HUDSON — It's that time of year. The kids are getting antsy and counting down for winter break. Hudson Middle School band director John Keon is doing the usual prodding of young musicians to muster for a piece called Sleigh Ride for the holiday concert, all while dealing with the emotions of knowing that this will be his last.
After 41 years of teaching, Keon is retiring. His last day is Dec. 20 and he's hoping to go out on a high note — or at least the right ones.
"I'm hearing a lot of wrong notes," Keon said after finishing a taxing run-through with the symphonic band. "Do you really want to sound like that for the concert? No? I didn't think so."
Then he sent them off with the direction to practice some more, leaving a few moments for reflection.
"I was walking the halls the other morning wondering whether I really want to do this," he said. "I've got mixed feelings big time. You spend your whole life doing something."
Keon's career took him from upstate New York to Pasco, where he taught music at Anclote Elementary and Pasco Middle before finding a home for 23 years at Hudson Middle. Each year brought a new crop of students, many of whom had never picked up an instrument. He taught them how to play half notes and quarter notes while building rapport with the community through an elite jazz band.
"He's a kind, kind man," said Rebecca Musselman, program coordinator of Fine Arts programs for Pasco County schools. "One of the things I admire about him is his willingness to help other band directors and his gentle approach. He's encouraged so many people to go into music as a profession. It's a testament to his influence and his ability to nurture students."
As an accomplished percussionist, Keon once made extra cash playing weddings. But between private lessons after school and the school's traveling jazz band, there was no time. Nights and weekends were spent shuttling kids dressed zoot suit style to 60 or so performances to play In the Mood, Woodchoppers Ball, Stand By Me and Keon's favorite, Wipe Out, in community centers and club houses. Folks got to gushing about the remarkable young talent and tossed money into a hat to help fund band travel expenses.
"I am so impressed," said Connie Townsend, 70, a flute player, church pianist and resident of the Cross Creek at Summertree community in Hudson, where the band performed last week. "I don't know of any junior high band from our era that could play like this."
Keon took his kids to competitions, broadening their horizons in places like New Orleans, Atlanta and New York City. Twice, the jazz band played for students at an elementary school just blocks from where the World Trade Center fell.
"I wanted them to experience the world," Keon said, recalling the wonder in the eyes of kids seeing Times Square for the first time. "But I also wanted them to experience the act of doing for others with their music."
Twenty-five of Keon's former students are now teaching music in Florida schools, including percussionist Joel Quina, recently named Teacher of the Year at J.W. Mitchell High in Trinity. Former private student Mark Trojanowski plays drums for the rock band Sister Hazel. There's also a slew of Hudson Middle School band alumni out there — some who dusted off their old instruments to play homage to Keon at a surprise send-off in June.
"That was awesome," Keon said. "Something like that makes you realize you've gotten some things done in your life."
Then there's the future — students like trumpeter Shane Falco, the lone middle school student in District V (Pasco, Hernando and Citrus) selected to perform with the Florida Music Educators Association's All State Band in January. Shane is just one of about 30 of Keon's private or public school students to make that prestigious trek.
"He's really a great band director," Shane said. "We're all going to miss him."
Last week, principal Terry Holback was still interviewing potential candidates with plans to have a new director in place by the start of winter break.
Between now and then, Keon is booked solid with the school's holiday concert, a handful of community gigs and the annual Disney World performance. A final appearance will be at Tampa International Airport on Dec. 19. There, Keon will lead his jazz band as they follow the tradition of greeting and sending off for one last time.