The retired teacher used New Orleans to make students better players and listeners.
On May 20, 2019 students, parents, and what seemed like every adult who’s known Mark Hughes in the past 20 years piled into the back lot of Pine Street and Willow Street for his last morning meeting, which was a tribute to his time at . The elementary school students excitedly buzzed in their homeroom lines, while adults crammed into any extra space around the perimeter. Students who had graduated, parents of graduates, teachers who no longer worked there, and people from the neighborhood who simply enjoy the music all came to Hughes' final morning meeting performance. The tribute started with Hughes’ beginnings as a teacher, and moved into former and current students and parents paying tribute through song to his time teaching. Drum student alumni and the Lusher Dads Band includes Derek Huston, Rich Collins, and Steve Watson, who took turns leading songs and sharing their love and respect for Hughes as a teacher and musician, while Hughes joined them on guitar. Students were dancing and teachers were crying, and the morning ended with Elvis Costello’s “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love, and Understanding)?” Hughes wore a bright, gaudy jacket given to him at the beginning of the morning, and he spent the final song rocking out on guitar while students ran up on stage to dance. Afterwards, a parent asked him, “Were you really having as much fun as it looked like you were having?” and he said “Absolutely. It was incredible.”
Mark Hughes taught elementary school music education at Lusher for nearly 20 years, but he didn’t always intend to teach. He was a music therapist for 20 years and brought those skills with him to the classroom. For the adults he worked with as a therapist, the music was used to achieve concrete, behavioral goals--“social interaction, communication if they were non-verbal, group cohesion,” he says. The goal was not musicianship. When he started teaching at Lusher, he used the same songs and similar activities as he did before, but the goal shifted. Now he was teaching students to become musicians.
Hughes didn’t come from a teaching background, but he had the patience and generosity necessary to become a good teacher. His classroom was one where students could experiment with sound and learn musical expression. Classrooms full of elementary-aged children with loud instruments are an easy recipe for disarray and frustration, but Hughes never let it come to the surface. Lourde Reeks taught strings at Lusher for nine years alongside Hughes, and she remembers that as one of his strengths. “I think the most important thing about him is how flexible he is, and how easy going he is,” she says. Teachers can be forced to abandon their lesson plans and improvise, but Hughes never showed frustration or let students know when he was unprepared. “You could throw anything at him, and he’d just be like OK let’s roll with it,” she said.
Patience was the most notable quality about him, and it’s something that everyone mentioned when discussing him. Musician Rich Collins is a member of The Imagination Movers, and he realized when he began to help teach the Lusher drums ensemble that he didn’t have the patience Hughes did. Collins entertained children as part of his job, but that's different from actually teaching them, and he was impressed by the ease with which Mark conducted his lesson plans. “He’d lead the kids through a curriculum in a way that just felt like play,” Collins said. “The thing about him is he’s so patient and he’s so kind.”
Hughes took this same enthusiasm for music and built a notable community tradition to start the mornings. Every morning at Lusher began with morning meeting, which is where students and parents would gather outside of the school for announcements followed by live music performances usually by Hughes, but sometimes by guest performers or students. Morning meeting existed before Hughes began teaching, but it became a staple of the Lusher community with Hughes’ direction. When I was a student, it was a consistent but not terribly elaborate production. He stuck with a fairly consistent formula for which songs he’d play: Mondays were patriotic, Thursdays were Louisiana music, and Fridays were rock ’n’ roll.
As the years went on, and morning meeting moved from the front of the school to the newly renovated back lot outside of the Goldring Center at Lusher’s Willow Street campus, the morning ritual grew in participants and contributors. More parents began stuck around after dropping their kids off and more musicians participated. The parents who were musicians donated their time, and they helped Hughes get in contact with even bigger musicians who were glad to perform as well. “Anybody who was a Lusher parent who was a musician, we would start reaching out to them,” said Reeks.
New Orleans is a tightly wound city, and word traveled and connections were made over the years that secured big local names like Stanton Moore, George Porter Jr., Dave Malone, Ani DiFranco, and Trombone Shorty for the morning performances. When talking about Trombone Shorty, Hughes lit up. “Man, he’s just a showman," Hughes said. "Sixty seconds into the first tune he blows out the sound system. He grabs his horn and goes out into the kids and starts this groove, and his band followed. It was just, Alright I don’t have a mic, here we go. By the end of the song, Hughes jumped and danced along with the kids in the audience.
