PINE ISLAND — Joseph Mish knows that teaching music is about so much more than the music itself.

As the longtime Pine Island orchestra teacher, Mish has had hundreds of students come through his classroom. One of the things he tries to impart to them is music’s power to connect people from different times and places. He sees it as a way to increase understanding and empathy.

“Music is the most amazing thing because it can transcend time and space,” he said. “You can get a sense from playing and listening to his music of what Beethoven’s life was like. We don’t know Beethoven; we’ve never met him, but we can get a sense of who he was and the world he lived in by playing his music.”

Mish’s ability to connect with and lead his students is being recognized by his peers. He was recently named a recipient of the Bravura Award. The organization Southeast Minnesota Youth Orchestras gives the award for “inspiring student excellence through music education in our local community.” He will be honored with the award during a gala on Oct. 23.

According to SMYO, Pine Island is the only small town in southeastern Minnesota (outside of the Big 9 conference) that has an orchestra program.

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Mish has been teaching at Pine Island since 1986. At this point, he’s taught students who are the children of his previous students.

He wears several hats in his role. He’s the orchestra teacher, but he also teaches jazz string ensembles and coaches the music-listening team.

Outside of teaching, he plays double bass with the Rochester Symphony Orchestra.

Pine Island orchestra teacher, Joseph Mish works with his 6th grade viola students outside during school Friday October 9, 2020 at the high school in Pine Island. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Pine Island orchestra teacher, Joseph Mish works with his 6th grade viola students outside during school Friday October 9, 2020 at the high school in Pine Island. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Despite his long-standing place in the school’s history, Mish knows not to become too comfortable.

That mentality is one of the things that brought him to Pine Island in the first place. At the time, he was deciding between that position and one in a larger district in Wisconsin. He decided on Pine Island, knowing it would require him to push himself a little more, and that it would make him become a better teacher.

“You always have to be reaching for something a little bit better,” he said. “If you’re static, you’re dead.”

Like other teachers, Mish has felt the impact of the pandemic. He remembers rehearsing with his students March 12, the same day they found out the class trip to New York was canceled. It was a trip they had been planning for a long time.

He describes how the students put their emotions — their sense of loss — into the performance. He wishes people could have heard his students play that day.

If there had been an audience, perhaps they would have felt the loss themselves. Like getting a sense of Beethoven’s world from several hundred years before, maybe music would have been able to convey a little bit of a young person's experience during a worldwide pandemic.

“That’s why we do music,” Mish said. “We’re training students to be better humans — to be able to understand and have empathy for each other.”