Episode One

Going with the flow Why sometimes having no plan is the best career plan

Hans Fenger’s Langley Schools Music Project got some unexpected attention from big stars like David Bowie. Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

This story can be heard on Episode 1 of Work in Progress, Slack’s new podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work. Tune in weekends on SiriusXM, and each Monday on iTunes.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Most people have been asked that question (hopefully, expectantly) at some point in their youth. Some people have a clear-cut answer, others leave matters to fate.

Musician Hans Fenger was in the latter camp. The holder of a highly practical degree in Medieval English and Music Studies, life in the 1960s influenced him to pursue a path as a rock star — or at the very least a guitarist with steady paying gigs. That was he until he found out he was going to be a father.

Innocence & Despair by The Langley Schools Music Project. Bar/None Records.

If at that moment you’d have told Fenger he’d wind up a beloved music teacher who’d later get invited to festivals by David Bowie and whose career would inspire a popular Hollywood movie, he surely would have laughed in disbelief.

Fenger’s Langley Schools Music Project, which produced a now-famous collection of recordings in the mid-1970s, is an icon of unconventional music education and the inspiration for the 2003 film School of Rock. But it started in an unglamorous, accidental way that a lot of people can relate to: necessity drove Fenger to a job he hadn’t planned on or prepared for, and by winging it, he stumbled into a new calling.

Fenger’s impending fatherhood meant he needed to start making money. A friendly neighbor tipped him off to a teacher shortage — particularly a shortage of subject matter specialists, like music and language teachers — in a rural community just outside the city.

Hans Fenger and his students at Glenwood Elementary School. Photographs by Kevin Finseth.

“I didn’t even come from a high school music program. I came from my own music program, which was really the rock and roll background,” says Fenger, “I wasn’t a big fan of school. I didn’t do well in school.”

Naively, Fenger entered a one-year teaching program expecting it to be a breeze. It wasn’t. What he hadn’t accounted for was how he’d react to the everyday realities of the job.

“I was good at teaching, I was not good at the profession of teaching,” says Fenger unabashedly. “I was not good at staff meetings. I was not good at report cards. I was not good at talking to parents. I was not particularly fond of a lot of other teachers. I liked me and the kids and the guitar. That was the part of teaching I liked, the teaching part of teaching.”

His aversion to pedagogy and practice, scales and sheet music, form and function ruffled some feathers, though that didn’t stop him: “I never changed my method of teaching, which was no method,” he says, “I never changed how I prepared for a class, which was no-preparation.”

Instead, he chose his lesson plans based on his mood, which swung often as he grappled with the worries and anxieties of becoming a father for the first time. Rather than teach classical music, Fenger had his students play rock classics. The Beatles were in heavy rotation.

To Fenger’s surprise, the kids “glommed on,” soaking up the emotions of the music they were learning and throwing it energetically back into their own renditions. In relating to their real feelings about the world around them, Fenger managed to deepen their appreciation for the craft.

“Even a nine year-old is cynical enough to know that joining hands and singing is not going to bring peace to the world,” says Fenger. “They needed a way to express themselves musically and it wasn’t going to be with songs about loving their cats or how much they enjoy math.”

Fenger’s a bit of a legend in that community, even though his teaching career didn’t last very long. To this day, 50 years on, he occasionally runs into his former students, who enthusiastically address him as “Mr. Fenger,” though he struggles with defining himself as a teacher.

“I was a single parent. I was a school teacher. I was a rock and roll musician. I was up and down, like most people are,” admits Fenger.

“Heck, I was just moseying along like a lot of people, trying to adjust to a world I hadn’t really expected.”

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