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Two Directors Span 52 Years

Charles Groeling and William Koch | August 2010

   Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois has had only two band directors in its 52-year history, and both still live in the area. In 1958 the newly built school opened, and its founding director, Charles Groeling, established the first band program.
   Over the next eight years Chuck’s expertise created one of the most prominent bands in the suburban North Shore area of Chicago. When Groeling  retired, the band room keys went to Bill Koch, who continued to expand the program and helped the school in 2007 to be voted the number one fine arts program in the country by the National School Board Association and the Ken­nedy Center for the Performing Arts.
   Meanwhile Groeling went on to supervise student music teachers at Roosevelt Univer­sity in Chicago for 25 years and continued to review new music for The Instrumentalist. Only during preparation for this article did Chuck Groeling return to his old school  to conduct the Niles West band for the first time since 1983, a period of 27 years.

Stopping By For A Visit
Chuck Groeling: What strikes me as remaining the same over 50 years is that something is special about the students at Niles West High School that I have not seen anywhere else. The students are  personable and intelligent, and they are also curious and friendly. Both 50 years ago and now they seem genuinely interested in what they are doing, yet I cannot explain why this is so. It has always been this way. They also seem to be more of a community than a collection of individuals.
    I am also impressed to find the same unwavering support for music by the school district and  administration. While so many districts are cutting budgets, Niles has developed a fine arts facility that is better than most schools have. There are rooms for small groups, computer instruction, and practice rooms. I found studios for teaching lessons, classroom space, and a black-box theater, which is in vogue now. The large auditorium was there in my time.
The school has an entirely new choral facility, but when I taught there the chorus and orchestra shared a room. The faculty office space is similar, but the music storage and band library are greatly improved. I can see that the school spent considerable money for a steel structure to support the weight of the music collection.

Band Enrollment
   When Niles West became independent in 1961, the music department was up and running with 100 students because the program had previously combined players from Niles West and Niles East, another high school in the district, for several years. Besides a marching band of about 80 students, there was a training band of 40 students, an orchestra of 50 players, and four choral groups varying in size from 30-70 singers.
When school started in ’61 we had the Fearless 48 – the marching band – who were also the concert band players, a training band of 15 students, an intermediate-level band of about 60 players, and the freshman band was about 40 students. Within four years we had over 200 students in the band program plus additional players in orchestra and four or five choral classes. By 1964 the program was in good shape, numerically.

Bill Koch:
The music department today is similar to the department of Chuck’s era with 170 students in three concert bands and a beginning band; however, the number of students in beginning band has fallen off over the years. The beginning band program was solid for many years because its enrollment included students in the English language learners program for those who spoke English as a second language. Ten or more students would join beginning band every year, and many of them would continue in the concert program. They learned the language of music and at the same time heard other teachers speaking English.
    In recent years only about five of these students joined the concert band program as contrasted to about 10% of the entire band program coming from this program in the early 1990s.

The Long and Short of Rehearsals
CG: In the 1960s and 70s one of the challenges to the band program was the class schedule, which operated on a seven-period day with lunch periods divided into two half periods. If students had five majors, they couldn’t take band, so the only way I could include them was during the last half of their lunch hour. For a long time I had some students in band for 15-20 minutes, but they stayed with the program. Later the school went to a nine-period day and eventually a modular schedule, which gave students more options.
    Rehearsals were from 60 to 90 minutes long, depending on the season. I had a flexible schedule with six 15-minute modules, and I could combine three or four of them in anyway I wanted. By tapping lunch hours, I could have at least 60 minutes every day with the students; we put the concert and intermediate bands together for marching season and then split them apart after marching ended. This made a big difference.

BK: Niles West had the mod schedule until six years ago, and it was perfect with 55- and 40-minute periods. Most of the top band had classes with labs that met for about 55 minutes. Classes that did not have a lab were 40 minutes, so the younger bands had 40-minute rehearsals. It was perfect, and the best system.
    Six years ago the district changed to a new schedule of 42-minute periods, which is difficult for our most advanced band because it’s hard to accomplish a lot in 42 minutes. It takes three minutes to get the instruments out and another three to put them away, leaving 36 minutes to rehearse. However, we figured out a way to schedule the top band and orchestra at different times so I don’t lose any winds and percussion to the orchestra rehearsals.
    The string program at Niles West is almost as strong as the band program with close to 130 strings in three orchestras. The band provides winds for the top orchestras. Continuing the tradition that Chuck established, I always allow winds and percussion to attend orchestra rehearsals.

