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In Conversation with Isaiah Odajima

The Associate Professor of Ensembles and Director of the Golden Wave Band sat down for an interview about struggles, success, and how he has stuck to the things he loves. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

To hear the entire conversation, visit baylorline.com/isaiahinterview

Jonathon Platt: Isaiah, could you tell us just a little bit about yourself and let our readers know who’s on the other side of the page?

Isaiah Odajima: I am the associate director of bands and maybe more famously known as director of the athletic bands and director of the Golden Wave Band, the marching band here at Baylor. It means I oversee all of those pep bands and the marching band for all the athletic events, that’s one of my main priorities. But, also, I’m a professor and teach in the school of music and am involved obviously with our music majors from performance to education working mostly with our instrumental students. I teach classes like conducting and some methods courses. I have a concert ensemble that I do, which is made up of primarily music majors. There’s a lot I’m dealing with, a lot of stuff that I’m really excited about. Lots of things that are very fulfilling in my job.

What’s your favorite part of being director of the Golden Wave Band?

The students. It’s so easy to talk about that. I think everyone knows that if you’ve been to Baylor and if you have any experience working with the students that we have amazing students. I feel super blessed because I get to experience the best of the best when it comes to the students that have come to our group. Statistically speaking, when you talk about the marching band, what you’re talking about is a collection of students who are extremely high achieving students, who have music in their background. It’s scientifically proven that those students do very well academically, but also very well socially. Many of them are very adept at reading and understanding their environment and making adjustments to be effective in that environment. The students I work with, they’re leaders in their community. Most of the students in the athletic bands and the marching band, over 80 percent of them are non-music majors. The students who might be presidents of science clubs, or organizations for nursing, or leaders of their biochem group, or leaders of their religious groups, or engineering — I’ve got tons of engineering students — those leaders just happen to be in the band. It’s exciting for me to be able to work with them.

Isaiah, you’ve been with the music school and the various band groups that you’re in charge of since about 2009, correct?

Yeah. This is actually, starting 2009, in my current position, I’ve been at Baylor four different times total. I think it’s always strange to think about how Baylor came into my life. Baylor wasn’t ever on my radar. When I was an undergrad, I went to SFA, Stephen F. Austin State University, and I was a music major there. As I was coming to an end at my time there, I was going to be a band director. I was ready to go out into public schools and my goals at that time were, I wanted to probably teach a little bit of middle school and teach beginners and get that experience. Then go on and teach high school and have a kick-butt high school marching band program.

Then I got a call from the Director of Bands, Michael Haithcock here, who had taught at Baylor for 21 years. He was here through the ‘70s to the ‘90s or 2000s. He said, ‘Hey, I heard you’re a great trumpet player and we need a good trumpet grad assistant. I want you to come.’ I said, ‘Great. I love playing trumpet, but my passion, if I want to get a degree, a master’s degree, I’m really interested in conducting.’ I remember back at that time I was thinking, I’m not really interested in being a trumpet grad assistant. I had an idea about going to University of Texas or some other place to do a master’s degree in conducting. After I taught public school, I wasn’t going to go straight into my master’s. But I decided, all right, let’s go check it out and see.

A family man, Dr. Odajima takes time to get away with his wife, Becky, and their three children.

And what happened once you made that decision?

First I came to Baylor and I auditioned on trumpet. They said, ‘Great. We want to give you an assistantship,’ and I said, ‘Great. I’m only interested if I can do conducting.’ So then two weeks later, I came back and did an audition in the conducting and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ They created a hybrid role and did that. Then I didn’t have a chance to finish it. We had some family issues. 

We had three kiddos in college and my father lost his job and he was having some trouble making things happen and we needed a source of income. I felt like, actually, really, honestly, it was a very troubling time in my life. It was really, really challenging. I had done a lot of things in preparation for graduating, and also I was trying to get married to my current wife. I’d saved a lot of money to buy a ring. I came from a very modest background. At that time, I had made a name for myself writing college marching band shows and halftime drills for other folks. I was probably the youngest person in America writing for University of Michigan, and the University of Texas, and SFA, and a bunch of other places — writing halftime shows during that time. I was making some money doing that and I’d saved up all this money. Then it just all seeped away because my family needed some help. There were a lot of other things in play, and I just felt like I needed to leave.

