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Building Confidence and a Community of Musicians

Spotlight on Chris Tucker

Story by Dirk Chatelain

The bell rings at 1:34 p.m. and organized chaos begins. 

Seventh-graders rush into the Gretna Middle School band room, pull instrument cases from their lockers and begin assembling parts. They span the spectrum of adolescence, from burly boys with big horns to bespectacled girls with flutes. They take their seats behind black music stands, chatter and fidget with their mouthpieces and reeds. One twirls a drumstick. 

Until Chris Tucker steps onto her podium. Then the room goes silent. Over the next 41 minutes, Tucker will engage 74 students, orchestrating every kid — and every note. 

At one point, she’ll challenge a girl to chant “The Master of the Alphabet” in preparation for a scale test. Tucker keeps the beat with her baton as band members silently wave their hands as if dancing. When Penny nails it, the band cheers. 

“And this weekend I will be shopping for?” Tucker says. (She budgets $4 of candy for every successful scale tester.)

“Jolly Ranchers,” Penny says. 

At another point, Tucker teases the trumpets for losing concentration – “You guys are starting to get trumpet brain,” she says. A blond girl in the back row of trumpets says, “Last time I checked, doesn’t Ms. Tucker play trumpet?” Laughter fills the room. From Tucker, too. 

“Burn!” she says.

Over and over, Tucker walks the tightrope between fun and discipline. Sort of like her school district. 

This band room is the perfect microcosm for a bustling Gretna community. During an era of massive change and growth, the district is a medley of cornfields and apartment complexes, cowboy boots and soccer cleats, old-school Peterson Parkers and new-school YMCA members. And every day, thousands of GPS people must play their part well to make it work. 

Like a band. 

GPS is the show choir director who stays up till midnight choreographing a song, the bus driver who wakes up before dawn to greet kids in the cold, the administrator making signs for a wrestling dual. 

And Gretna Public Schools is most certainly the dynamic, tireless, obsessive GMS band conductor who’s built one of the state’s top middle school music programs.

“There’s no clone of Chris Tucker.” said Kevin Riley, the former Gretna superintendent who hired her almost 40 years ago.

“She’s as Gretna as it gets,” said Suzanne Cooley, who’s watched two of her children pursue music careers partly because of Tucker’s influence.

In 2023, GMS earned more All-State members than any Nebraska middle school. For the 17th year in a row! “Her middle school bands play like high school bands,” Cooley said.

It doesn’t happen because Gretna is a genetic hotbed for musical literacy. It happens because Tucker – the 2023 GPS Middle School Educator of the Year – motivates students with determination, wisdom and humanity.

In the social maze of middle school, where peer relationships are emotional and fragile, Tucker has been a “life line” for students, music parent Annette Rinaldi said. 

“She pursues them, lays out the expectations, builds their confidence and pushes them to greatness.”

***

By now, Tucker’s work ethic is legendary at GMS. She conducts more than 1,000 individual lessons a year. In September — the heart of marching band season — she frequently works 80+ hours a week. 

To cover so many bases, she schedules her day as efficiently as possible. Almost down to the minute.

“Tuck has a list that she works from every day,” Riley said. “If you ain’t on the list, she ain’t talking to you, OK?” 

Said Cooley: “If you know and respect Chris Tucker, do not pop in and say, ‘Do you have five minutes for me?’ Send an email several weeks out and ask ‘When can you squeeze me in?’ 

“Her students always come first.” 

An assistant superintendent once called Tucker “the poster child for Type A personality.” One year, she asked the district groundskeeper, Mike Castagnoli, to paint lines in the parking lot, 90 inches apart, to simulate spacing for Applejack Festival. After about 30 lines, Castagnoli eyeballed the last 15. 

“She calls me,” Castagnoli said, “and says, ‘Hey, I really appreciate what you did.”

“Well, thanks Chris.”

“But those 15 lines are off, you know. Is there any way we can fix them?”

“Yeah, I’ll widen them up,” Castagnoli said. “And I’m thinking, you gotta be kidding me! They were off by an inch. But she knew it.”

Personally, I first noted Tucker’s impact from my middle-school son. One day he came home and mentioned that she’d delivered 224 cookies for the entire seventh and eighth grade bands. If one judge complimented their posture, she promised two cookies each.