These mornings became routine not only for Lusher students and parents, but for the surrounding community as well. Hughes discovered how much they meant after Hurricane Katrina, when the city had become largely child-free because schools hadn’t reopened, He listened to WWNO as people shared what they missed about New Orleans, and one woman called in to say, “I miss children. I live next to an elementary school and every Friday the music teacher brings his electric guitar and plays rock ’n’ roll with the students.”
The morning meeting ritual became so beloved that Hughes and many of the contributing parents decided to create an album of the songs performed at them. “Every song is a song that kids heard at morning meeting,” Hughes said. Before he started, the previous music teacher made a CD of students singing the regular morning meeting songs, but Hughes wanted something more professional and crafted. “I don’t want kids’ voices,” he said, laughing. “Let’s get these musicians on.” The album was recorded in the studio of Mike Harvey, another Lusher dad, and featured many local musicians including Collins, Huston, Watson, Mike Doussan, Debbie Davis, Victor Atkins, and Darcy Malone. Harvey added kids voices in places, but mostly it highlights working local musicians. Like morning meetings, it gave Hughes another chance to part of the music world he introduced the students to, without the touring, anxiety, and bedroom full of unsold CDs. “It’s been an amazing experience for me,” Hughes said.
Hughes was content to never become a superstar musician and instead used his time to build music lovers from the ground up. He dedicated his life to music and has been content settling in the middle ground of musicianship. “I’ve never in any way come close to becoming a music master, but I’ve still done music forever. So, it can be done without being that amazing guitar shredder or violinist or whatever.” For him, the ability to practice music regularly was much more important than becoming a star. He didn’t strive for profound musicianship, but his love and enthusiasm made him a superstar in his own right.
Steve Watson played bass in Thousand Dollar Car and now is part of the Chris Lee Band, and his son graduated from Lusher. “I’ve played music my whole life, and I’ll be sitting in a restaurant, and some kid will look at me and say ‘Are you in Mr. Hughes’s band?’ and I’m like ‘I sure am,’ he says.”
Derek Huston, another well-known local musician, told a story of his daughter coming home after Hughes played her class Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music.” Huston then took her through the history of the song. He played her the Chuck Berry version, then the Beatles version, then the Beach Boys version, walking her through the differences and intricacies of songs and the ways they’re covered. Huston then laughed and said, “She thought about it for a minute and she said, I still think Mr. Hughes does it the best.”
“One of the things I love about Mark is making sure that young people hear what I consider to be essential and very important songs and music: New Orleans music. The idea that everyone has some music inside of them,” Huston said. “It’s really great music that I think is an important foundation for understanding 20th century American music.”
In a city whose structure is built atop its musical foundation, where musicians can actually make a stable living through their music, Hughes has done a great job linking early sparks of music appreciation with seasoned adult musicians in the city, creating a place where both halves experience music both whimsically and seriously. He focused on play but also craft. The morning meetings he built allowed him to highlight local musicians and students who were working to seriously perfect their craft.
“It was a great opportunity for students to have prepared something that they wanted to share with the community,” Reeks said. “Sometimes when somebody had something that they had refined that they wanted to perform for a large audience, they would get an opportunity to do that.”
When Hughes started teaching at Lusher, there wasn’t an established arts team. There was a music teacher and a visual arts teacher, but they hardly worked together to build an arts curriculum. As the arts staff grew and they began to work together as a team, the teachers were able to focus on craft and progress as artists. In 5th grade, students were able to choose whether or not they wanted to do general music or strings, and they could begin to get more specialized time each week, honing a craft. This early focus on craft is not only useful to those becoming practicing musicians; it is useful for anyone trying to become a working artist.
Hughes helped build the early arts education team at Lusher, which eventually blossomed into a much larger, more-structured, high-intensity programs in later grade levels. His equal emphasis on play and craft allowed for passion to flourish while skill slowly built around it. A school building serious curriculum around the arts from such a young age is rare, and Lusher has produced many talented artists of all mediums because it does. Lusher’s arts education is well-respected throughout the city, and its foundation is centered on Mark Hughes and his love of music.
In retirement, Hughes is now finding a new normal. He talks about the relief of retirement, and also the community he misses. He maintains a deep love for morning meeting and the tradition he built, but also an acceptance that it isn’t his anymore. He still lives nearby, and times his morning walks so as to avoid attention from students and parents that might recognize him. “I’m dying to get down there and watch a morning meeting, but of course I can’t,” he said. “Gotta let the new music teacher be the new music teacher.”