Friday, March 7, 2014

Allan Minkkinen, and the Triumphant Return of Elementary Bands to Andover

When I started in Andover in 2001, I was one of three full time band directors, including Mr. Allan Minkkinen, who had been in Andover at that point for over 30 years.  Allan wrote dozens of cool arrangements, found ways to highlight particularly motivated students, and became a legend in this town.  He and I shared a passion for Civil War history, and enjoyed many discussions about the politics and the tactics surrounding the war.  He also had a very impressive collection of firearms, from antique military to modern sport.  I always imagined that if we were ever invaded by a foreign power, Allan would have possessed the training and equipment to single-handedly defend Ballardvale for a very long time.

Due to significant budget cuts in the Spring of 2002, two of our band positions were cut, among several others.  Allan took over the middle school choruses and kept up a lunchtime elementary band in each building, while I went from two to three middle schools, and added the high school chorus to my schedule.  Allan taught this schedule for one year before retiring in the spring of 2003.

Little changed with the band program until even the lunchtime band, our last foothold in the elementary schools, was done away with in 2009.  This coincided with Allan's failing health and untimely death.  I mentioned his passing at the Peace Concert that year, and dedicated a piece to him, but that's all I could muster in way of a public tribute.  It seemed disingenuous to do more than that where in his final years he had to watch his life's work dwindle down to nothing. I feared it would not be a gesture he really would have appreciated, given the trajectory of the program.

The summer of 2010 brought some new leadership to the Andover schools, and an aspiration to make things whole again.  The only promise made was that it would take a while, and be the result of careful intelligent planning.  The following year brought about a task force that looked into a five-year strategic plan.  That next year, we conducted some research as to how similar districts schedule instrumental music, and made recommendations as to what it would take to make steps in the right direction for Andover.  This past fall, a fine arts coordinator position was restored to the district, as were three full time music positions.

On Tuesday night, for the first time in twelve years, a significant elementary school band will take the Collins Center stage at Andover High School.  The last time this happened, in March of 2002, the band was directed by Allan Minkkinen.  It will be my humble privilege to symbolically resume his hard work in Andover as those seventy five kids play "Montego Bay" and  "Regal March" with what I hope would be the love that Allan would have put into it.  Their performance will be dedicated to his memory.  This is long overdue.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Pencil Equilibrium

I don't want to jinx it, but I have made some real strides with the Andover pencil culture.  It remains an active struggle to get them to have pencils on their stands, and most need to be told to use them, but I believe we have all but killed the outright refusal that had such a stronghold on this town.

The interesting side project in all of this is to what extent I have been willing to provide said pencils.  I have always taken the line that it is their responsibility to have their own pencils, and I did not want to get them used to just living off the land and finding one when they get to band.

I have to admit that this is hardly fair.  I am quite certain that I can recall many times when I dug around under the risers or inside the piano at school so that I'd have one at the ready.  Maybe I don't want them going down the same primrose path on which I tread.

Recently, I broke down and put a mug of pencils on the little shelf next to my podium.  I'm telling you, it works.  It's fascinating.  The rule is: borrow one if you need it, but return it.  If they forget to do it before band, they have to come up in front of me and take one.  Most kids would rather have their own than do that.

After band, I go around and collect pencils left on the stand, and they go in the mug.  Some may have been borrowed and not returned, and some may have just been left and are now community.

There are always a handful of kids who forgot one, and there are always a few left on stands, and at the end of the day, there is always about the same number of pencils in the jar.

Wood Hill Middle School has achieved pencil equilibrium.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cooper Knapp

I am treated to a lot of inspiration to reflect on my high school music experiences these days for a number of reasons.  I am looking at high school band from the outside for the first time in over a decade for one thing, and my thirtieth high school reunion approaches this summer for another.  Probably the biggest reason is watching my nephew Hunter experience an almost parallel path in his senior year at York High School.  As he lines up his opportunities for studying music in college, I see a lot of the same experiences shaping those decisions.

Hunter's involvement within his school's music program has been prolific and impressive, and of course I applaud that.  I am also encouraged to see how involved he has been in music outside of school, in a variety of camps, ensembles, pick-up groups, and even a little entrepreneurialism.  He and his friends, outside of the agenda of any adults, seem to make a lot of music.  I love that he does that, and think back on how much that sort of activity shaped me and my passion for what I now do.