She’s made far bigger sacrifices for her kids. 

Like the time Tucker broke her kneecap stepping off a curb at a jazz band event. Or the time she was standing on a chair, holding a microphone above a mallet percussionist for an all-state audition. 

When Tucker stepped down to re-position, her shoe snagged on the carpet and her right ankle — fragile from years of competitive sports, including marathon running — buckled. She landed hard and her right wrist broke …just as her ankle popped out of socket. 

Tucker’s ankles have marched in America’s most famous parades – the Rose Parade and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day – but I often associate her with a less televised parade. 

Gretna Days 2023. 

A rainy summer Saturday morning. When the Gretna High School band marched up McKenna Avenue, the big crowd lining the street clapped along to the familiar fight song. Comfort. Tradition. 

Minutes later, the smaller Gretna East band followed the same path. The rain was coming down harder now. And the notes from their instruments — pieces of a brand-new fight song for a brand-new school — were foreign to the crowd. As were the yellow and black polo shirts. The teenagers seemed like strangers in their own town. 

Until Tucker appeared. She met the Gretna East students in the parade route, dodging puddles on the brick street. As the horns blared, she clapped, whistled and pumped her fist, urging them to march on, whipping up the crowd.

Her message couldn’t have been more clear. Things are changing. But it’s gonna be OK. 

Gretna is still Gretna.

***

Tucker still remembers the day she made a career choice. Ninth grade at Arbor Heights Junior High in Omaha.

She was a trumpet player in Roger Groth’s band. They had just finished a piece and the band director let the silence linger.

Did we screw up, Tucker thought.

“He lowers his hands and he says, ‘Wow. Thank you so much. I have goosebumps all the way up both arms.’ And in my head, I’m like, you’re thanking us? How ‘bout we thank you? And right at that moment, I thought, I want to do what HE does for other kids.”

Tucker grew up in a single-parent home after her siblings left for college. Her mother was an alcoholic, raging and belligerent. Tucker eventually moved in with her older sister, largely taking care of herself. She didn’t have a way to school, so Groth picked her up every day before 6 a.m. 

School, band and sports became her “savior,” Tucker said. Her experience at home eventually gave Tucker a valuable perspective as a teacher. 

When kids have issues at home, they take one of two paths, she said. Either they seek positive feedback at school and become high achievers. Or they shut down. Tucker has seen students take the latter path. They don’t complete assignments on time because they have no stability or parental support. She understands.

“I kind of walked in their shoes,” she said.

Tucker’s path to Gretna wasn’t part of her original plan in 1987. 

When she graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she had a music job lined up in Omaha Public Schools. She sought out the Gretna High interview merely for practice. But she was so impressed that she “dumped the OPS thing and took this instead.”

Just one problem: There wasn’t much of a program.

“When we played the national anthem with 27 kids and 11 of them were flutes,” Riley said, “people weren’t exactly sure what song we were playing.”

“You gotta have a trumpet for the high school band,” Riley said. “But he was a football player, so he’d have to leave the locker room to play the halftime music. They were great kids, you just didn’t have enough of them.”

The second year, the marching band dropped to 23. When a bus driver backed over a tuba, a reasonable band director might’ve quit.

“For the first six years, I wanted to ditch the career,” Tucker said. “But I built the interest through the middle school.”

Her determination and drive paid dividends. But so did a method she picked up in 1996 at Nebraska Music Educators state convention. 

Cross-teaching. 

It works like this: She spends the first two periods of the day helping the high school bands. After lunch, the two high school instructors, Alex Woodside and Noah Hickman, come to the middle school. The team strategy not only enhances instruction time, it builds continuity in the program. 

Say GMS has a few trumpets that need extra help during sixth period. Hickman can pull them into an accompanying room while Tucker practices with the whole band.

“That’s a huge advantage that a lot of districts don’t have,” Tucker said. “Or the teachers aren’t willing to do. It’s a heavy load for all of us, but it’s worth it. Because it makes the program different.”

****

The notion of TWO high schools in Gretna would’ve baffled Tucker when she began making the commute from her home at 150th and Dodge Streets. 

Back then, there was only one stoplight between GMS and her house. Now there’s 24. She beats the traffic, arriving daily at 6 a.m.