How did that feel to have to make that decision?

It was very traumatic. I wasn’t doing as well in my class load as I wanted to. I mean, it wasn’t terrible. I just wasn’t doing as well as I wanted, and that was irritating. Then there was this other thing of all this drill writing for colleges that was taking off and I was feeling the stress of that, and it was challenging. Becky, my wife, and I were doing a long-distance relationship, me in Waco while she was in Nacogdoches at SFA. And I was one semester shy of being done with my master’s and I just felt like I just needed to finish it. But I’ll never forget, I was just in turmoil about it. I was having a lot of pressure put on me, or I had a lot of pressure I put on myself maybe. I was starting to experience anxiety attacks that I’d never experienced before.

I remember I left my apartment one day and I was walking down the street over by where Clay Pot used to be. I was walking around there, and I was just praying. I was in deep prayer. Just a desperate kind of praying, and I’ve been praying for quite some time.

What do you qualify as desperate praying? I love that term.

I think everyone probably knows that.

I think you’re right. Everyone does.

Everybody understands that there’s maybe your everyday prayer and there’s the needy prayer and the hopeful prayers. Then I think maybe that desperate praying where your life might feel like it’s falling apart. You’re unable — you’re not sure what to do.

Before we started talking, you described yourself as generally a happy person. I’ve picked up on that just from the little time that we’re together. Do you think your colleagues, your peers, other students that you were working with in this period of time, would they have described you as a happy person? Were you putting on this air, were you putting on a different sort of wardrobe to go into public than you were in private? Keeping that happiness out there meanwhile in turmoil underneath?

I think we all have to do that in a level of self-protection. At that time, I had too much on my plate. I was dealing with too much. I was realizing that, but I didn’t know until it was too late. Until I was already knee deep in it. It was coming on and I just didn’t know. But I was putting up my defense mechanism of, ‘Oh, everything is fine,’ but it clearly wasn’t.

Dr. Odajim and his wife, Becky, and their children Katelyn and Trenton on the occasion of their son Grayson’s high school graduation. 

Let’s imagine that you now are walking behind that kid who is maybe half a block ahead of you and is praying in desperation. What do you walk up to that kid… what do you come beside that kid and say? What’s that lesson that from 20 years down the road you’d want that younger Isaiah to know?

I think it’s: Take a gut check and understand what’s in your control and what’s out of your control. Then: Trust in the Lord. I mean, I think back then I just felt like I had to take care of all these things when in fact I just had really little. I took ownership for things that didn’t belong to me. Yeah. I would tell him that and to slow down, slow down. I was in such a rush to be the very best, I was in such a rush to fix my problems.

I felt like I owned my problems. Like I knew where my faults were, and I knew what issues I had. It’s funny now. The incredible amount of arrogance to think back then that I thought I knew what I needed to know, and obviously only time tells and lets you know that. But I just felt like I knew what my issues were that I needed to fix. I was just off target.

What did you learn from that experience? How do you think you apply those lessons now in your work and life?

One of the things that I think I’ve learned along the way, that I think my students value is: Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. The students that are coming up now, they’re knee deep in that whole thing of anxiety and depression and all that. I think one of the reasons why I’m here, one of the reasons I think why God has placed me in this specific place, is so that I can continuously share my stories and to let them know. I think I try to be open and vulnerable with them about things that are challenging in my life and things that have been challenging, and how I deal with them. I try to pass that on just so that they understand they’re not alone. It’s been really wonderful to do that within our community because I have students who are just absolutely amazing. 

One of the most important things I have done is I know that God has placed students at my doorstep, at my office, who wouldn’t go to anyone else. I’ve counseled and been a mentor and been a person of trust for, it seems like every year there’s someone who I wasn’t expecting who was just in turmoil and just in great agony and who needed… they start talking and I can tell immediately, ‘Oh, they need to hear my past story of this moment.’ It’s like, I know immediately that was not by accident. It happened and they needed it right then and there. 

Listen to the entire conversation today at baylorline.com/isaiahinterview.

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