung hero of all of this. She came as a parent volunteer and a non-musician and has stayed with me for 24 years. And I don’t know what I would have done without her because she’s been, like, right there the whole time.”
The values of hard work and loving what you do are two of the biggest values that she holds above all else — well, almost everything else.
There are two things that take precedence.
“Happiness is relative. Some days, we just have to be okay. Some days we’re not okay, and you need to be okay that you’re not okay, because hopefully you’re working toward a better day where you are okay and maybe you’re happy. But you can’t be miserable in your work. You can’t hate your job every day. So as you look toward moving to adulthood, think about what makes you happy and maybe that’s fulfilled. But you need to work to be happy at some point. It’s not every day, it may be fleeting moments, but can you be happy?”
And for her, what makes her happy is the opportunity to make a difference in somebody’s life. When her time as band director ends, there are only two things that she’ll bring with her from her office. She doesn’t want her desk, chair, computer, trophies — none of that. She only wants two magnets.
The first reads: “Seize the moment! Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.”
“A hundred years from now… It will not matter how much money I made, what kind of car I drove or the size of the house I lived in, but maybe the world will be a better place because I was important in the life of a child.”
That is, without a doubt, where Robbin Johnston has left her greatest — and most prideful — mark on the Clarksville High Band program.
“That’s what I feel like my job has been, to mentor young people,” she said. “To make great adults. I told them if you want to be a doctor or lawyer or if you just want to be mama or daddy, that you understand the importance of being there in a young person’s life and being a positive influence.
“Letting them know that sometimes you fail, like everyone falls short of the glory, but it’s what you do after you make a mistake that matters. That’s the kind of thing that we’ve learned to work through or we continue wanting to work through, to get through the things that challenge us. That’s where the gold is, is getting through the tough stuff to get to the good stuff.”
And so it’s time to say “see you later.” The pandemic has given her a chance to bring the hypothetical train to a crawl, allowing her to safely step off and get her successor — a former student-teacher of hers — on board as seamlessly as possible.
Johnston now has a chance to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to things she never could. She’ll be able to spend more time with her four children and one grandson. She’ll be able to take care of her husband, who is disabled. She’ll be able to sleep past 5:30 a.m. and share a morning coffee with him. She’ll be able to finally see Cirque du Soleil — a lifelong dream of hers.
But she’s not done teaching — nor is she done learning. She wants to take over conducting honor bands. She wants to work with pre-service educators. She hopes to take an adjunct role with Austin Peay.
And she just might step back into the classroom, not as a teacher, but as a student.
“I consider myself a lifelong learner,” Johnston said. “That was one thing that I figured out. My undergraduate professor, when I finished my music degree, told me I now had a license to learn, and I was totally offended, ‘cause are you kidding me? I just spent four years working like a dog to finish this, and I passed my teaching license.
“Then after about two years, it hit me. I figured out how much I didn’t know. I had to continue to educate myself, and the thing that’s about music, and I love school. I was a strong academic student; it was important to me, so there was that. But my thing was I realized how much I just didn’t know. At that point, I got what he was saying.”
But one thing is for sure — she will, under no circumstances — leave Clarksville, Tenn. It’s where she and her husband chose to make their home. It’s where they raised their kids and graduated four Wildcats. She hopes her one grandchild and however many may come after will be Wildcats, too. And she is most certainly going to be attending every one of her student’s graduation ceremonies decked out in purple, cheering them on from the stands no matter how much it embarasses them.
Because she covets happiness. She loves her people. She values learning and embraces hardship.
Because that’s who Robbin Johnston is.