Greg Peters was a fifth-grader when he picked up his first instrument — a saxophone, to be precise. Ditto for Patrick Baldwin. Jamie Gardner got his instrumental start on the cello. The thrill of hauling it around, however, quickly faded for the fourth-grader; by the time he started fifth grade, Gardner had become a trumpet man.
These days, as band directors at Linesville, Saegertown and Maplewood high schools respectively, they’re passing on their love of music to new generations of musicians. And while the instruments may have stayed pretty much the same over the years, the band experience has definitely changed.
During the recent 23rd Annual Crawford County High School Allegheny College Band Festival, which brought together almost 150 students from Cambridge Springs, Cochranton, Conneaut Lake, Conneaut Valley, Linesville, Maplewood, Meadville, Saegertown and Titusville high schools, directors from all nine schools spent two days watching their students rehearse and perform under the direction of Lowell Hepler, director of bands at Allegheny.
“I remember my first experience at the district and at the region level,” Peters said as he watched his daughter, Jackie, take her place in a section that included French horn players from Cochranton, Maplewood, Titusville, Meadville and Conneaut Valley high schools. “I came from the Harbor Creek band program (in Erie County), which was large even when I was in school — we probably numbered 70 to 80 members in our high school band.”
However, performing in the district and regional bands, whose size approximately equaled the county band filling the stage before him, was still a thrill. “I experienced a lot of fatigue, because there’s a lot of practice, and mentally you really get tired because you’re focusing on so many aspects of creating music that it’s exhausting,” he recalled. “The flip side of that is that when it comes time to perform, you create just an incredible sound that you can’t duplicate in your home band. These are the top musicians from each of our school bands.”
For those top musicians, however, face demands that just weren’t part of the picture when their directors were members of the band.
“We see students today involved in a wider variety of activities and interests,” Peters, who has taught music in Conneaut School District for 14 years and led the high school band for four, explained. “We weren’t able to participate in as many activities, so we were able to focus on one activity and become stronger in that activity than many students today are.” Stressing that there are always individuals who participate in multiple activities and excel, “the wide variety of activities available has had an impact on their ability to excel in one area,” he said.
“The kids are more involved with stuff now, so it’s harder to find kids who want to participate,” added Patrick Baldwin, now in his fifth year of directing the Saegertown band. “It’s not that they’re unwilling — it’s just that there are a lot more opportunities for them.”
“They get stretched pretty thin,” Gardner agreed.
Competition, Peters was quick to note, doesn’t just come from sports and other extracurricular activities.
“Academically, there are a lot of pressures on the students that did not exist even five years ago,” he explained. “With the various testing and programs the students have to go through, there are greater demands placed on the educators in the building that are outside of the music realm that were not there five years ago. The (federal) No Child Left Behind program is one of those programs that’s placing a lot of pressure on educators. In many arenas, it’s unfair pressure.”
This is a subject that’s never far from the minds of education professionals these days. In fact, Peters noted, expectations are now being placed on educators to control circumstances completely outside their realm of control had been a topic of conversation among the band directors earlier in the day.
Peters describes the situation confronting today’s educators as much like a dentist being held accountable for the number of cavities his patients bring into his office.
“It’s the dentist’s fault, because obviously you aren’t telling your patients to take care of their teeth well enough,” he said with an ironic smile. “It’s like someone saying, ‘We’re going to have an outside body come in and control your dentist office if you don’t have your patients come in with a certain percentage or less of cavities.’ ”
The analogy fits, Peters continued, because educators have students coming in from all over the place with a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. “We try to be motivators, but the students and the faculty members are experiencing a lot more pressure from outside realms — and that impacts our music programs,” he added.
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org