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No Tricks, No Gimmicks

Nicholas J. Contorno | November 2011


   When I retired from teaching at Marquette University in 2007, I thought it would be great fun to travel with my wife, play gigs, write music, read some books, and play with old cars. This plan worked for a year, but something was missing, and it was something I really loved: teaching band students. I did not want a full time position, but hoped to use my skills in helping young children to enjoy music and be part of a band. 
   After much futile thinking I finally realized that the Catholic middle school in my parish did not have a band program. When a new principal was hired in 2009, I introduced myself and asked if she would like to have a band program. She was enthusiastic about the idea so we chatted further about it. She asked for a plan by late June with the thought of starting in the fall. 
The school enrollment was just 125 students, and half of these were third graders or younger. There also was no money for a band program, but we decided to go ahead. I asked a friend, John Szcygiel, who was also a just-retired band director if he would care to join me in this endeavor, and he quickly signed on. He had taught at every level and felt the plan was solid. We decided that he would be the director and I his assistant. My wife would organize the project, and the team was anxious to start. 

   Our goal was to create a 100-piece grade school band and make it open to students in grades 4-8; everyone had to start at the beginning of school or wait a year. We interviewed all of the students in grades 3-7 and tested them on pitch and rhythm. With the test results in hand we discussed which instruments would suit their personal choices. A student who was likely to have braces was encouraged to play an instrument that might help the correction. For example, a student with an overbite was encouraged to play a large brass instrument, and we asked parents to consult with their orthodontist. Hands and finger length, overall height, and the other factors were given in a letter to parents and sent home with a recommendation for an instrument for each child. We also kept in mind the goal of a balanced instrumentation. Students were to return the letter in a week. Students could not start on drums unless they could play the piano. Other percussion beginners played bells for a year before moving on to snare drum. Before school let out in June we scheduled a meeting for parents who signed the form and explained how and where they could rent an instrument. 
   Our schedule called for the band to rehearse before school one day per week, and the principal allowed students to miss a class on the same day to take a lesson. The new principal expressed some doubts that the group would succeed and develop into a real band, not just flutes, saxophones, and drums based on her past experiences with band programs at other schools. We reassured her that this band would focus on giving students a solid musical education. She also commented that some of the parents were out of work and would not be able to rent an instrument. Suddenly, our burden grew. 
   Over the summer I contacted some band colleagues both locally and nationally and placed an ad in the musicians’ union newspaper. Music stores I had worked with in the past helped to spread the word about a new band program in need of instruments. Before long things started to happen. 
   In the first year (2008-9), we started three flutes, four clarinets, four alto saxophones, seven trumpets, two trombones, and two percussion students on bells for a total of 22 students. The first concert was in December so parents could hear our progress, and a second performance was held in the spring. We invited another Catholic middle school band to play for an all-school assembly as a way to show our students what playing level they could aspire to reach. This experience was great motivation. 
   I had always believed that a band should be an integral part of the school and its activities, and with this philosophy in mind I wrote a simple arrangement of Pomp and Circumstance and asked the principal if we could play for the 8th grade graduation the next year. It went well, and we have played at every graduation since then. 
   In response to our pleas for instrument donations, we received 19 instruments the first year plus some small percussion pieces. We received another seven during the second year and more in the third for 31 in all. We received another five brass instruments from out of state, and added ten more students. The instrumentation was then four flutes, six clarinets, five euphoniums, and two percussion. 
Besides working from the band method book, I wrote some easy pieces to broaden their band experience. We divided students into advanced and beginning groups and started to teach them easy solos. The band played three concerts that year plus graduation ceremonies. In May we took students to Milwaukee’s Mitchell Park Domes, and they performed at a flower show in these lovely glass structures. This first outing was a reward for their hard work and developed leadership and responsibility as they learned to move equipment, set up the band, and care for the music. 
   After the second year we lost only 3 of the 26 students to graduation and moving away and decided to start a summer lesson program that began after July 4th and continued for six weeks. Lessons were on Tuesdays between 9:30 and 2:00 p.m. John and I each taught nine students in a private lesson of 30 minutes, and even started a few anxious beginners. To accommodate parents’ work schedules, some students came to my home for lessons. A generous outpouring of additional instruments continued to arrive every year, and in the third year the project had grown to 49 students. 
   This year we performed in October and then at a Christmas concert in the church with the school chorus and all the grades participating. During the Lenten season, our parish holds a series of Fish Frys with the profits shared by the organization that helps sponsor it. Our band (students, parents, siblings) helped sponsor one of these fish frys, providing entertainment with solos and small ensembles. 
   For the May patriotic concert before the entire school, we were able to perform a decent concert: The Star Spangled Banner, Bravura March, Under The Big Top, and This Is My Country, plus six student solos. Any band parent who had played an instrument was asked to join in our last piece, and this has become a special moment for parents and students.

   Each year has been a great improvement, and by the end of the fourth year the band travelled two hours to perform at the National Circus Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Both John and I have enjoyed every year and are truly grateful for the continued outpouring of instrument donations. We hope to end the current year with 60 students participating. Between the two directors we have 80 years of teaching experience, and we learned long ago to disdain all gimmicks and tricks. We simply use the old fashioned techniques that helped us to build band programs and can report that these work just fine. Louis Armstrong once said, “The horn doesn’t lie.” This has been a great experience for me and an opportunity to give something back for all I have received in life, and I cannot imagine a better way to enjoy my retirement.