Cathy Free: Squeaking through life with all the right notes

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 25 2012 5:37 p.m. MST

Music teacher Budge Porritt works with kids at Ensign Elementary school in Salt Lake City Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — After a morning listening to trumpets blasting off-key at short range, it’s no surprise that Budge Porritt arrives for lunch in a loud shirt and necktie, with a loud voice to match.

Other diners pause and take notice of the guy in the bright turquoise shirt and M&Ms-print tie as he slides into the booth with an exuberant, “Hi, I’m Budge! Great to meet you!”

Porritt, 59, is used to the attention.

“I never walk through a door unnoticed,” he says, “and there’s a good reason for that. It helps to be colorful when you have to deal daily with hundreds of kids.”

For 31 years, Porritt has dedicated his life to the chaotic rhythms of a school band teacher, first for middle school, and now for six Salt Lake City elementary schools.

If there is a medal out there for patiently enduring squeaky instruments, he has certainly earned it. When a reader suggested that Budge deserved a Free Lunch in honor of his three decades at the conductor’s podium, how could I refuse?

“I have the best job ever — I was born to be a band teacher,” says Porritt, who met me at the Olive Garden for soup, salad and breadsticks after several hours of tuning instruments and repairing stuck valves at Emerson Elementary School near downtown Salt Lake City. “I guess it comes in handy that I never grew up.”

Born and raised in the dusty town of Fredonia, Ariz., Porritt joined the school band at age 11, playing a clarinet his father had rescued from a friend’s attic. His teacher, Leroy Heaton, encouraged him to keep playing, even though his first notes made some wonder if he was stepping on a cat.

“My teacher was such a huge influence — he never stopped believing in me,” says Porritt, who has since added the trumpet, trombone, violin, cello, flute, saxophone, French horn, guitar and drums to his repertoire.

“Today, I try to do the same with my students,” he says. “It’s more than the music: It’s about giving them the self-confidence to do whatever they’re designed to do in life.”

Many of his 1,000-plus students come from low-income families where there is no money for music lessons. Assigned to play the flute or the drums in Porritt’s twice-weekly class, “they get a chance to shine,” he says. “Music gives them something to focus on and look forward to. And by the end of the year, they’re sounding fantastic.”

From the oboe to the ocarina (an egg-shaped wind instrument), there isn’t an instrument that Porritt isn’t willing to teach, if a child shows an interest.

“There’s an old axiom among band teachers that a French horn, even badly played, can round out any band,” he says, “but an oboe, even well played, can ruin any band.” He grins, recalling past concerts where the oboe was all anyone could hear. “Yes, oboe players and bagpipe players have it tough. But we all have to start somewhere.”

Currently, Porritt’s students — sans oboes this year — are rehearsing to march in Salt Lake City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, performing the “Irish Washerwoman.”

When he taught at Glendale Middle School on the west side of Salt Lake City, he used to take a busload of band members to perform at Disneyland every spring. One year, several teachers told him he’d be making a serious mistake if he allowed one particular seventh-grade boy to make the trip.

“Everyone thought he was trouble,” he says, “so I talked to the kid and his mom and said, ‘I’m taking a risk. Can you handle this?’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Take me. You won’t be sorry.’ So I trusted my instincts, and the boy did great.

"In the school environment, nothing worked for him. Nothing except being in the band. He played the electric bass, and that’s what kept him going. For all I know, he’s out there on tour now, somewhere.”

Porritt has a box overflowing with “thank you” notes from students, reminding him on difficult days why he chose to teach the ABC’s of music. In a year or two, he is thinking of retiring, but he knows he won’t keep his baton and loud neckties in a dresser drawer for long.

“It’s such a big part of my life — I’ll have to volunteer,” he says. “If you could see the look in the kids’ eyes when everything is working … there’s nothing like it. I don’t know what they’ll be when they grow up, but they’re all capable of developing an appreciation for music. If I played even the smallest role, there’s no better honor.”

Have a story? You do the talking, I'll buy the lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

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