Levels of Students
CG: When I taught at Niles West, it took about eight years to get the program up to the level I wanted with the top group playing literature at grades four and five. This included Giannini’s Preludium and Allegro, the toughest piece we ever played, with a killer clarinet part. We also performed transcriptions of Debussy’s Fêtes and the fourth movement of the Hindemith Symphony in Bb.
    In fact, we played that work for an MENC National Convention. Among other works performed were the Royce Hall Suite by Healey Willan, arranged by Teague, which is a great piece of music that no one plays today. It is very soloistic and has a lot of intricate choir writing. In addition there was Bainum’s transcription of the Glière’s Symphony #3, which is a little easier than a grade five. We were extremely fortunate to have Glenn Cliffe Bainum conduct our band at the 1967 Midwest Band Clinic as well.

Marching Band
    One thing that is different these days compared to when I taught at Niles West is the school’s attitude about what a marching band should be. In my day the marching band appeared only at home games, Memorial Day parades, and homecoming.

BK: At one time marching band was mandatory, but that is no longer the case because the students did not respond favorably to it. Both Niles West and Niles North adopted an all-volunteer marching band, and as soon as that happened, enrollment increased significantly with at least 30 to 40 students returning to concert band who had dropped out of band when marching was required of everyone.
    I joined the Niles West faculty in 1983, and a year later we marched at Disney World, in part  because one reason I was hired was to do more with the sports band. While most band directors acknowledge that there is little that is musical about sports bands, I’d be without a job if I decided not to field a sports band next year. People can poo-poo marching bands and pep bands, but if you don’t have one, or they are not good, in most school districts you won’t have a job for long.

Traveling Bands
CG: When I was a high school student during World War II, no school group traveled; it just wasn’t done. Following the war, groups began limited excursions, generally by bus. Overnight bus trips were torture. After one of those trips I said I’d never do it again, so I tried to find day-long tours or break the trip at night instead of driving straight through.
    In 1969 our first such venture was a tour to Old Tappen, New Jersey on an exchange program. This was a marvelous experience because our students bonded so easily. We went there for five days. Later, the New Jersey students visited Niles West. In other years we visited Denver, Toronto, Montreal, and the East Coast. We decided to travel every other year, and in 1971 we went to Washington, and in 1973 we went to New Orleans. In later years we traveled by train on the longer trips.

BK: In 1984 the Niles West band and choir went to Orlando, and from 1984 to 1997 we traveled every year. By then the travel had become as important as the music, so I decided to take a trip only every second or third year, which we have done ever since.
    In 2009 a trip came up I couldn’t resist: the inauguration. Heritage Music Festival Company sponsored a competition at George Mason University with some outstanding clinicians – Anthony Maiello, Ken Dye of Notre Dame, Karl Stroman – and the inauguration could be added to the event. The band took the train from Chicago to Washington, D.C., which turned out to be a great way to travel. We were the Grand Champions of the Festival that weekend, and a few days later we went to the inauguration, both memorable experiences.

Private Lessons
CG: In the beginning private instruction at Niles West was a touchy problem because there was no legislation that specifically allowed for this. The new superintendent insisted that we survey 40 high schools in the area to determine how they conducted private lessons on school property. From the responses the school board set the price, and made students obligated to pay for the lessons, even if they missed a session. Because the teachers taught on public property for personal gain, they were required to pay 2% of their fees to the district as rent. The music faculty at school had to endorse each private teacher. Over the years the program has not changed.
    In the 1960s we had 10 private teachers five days a week, and nearly everyone in the top band of 75 students took private lessons. About 75% of the intermediate band took lessons as did 50% of the freshman band. This was a big contributing factor to the strength of the band.

