I grew up with a daily dose of music, listening, playing or dancing to what was mostly played by my father, Eric Jarboe, on violin or hammered dulcimer.
“I teach because it’s a calling,” I’ve heard him say time and time again. “I’m very adamant in my belief that God gives us certain personalities to do certain things.”
For 40 years, that was teaching music in Jennings County. Jarboe retired from teaching at Jennings County High School on Tuesday.
I asked him about teaching instead of playing music professionally.
“I see myself as a general practitioner of music. I think there’s a different personality involved between those who professionally play and a teacher,” my father said. “That’s why I think that phrase ‘Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach’ is a fairly small-minded phrase.”
Born and raised in the farmlands of Kentucky, Jarboe fell in love with music early in life. At Ben Johnson Elementary School he learned to play the trombone. While attending Breckinridge County High School, he played tuba and sousaphone in the marching band. Goals of teaching music brought him to Taylor University, where he ended up majoring in string bass. While completing his master’s at Ball State University, my father started teaching band and choir at North Vernon Junior High.
“I chose teaching as a profession because I thought band directing was cool,” Jarboe said. “In high school I considered becoming a preacher or band director, and the band director won.”
After a few years, my father wished to move to a big city to teach orchestra. After expressing his desire to Bill Carnes, North Vernon Junior High principal, Carnes encouraged him to start a program in Jennings County.
“When you have a big city near a college, you also have a culture of private lessons, and the instruments being played are quality instruments. It’s harder to have a string orchestra in a rural community,” Jarboe said.
His fears were not unfounded. Speaking on behalf of his students today, my father said:
“Our instruments we play on are entry-level instruments that, you know, it’s a struggle to play. If you want a level of performance that rivals, say, a college orchestra, you have to have the private lessons, or inside the school corporation you have to have the individual instruction. It’s a culture that the community has, and I’ve changed the culture in Jennings County to make string instruments cool. Orchestra is a neat thing in this community; it’s become a culture, and I’m real proud of that.”
Founded in 1979, string instrument instruction began for Jennings County’s seventh- and eighth-graders. The first class had 12 members. One year later, Jennings County High School started its orchestra program under Jarboe’s direction. Today, Jennings County maintains two string orchestras at Jennings County Middle School, two string orchestras at the high school, and sixth-grade strings at all six county elementary schools.
“My orchestra program exists in a place where it shouldn’t exist. And that’s a struggle, but it’s also a great joy,” Jarboe said.
I asked my father about the future of the orchestra program he help found and direct through the decades. He replied by commenting about the future of music education in America.
“I think, realistically, if there’s going to be more string players in the country, there’s going to have to be more programs like mine. The perseverance is what it takes. The perseverance to go through the lean years and to put the program out there to the community,” he said.
“And goodness, you don’t have to be a charismatic person, because I’m not a charismatic person,” he added. “I’m quiet. I don’t see myself as an exciting person. I see myself as a sincere person and an honest person, and I think that’s what the students respond to. As for Jennings County, I’m not worried.”
Kelsy Jarboe Binkley currently lives in Los Angeles and works in the TV/film industry. She and her husband are in post-production on a feature-length documentary about Eric Jarboe and the orchestra program in Jennings County. For more information about the documentary, visit www.musicmanfilm.com.