Frank Manna was a master teacher who built a legendary high school band by making his students pass through a crucible. At times as ruthless as Terrence Fletcher—the jazz band instructor in the movie Whiplash—Manna demanded absolute perfection from his students. His teaching style would not work for everyone, yet there is something praiseworthy about it and perhaps in need of emulation in our times. Teachers should not be afraid to be demanding; they should study the legendary taskmaster of Chicago’s South Side and learn to do it well.
He was my high school band director. My first encounter with Mr. Manna was at a marching band practice that felt more like bootcamp. I was part of the last all-male class at Marist High School, toward the end of Manna’s teaching career. It also happened to be the highlight of Manna’s musical career: the band was going to the Rose Bowl parade—the “granddaddy of them all”—and Manna was not going to let any young freshmen screw it up.
The first day of practice was almost like a scene out of a movie. Lined up in a row, we freshmen boys stood in formation, quaking in our boots, waiting for the arrival of the reincarnation of Napoleon to survey his troops. I came to learn that students of all ages had a healthy mixture of fear and admiration in his presence. Manna was a large, intimidating man of Italian heritage from the South Side of Chicago. One could be forgiven for thinking him a friend of Tony Soprano’s.