He’s about more than music.
Greg Thomas, who retired last spring after 24 years as the band director for Albemarle High School and more than three decades as a music teacher, provided more than just a musical education to his students.
He gave them a place to belong.
“He’s the guy that kids go to when they have a problem, whether it’s music, academic, family or personal,” said Ray Caddell, a longtime friend of Thomas and band leader and trumpeter of Big Ray and the Kool Kats. “He turned that band room into a safe zone of sorts where kids can come and talk about any problems they had. That he could reach out year after year and talk to his students and they respond like that is amazing.”
“He has a different approach than other band directors,” said Terri Allard, a musician and educator who has worked with area children in writing and performing music. “Some directors are, ‘this is what we’re doing and this is how we’re doing it.’ Greg’s approach was, ‘we could do this and do it well and it would be fine. Or we could try and do this. We may not be able to do it, but I’m up for trying it if you are.’ He always let the kids decide and push themselves, and they always responded.”
For Thomas, music is more than accolades and awards.
“Music for me is like a vehicle; it helps kids survive,” he said. “I felt like the individual kid was the most important thing, more important than playing the music right or marching the right steps. The music was the rescue ship and the kids were the reasons the music was there, not the other way around. Everyone needs rescuing at some point.”
Thomas studied other subjects at the College of William & Mary, but dropped out at 21. Searching for what he wanted in life, he stumbled into Virginia Commonwealth University and took up music.
“I discovered improvised music. I had thought music was something people wrote down for you and for you to play the way they heard it, but this was about creating your music,” he recalled. “You can teach improvisation, but you can’t teach it with a goal in mind. It has to come from inside.”
Music, he said, rescued him.
“I feel like, in a lot of ways, I was saved by music,” Thomas said. “I wanted the band kids to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of accomplishment and maybe a sense of there being less judgment in the group. It was a place where the kids in the class supported each other.”
Caddell noted that several music teachers in the county school system came from the high school’s band ranks and that current band director Andrew LaPrade was in the school band. Caddell said it is the result of Thomas caring about the students even after graduation.
“He urged many students to look into music education, if he thought that was a good fit for them. He encouraged them in their studies and to come back and student-teach for him,” Caddell said. “He’d mentor them and bring them back, and there are now music teachers in the county schools who used to be in his band.”
“My son was in Greg’s band all through high school and now he’s at the Manhattan School of Music,” Allard said. “He made it there because of Greg.”
“There’s a saying that those who can’t do, teach, but teaching is a whole different thing than performing,” Thomas said. “Performing is great, but it’s really pretty narcissistic. If you’re not a little narcissistic, you’re not going to be doing it for very long. But teaching is giving the knowledge and what you have away. For teachers who do it with their whole heart in it, teaching is an act of generosity.”
Although Thomas has retired from the county schools, he is far from retired from music. He teaches at the Charlottesville Day School and currently directs the James Madison University Jazz Band, does some teaching at the school and supervises student music teachers.
“It was the chance to do something new. Everything [about retiring] looked great on paper and I didn’t want to be the guy who stays at his job so long he gets a little bit bitter about it,” he said. “I wasn’t at that point, but there were new ideas coming along with new teachers, and that’s important. My job gave me a lot back. Teaching really does give back.”
Caddell said Thomas’ contribution to local education should not be overlooked.
“He gave a lot to our community. And for the pittance we pay public school teachers, the value we got from him is absurd,” Caddell said. “He’s a great guy. He really, really is.”
“The kids in my classes would see all of the different forms of music that are going on,” Thomas said. “They got to see music in different ways. It’s nothing that I did. I felt like my role was to not wreck it.”
“Teaching music was a gift to me. I found it great to find a career where what I’m good at is valued and the stuff I’m not good at is overlooked.”