Her personalized license plate is easy to spot in the parking lot: “BND NRD.” Maybe too easy. For years, eighth graders targeted it as a source of practical jokes.

One year, Tucker came out outside and the entire car was covered in sticky notes. Another year, she found bead necklaces. 

“Each group seemed to find a way to decorate my car. It stopped when they Saran wrapped my car and it damaged the paint.”

Oops.

She balances her intense work ethic with considerable laughter.

“The vast majority of those kids, my gosh, they’re 12, 13, 14 years old,” Tucker said. “They’re goofballs! If you can’t be a goofball with them, they’re not going to relate to you.”

Tucker testimonials are far and wide. 

Cooley recalls her son having a middle-school locker so messy that teachers would call and say he needed to clean it. “But in the band room, he was immaculate. He was always the section leader. And I don’t know where else he would’ve found that.” 

Today Cooley’s son is directing his own high school band. “He steals everything from Chris Tucker,” Cooley said. “Kevin decided to be a band director sitting in Tucker’s room.” 

Even more important than finding careers, many of Tucker’s students find an identity. 

“She creates a space for a family to form among the band,” said Erin Shaffer, whose three children played in Tucker’s band. “It’s not all about learning the music. It’s about being part of a community.”

When the Rinaldis moved to Gretna from Grand Island, their oldest daughter, Faith, was in seventh grade. She had musical talent, but she was ready to give up after a few frustrating lessons from a private instructor. Tucker got wind of it and ran down Faith in the hallway, asking her to consider just three lessons from her. 

“She couldn’t say no,” Annette Rinaldi said. “And my kid has stuck with it in an extremely successful way for the last six years.”

For Rinaldi’s son, the nudge was more subtle. “At just the right moment in his life,” Annette said, “when he was struggling and anxious in many areas, she sent him a postcard asking him to try out for all-state the next year.” He made it. 

“Sometimes I felt like she understood my kid just as well as I did,” Rinaldi said.

Tucker’s music mentor recognized her drive almost 50 years ago and still sees it today.

“She could’ve done anything, but she chose music. And she’s a master teacher.”

Tucker’s impact hit home at last spring’s band concert when she read off her list of memories from the season. Then five eighth graders took the microphone, sharing tributes, laughs and tissues.

They told stories of practical jokes, like leaving open all 232 locker doors on April Fool’s Day. Her pet peeve. Or hiding hundreds of condiment packets in the band room — nothing like finding ketchup inside a tuba.

They presented her a spiral ring of cards — every single band member wrote a message to her. Then they gave her a bouquet of flowers, but every flower was actually a music sheet of songs they’d played. And a pillow they sewed of her dog who died. And treats for her other dog. And a note.

“To Mrs. Tucker ... behind every musician who believes in themselves is a teacher who believed in them first.”

***

A sunny spring Friday afternoon.

Tucker opens 7th hour with Funnies for Friday, a series of Internet memes poking fun at spit valves and trumpet egos and messy percussionists. 

She clicks to a bari-sax player in agony. The screen flashes the joke: “He’s having a bari bad day.”

After a few laughs, it’s time to work. 

Tucker leads her seventh graders through two pieces they’ll play at an upcoming concert. She stops frequently to make corrections. “We still have people taking that breath at (measure) 64. That’s like dribbling out of bounds.”

Sometimes she’ll spend a minute with a specific section. But she never loses the band’s attention.

Tucker is an expert conductor — it was the focus of her Master’s degree — whose hand gestures and head bobs can entertain an audience. But her success derives from a simple truth: Her students love winning her approval. When Tucker prompts a successful cymbal crash in rehearsal, her percussionist beams with pride. 

The walls of this band room – 50’ by 50’ – are covered with posters and signs. Former all-state performers. Marching band trophies. Order of Flats and Sharps. “Discipline yourself so no one else has to,” one poster says. Somehow all the pieces fit together. 

The last song of the day is “March of the Dragons.” When the seventh graders perform it a couple weeks later, it’ll help produce yet another superior rating at the Malcolm music contest. 

On this Friday afternoon at 2:15 p.m., they build and build until the last note of the song, at which point Tucker motions them to stop. For just a moment, the band director lets the silence linger. And then…

“Ole!” she says. “Have a good weekend.”

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