BK: I was thinking about percentages. In my top group 80% of the students usually take private lessons over the course of their high school career, but by the junior and senior year the percentage tapers off. In the most competitive sections – flute, clarinet, trumpet – almost everyone takes lessons, while in the trombone section about one out of five players studies privately.
    In the middle band the percentages go down until students realize that individual lessons are the road to the top group. For some students it’s a shock to pay for lessons, especially if they are accustomed to studying with their director.
    We now have sectional coaches who work with the students on their music, practicing, and how to improve their playing. My students have a six-week lesson plan to learn a piece of music. As they work through the different lesson plans, they know when they come in on Monday, they need to have a certain amount of music learned for each piece we are performing.
    The other thing we’ve done is build an entirely separate percussion studio with all the equipment you would need in a percussion program, and we’ve hired a person to come in and run it. The instructor joins us several days a week to instruct,  rehearse, and give private lessons to the students and maintain the equipment. It is almost like a separate program.

Evaluating Students
CG: The main difference between the music programs of years past and today is the tremendous amount of tracking of students through testing, record keeping, and reporting as students go through these courses. The work of students is endlessly measured. Sometimes it seems more important to measure the product than to give students the knowledge. That is the difference between the 1950s and now. Back then it was how much you accomplished that made the difference.
    Now the credit earned in music has more weight toward each student’s grade point average, his  class standing, and things of that nature. It has required music teachers to become more organized in the assessment of students, their progress, assigning grades, and things like that.

BK: I developed a detailed grading system that includes etudes, solos, theory, and concert performances. Students access theory on-line, such as learning scales, chords, and musical terms, anything that would be useful as a performer. The solo and etude testing is done in school, not on-line, with definite standards and criteria for each grade level.

Attitudes Towards Band Students
CG: The 1960s were the best years. Bands played well, and students in the band were almost an island in their community and not in the mainstream. Many students had to make the hard choice of either having friends outside the music department or just within it. We were almost a separate entity in the school. I found that music theatre helped bridge this gap.

BK: We continue to have stellar students in the music department; they have learned how to be disciplined to keep up with other top-quality students and meet the high standards and expectations from which most other students would wither and drop. There is something that stems from the discipline they gain through the art of music that helps them to become top students and stronger adults. There is a connection between music and becoming doctors and lawyers. It’s just there.
   I’ve had plenty of valedictorians in the band program at Niles West High. Right now the number one student in the school plays tenor saxophone in the band. Does music make students smarter or do smart students just become involved with music? Probably both.

Some Final Thoughts
BK: I still remember the day 28 years ago when Chuck handed me the keys to the band room and said, “Good luck; carry on the torch.” I have to say it is because of the Niles school district that I have been able to continue to improve the band curriculum, changing the types of courses being offered based on a changing population and the trends of the time.
    Music educators teach a core subject in addition to a multitude of social skills that were not expected years ago. Right now there is a home room curriculum, organized by month, of videos to show to students, and these are mandated by the state.
    There are also special programs for students about the problems of name calling and bullying. The social environment is now being brought into schools for teachers to address; this used to be left to the parents. By law, we teach more social responsibility and training, and I have necessarily added this to the curriculum. 
    As a music educator, I want students to play the best music possible and at the highest possible level, but I also want them to learn life skills through the art of performing music to become productive adults and better parents. Students who study the arts have a deeper understanding of how to do that better than those who don’t.
    There is something about the collective act of performing in an ensemble that teaches lifelong lessons in discipline, responsibility, and respect that students absorb from the time they are in 4th grade through to 12th grade. That process gives them a broader understanding of how to be more responsible, and it was just the same for Chuck’s groups in the 1960s.

CG: What made my career at Niles West special was knowing the students could function without adults telling them what to do. This was especially evident on tours. Students ran bus loading, discipline, and concert management, and they were good at it. For me, this was possible at Niles Township because of the type of students we had. Students were encouraged to become self-reliant, dedicated, and capable of taking care of themselves.
    One time the band played at the Mideast In­strumental Conference in Pittsburgh. We left around 3:00 in the afternoon and arrived about 2:00 am the following morning because the school would not let us off early to travel. We admonished everyone to be quiet and ushered students with instruments into the motel in the black of night, only to see a group of adults from another high school band patrolling the halls. They were like the Gestapo! Our students slipped into their rooms without making a sound. This was a high point for me. It had nothing to do with playing, but everything to do with the development of the character of these students.
    Today when an alum contacts me and talks about the memories that stand out in his mind, it becomes clear that he remembers this too. We never emphasized passing tests or winning contests because I don’t think these develop the type of people this country requires.
    From my perspective this country needs people with imagination and skill who can think their way through problems without having someone to show them what to do. We are paying a big price because that has been left out of education for a generation.