From the Fall 2001 issue

Is It Home?

by AL BENNER

Established in 1714, Natchitoches (Nack'-a-tish, a Natchitoches Indian word meaning place of the Paw Paw, or Chinkapin) is the oldest permanent settlement in the entire Louisiana Purchase Territory. The town is littered with bed and breakfasts. As many of the local residents constantly remind you, it was the home of the author of the book Steel Magnolias and the filming location of the movie. The population is about 17,000. Known for its Christmas Festival with over 300,000 lights, Natchitoches is only a university town (Northwestern State University) with a few commercial factories. We have almost every fast-food restaurant and the main place to shop is the Super Wal-Mart. A few years ago Kiplinger's Magazine rated it as one of the great places to retire!

As I like to say, Natchitoches has everything you need, not necessarily everything you want. We are located between Shreveport to the North (about 70 miles) and Alexandria to the South (about 50 miles). Baton Rouge is a three hour drive away and New Orleans about four. If you are taking a plane, you have to go to either Shreveport or Alexandria. So also if you want to go to a shopping mall. Although we have a hospital and good health services, any specialist usually requires going to Shreveport--where I have been going for over a year every two to three weeks concerning my left eye. At first the drive to those cities seemed highly inconvenient, but now it is just a way of life.

Having lived in Miami, New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and the Green Bay area, how I came to be in Natchitoches surprises even me. Instead of pursuing music when I first attended college, I went in another direction. After I graduated, I was a businessman for fifteen years. During that time I realized my first--and possibly my best--talent lies in music. Thus I went back part-time and got a BFA and MFA in music composition. I was 35 when I committed myself to being a full-time DMA student at LSU. It was the late 80s and the prevailing belief was that many teaching jobs were about to become open because of the mandatory retirement age.

That said, as I approached graduation nearing forty, I naively thought I would get my DMA in composition and move directly into a teaching position. I thought my background as a businessman and having a family would be attractive to schools. The fact that I was a bit older than the average DMA graduate would also mean I was less likely to use a particular school as a jumping point to a bigger and better position somewhere else.

Well, as it happened, by the early 90s there was no longer a mandatory retirement age and many elderly professors kept right on teaching. Many music departments were either downsizing because the projected increase of students never materialized or they were doing away with their composition departments, having theorists teach composition when students wanted it. It was also the time electronic music and studios started becoming mandatory for music departments.

I think many of you can guess the rest. It seemed having a degree in composition with a secondary interest in American Music, was not what schools wanted. After over 150 applications, I heard nothing. Only about a dozen schools even asked for additional materials. What was especially frustrating is that year after year I would see the same position advertized at various schools to which I had applied--an indication to me that someone was jumping after one year. My wife, who has an M.M. in vocal performance, never really pursued a teaching career, but when we were moving to Green Bay for reasons unrelated to employment, she applied to one place and got an adjunct position. I hooked on for one semester as an adjunct when an impending death of one of the faculty meant the department needed an immediate replacement. But over the next few years, after implying that I would be put on the faculty, there was always an administrative budgetary reason why I was not.

Then in the late summer of 1998, my wife was offered the full-time position of vocal/choir instructor at the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts. LSMSA also needed an adjunct music person and I could certainly do that. So within a quick two weeks, Lisa, Albert, Nicholas and I were living in Natchitoches. The following year I was offered a full-time teaching position.

We are now in our fourth year at the Louisiana School. I am teaching theory, piano, and directing the chamber ensemble. I haven't applied for another position in over two years. My boys are 4 and 6 years old (almost 5 and 7), and have started within the Lab School system at Northwestern State University. We purchased a home in late September. For all the faults of a small town, there are also some benefits. I can get almost anywhere in town within ten minutes. We have many close friends here. We are known within the community. In fact, the teller at my bank sent me an article about myself in the local paper that I didn't even know existed. You don't spend a lot of time deciding where to go for dinner. Lisa and I like our positions at the school. We like to think that we have had a positive influence on the growth of the music department. Both of us are fairly free to run our individual areas the way we see fit. Of course, as a composer, my opportunities are limited here--but I am working to increase those opportunities. I am building relationships with other musicians and putting on concerts outside the requirements of the school.

So the thought of chasing a position that in all likelihood will not be better than the one I have, in a town that may not be as good as Natchitoches, that will not offer full-time teaching positions to both Lisa and me, that will be in a less attractive environment for my boys, that will not provide friends such as the ones we have here, is not very high on my priority list. Maybe there is something better out there, but then again, maybe there isn't. As I tell my students, happiness doesn't come from always chasing something else, it comes from being happy with who and where you are. And as I look at Lisa, Albert, and Nicholas--who sincerely seem to be happy here--my priorities have changed. It is no longer important to me that I have that great compositional position at a prominent university. It is important that I have a family who likes where we are. Is Natchitoches home? For the first time in a long time, I think so.