As I reflect on that, I think back on all the many pick-up basement and garage bands that I played in.  It's funny that there were so many, but involved a relatively limited number of actual personalities.  It's as though a dozen or so of us tried every combination of personnel we could imagine, learned a set or two, and debated a band name over a box for Flo-Dogs and a two liter bottle of Coke.

Choosing who we played with seemed as much about whose company we enjoyed than anything else, and then hope they play well.  That being said, I don't ever recall any of these bands not wanting to be great.  We always enjoyed several months of novelty before individual agendas would start to run against each other as the luster faded, but "that's good enough for this band" was not something I recall being said.

As I ponder this, I perceive that among us were some exceptional musicians with whom I had played, and it occurs to me that York, Maine in the early to mid 80's had an unusually high number of remarkable drummers among us.  I can't recall anything but really capable and musical players behind those enormous Neal Peart inspired sets.  Tim Sorel, Charlie Gnerre, Joe Rogers, Shawn Mitchell, and John Dorizzi are all names that come to mind.  All as soulful and skilled and inspired as the next.  It is tempting to suggest that I have a touch of rose colored hindsight on this, except that I think all of them are still quite active as musicians.

Maybe this is normal, and over my career, as is the case with any instrument, I can name a number of really wonderful drummers who have been students of mine in one way or another, but I can't quite recall a frequency of it like the list above crammed into a five year period or so.

It then hit me that among the forces that encouraged that culture in York,  not the least of which an encouraging high school band director in George Perkins, was Cooper Knapp.  I know so little of Mr. Knapp.  He had three daughters near my age that I knew well in school, all of whom were involved in band.  I knew that he had some difficulty with his hearing, and I knew that he played drums.  I have no recollection of how he made a living, or if drums ever played any role in that.  At first, he was just one of the adults in the percussion section of the summer Town Band, but then when there would be a piece that required a drum set, he sat down and just owned the stage on that kit.

He played with power, but he played with taste.  In my mind, I have trouble separating memories of watching him and seeing videos of Buddy Rich.  They both always played on older style three or four piece sets, and he engulfed it with a drive and yet a musicality that brought us all along for a ride.

It seemed as though it was never to hard to talk him into coming in to play with the HS kids.  He'd agree to play a drum battle with probably any of the above listed high school drummers, and would take them all to school, with less that half of the equipment that my generation insisted on loading into a station wagon every time we were fortunate enough to get booked to play for a middle school dance.  I also have a vivid memory watching the faces of delight of my peers watch him as he took his turn in the battles.

Mr. Knapp is no longer with us, and will always pine for a chance to hear him play again, knowing what I know now about the art form.  Maybe I'm better off.  Maybe the comparison to Buddy is a little charitable, but maybe not.  I actually don't care.  When I was a teenager, this guy was the first person I had ever seen play some serious jazz drums in person, and in my head he remains one of the best.  I prefer that reality, and I am almost sure that my peers would remember him with the same fondness and influence that I remember.  I think he was a huge part of that exceptional drum culture in York.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Seeking to Lessen the Acrimony Surrounding the Festival Audition Process

We are approaching another festival audition this coming weekend.  Every year, as I help my counterparts and the parents of my students work out situations, sometimes difficult ones, I draft this little sentiment in my head, and pledge to put it out ahead of time that following year.  This is the first year I actually did it.

"(Honors) festivals are run by a volunteer corps of area music teachers who operate solely out of a desire to provide these opportunities for the music students of (this area).  The process for fairly, accurately, and efficiently evaluating literally hundreds of young musicians is daunting, complicated, and often almost thankless.  These teachers are always striving to use the district's years of experience, as well as ever-changing and improving technology, to fine tune the process and make the experience more efficient and more valuable.  Please know that there are occasionally anomalies and delays that occur, and that we are all doing our best to make the whole audition and notification process go with as few glitches as we can.  You patience and understanding is much appreciated."

It is my hope that this might provide both parties, each of whom I hold in very high esteem, more resources and empathy to get through such situations more peacefully and productively.

I freely admit that I could stand to reflect on my own behavior and attitude here.  This is as self-aspirational as anything else.