Thursday, March 13, 2008

I Wish I Had Had A Band Director Like That...

Tonight I went to the South Rowan High School band concert. I really didn't go with terribly high expectations - after all it was a high school band concert. I expected a good bit of out of tune playing and a few weak sections, but an overall tolerable evening.

I was blown away.

The first part of the concert consisted of a mixed band of freshmen and upperclassmen. I was absolutely surprised by how well they played. Given another month they would be ready for competition. They played March of the Irish Guard arr. by James Ployhar, Norwegian Folk Song Suite by Frank Erickson, and Dorian Rhapsody by Eliot Del Borgo.

For the next movement of the concert, the freshmen left the stage to a skeleton crew of upperclassmen. This crew tackled some really tough pieces. First on the docket was Habanera by E. Chabrier arr. by Albert Davis. It was a very intricate and tricky piece. They followed that with "Sleepers, Wake" from Cantata 140 by Johann Sebastian Bach, arr. by Philip Sparke. "Ah, Bach..." Need I say more? And they closed this set with the Disney show tune Under the Sea by Alan Menken, arr. by Jerry Nowak. I don't remember ever hearing a band number whose melody was carried for the majority of the song by the baritone horn. I'm not sure the name of the young man who was playing, but he did a fantastic job and had a wonderful tone.

This was all well and good. These bands did a fine job, but the real treat was still to come.

The final set of the evening was performed by the South Rowan Jazz Ensemble. They set the house on fire right out of the gate with William Chase and Richard Marinan's Get It On (arr. by Paul Jennings). They followed that with Sammy Nestico's Orange Sherbet. I just cannot do justice to the job these guys were doing. They totally rocked the house.

That was followed by Jimmy Forrest's Night Train (arr. by John Higgins). The band tore it up. There were extended jazz improv solos!!! My band director never taught ME how to improv! And these kids were GOOD. They were relaxed and having a good time. It was amazing!

The next song in the set was Embraceable You, the George Gershwin tune arr. by Roy Phillippe. That was the only laid back number in the entire set. They were right out of the gate again on the next song - Vehicle (written by James Peterik and arr by Paul Jennings). I'm not sure where I heard that one before, but it had that 70's groove to it.

Then the band turned to swing with the old Glenn Miller standard American Patrol arr. by Paul Lavender. They had a false start with this one, but the band director wisely pulled the plug and started over. Once they got things together they did a fine job with it.

The last song in the set was Sermon by Erik Morales. They hit it out of the park. When the concert was done they received a well-earned standing ovation... and the audience was treated to an encore! They finished up with the Glenn Miller signature In The Mood. It was a great show.

I say all of this to say that this was all brought about by the vision and skill of a 2nd year band director. Never ever ever never have I ever heard of a band program that actually taught the students about music. At least not around here. Justin Dickson has done a STELLAR job with this band.

Many of his students came to him hardly knowing which end of the horn to blow into. Many literally didn't know what a whole note or a quarter rest were. These are the very building blocks of music, and they had managed to get to his band without knowing these things. And he had them playing Bach for crying out loud!

Back in the day I was a pretty good trombone player, but if I had had a band director like Justin Dickson, I might still be playing today. He is teaching these kids how to make music and not just memorize how to play songs. There is a HUGE difference. There is nothing more frustrating than having music inside of you and having an instrument and having absolutely NO IDEA how to get that music out of you through that instrument. Justin has bridged that gap for many of his students.

The sad thing is how long will it last? Every year he has to battle against people who convince his best musicians that they can't afford to "waste" a credit on band. He has to deal with ill-prepared students coming from middle schools in the area. He has to watch as other students are turned off to band because of poor programs in the schools that they have come from. And on top of all of that he has to battle block scheduling which keeps him from being able to have a cohesive band throughout the school year.

Oh my goodness what he could achieve if he had these kids for an entire year. His bands would become LEGENDARY.

Justin, my hat's off to you, buddy. Keep up the excellent work!


Maestro said...

Very impressive that a young band director accomplished that in a short time. It is actually kind of a shame that we shouldn't expect more from all band directors.

I recently read a journal article in which students who were interviewed about their school music experience said that their band director's talked quite a bit about playing "the right" notes etc., but never commented on any of the expressive elements of music.

It's great that at least some of us are.

Jonathan said...

He is a fantastic director. I wish that his situation were better. Thanks so much for commenting. Welcome to blogworld too. You have some great thoughts on your blog.