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Staying Young, One Year at a Time, An Interview with Diane Koutsulis

Dan Blaufuss | November 2014

    Diane Koutsulis is director of bands and arts department chairperson at Green Valley High School in Henderson, Nevada. She has taught at the school since 1991, the year it opened, and also taught at Las Vegas High School from 1982-1991. Her groups have performed at the Midwest Clinic, Carnegie Hall, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and two Presidential Inaugural Parades. Koutsulis was named 1999 Nevada State Teacher of the Year. She began her teaching career in Illinois and earned a B.A. from Western Illinois University and an MMEd from Louisiana State University. She was inducted into the Nevada Music Educators Hall of Fame in 2003 and became a member of the American Bandmasters Association this past year.

When you started Green Valley’s music program, what was your vision?
    When Green Valley High School was scheduled to open, they interviewed for department heads the October before the school’s first year. The principal had already been named, and he came from a school with strong athletics and academics, but a weaker music program. When I met him, I was blunt.
    I said, “I have never seen you at any event or any district music event or band performance. I see you at all the football games. I want to build this department with outstanding teachers in every area, but need to know that it is important to you to have that.” Of course, we wanted financial support, but honestly, I wanted the music teachers to know that the administration believed the program was important. We opened the school, and the principal attended everything. For the 24 years we have been around, we have only had four principals, and they’ve all been supportive.
    We have an amazing fine arts week each year in December that gives all 3,000 students the chance to see our groups play in concert. Every day at lunch that week, small ensembles and singing groups perform. It is a huge celebration of our programs. The campus is decorated to showcase music, dance, and theatre. Our art teachers throw pots during lunch. On Friday we have a huge concert.
    Our school sees the marching band all the time, but they may not see our top concert band and our symphony orchestra so those groups perform. When they first asked me to hold this event I was a little reticent because I thought the student body would not want to hear our music, but they are awesome. People from the community and school board members flock to this concert. Administra-tors from other schools come to see how we do it.
    I live in another school zone from where I teach. I went to my neighborhood grocery store the other day, and there were football players outside selling tickets. I told them that I teach at Green Valley and already bought the tickets from our football players. They asked, “What do you teach?” I said, “I’m the band director.” They replied, “Well, your band is really good, so we will let you go.” We are all extremely proud of that reputation.

Before you came to Green Valley, what had you seen at other schools that you wanted to emulate or avoid when developing your program?

    When I first came to Las Vegas, I taught at Las Vegas High School for nine years. As the name suggests, it was the original high school in the city. It had become the dinosaur school in the city, but still had a lot of pride because many governors and mayors graduated from there. Coming in from Illinois, I discovered so many existing traditions and procedures. It was almost stifling for me. One pleasure of opening a new school is having the chance to develop new traditions.
    Las Vegas has close to two million people now, but the population was 345,000 when I arrived. It still feels like a small town; everybody knows everybody. I grew up in Chicago, so I could go my whole life and not see the mayor or the governor. That is not the case here.

What traditions did you start at Green Valley?
    Our school motto is “Commitment to Excellence,” and we stress that whether in pep band or a formal concert, we always want to be outstanding. That doesn’t mean you have to play the hardest music or the latest, greatest piece. It could be a pop tune that you are playing in the stands at a football game. You always want to sound great. Our kids came from lots of different schools when we first opened, and we had no upperclassmen initially. The students were young and showed a willingness to adopt a new mindset. Some students came in with some bad habits, like walking around with half a marching uniform on, and we changed that.
    During an away football game last night we had a snafu where the lights went out in the fourth quarter for 20 minutes while the band was sitting in the stands. We talked about our reaction to that. It took a minute for students to focus. We talked about how you are always performing even if you are not playing. Professionalism is important even for a pep band in the stands.

How does your music department recruit junior high students to continue playing in high school?

    We have an event in February for all of the eighth graders and their families. Our school presents information about all of the academics and activities at Green Valley. The music students perform the Carmen Dragon version of America the Beautiful, which is very moving with 120 voices. It is a nice recruiting tool. I also go down to the junior highs regularly and feel that the most important band recruiting takes place while I am there. If someone isn’t playing by eighth grade I can’t really recruit them, but for choir the February event is important.

What are the most common questions you get from eighth graders?
    Some have a fear of marching band. At Green Valley we do not require the freshmen to march. It is their choice. There is no audition, and anyone can come out to march. This year about 30 freshmen are not marching, which is typical. Knowing that they can play in band without marching and not be penalized is important. By the time they are sophomores, they will be ready to do that.
    Some of the marching music these days is harder than anything they have played in junior high. It is a lot to ask some freshmen to memorize their music and march from point A to point B in 16 counts. I want students to feel more comfortable than that, so they are only required to march from sophomore year on. Marching band is an athletic activity too, and sometimes their bodies just aren’t ready.

What is your daily teaching schedule?
    My day starts with marching band at 7:00 a.m., and at 8:00 a.m. I rehearse with our symphonic band, the top group out of three. At 9:00 I work with the third concert group, the freshman concert band. All of the freshmen start in that band, and eventually some move into the second group and a few move into the top group. That freshman band works hard on the basics. I tell them that even though it is the third band, they have many performances and festivals and need to take it seriously. The only difference is less difficult music. Students in the third band know that I give them my full attention.
    At 10:00 I teach AP music theory. After that we have two separate lunch periods so I work with students during that time. Then my teaching day is completed. After school I have time for sectionals, and on Tuesday night we have marching band from 6-9 p.m.

How do you approach a typical band rehearsal?
    We typically start with chorales. With the top group I start in a way that solves many things quickly. We want to play in tune with each other with a nice sound. Long tones help students listen carefully and try to fit their sounds in with everybody else. Many people are taught to play using the pyramid of sound, but I think it is flawed. The pyramid of sound works great with tutti band, but if just the flute and oboes are playing, how does the pyramid of sound work? Do we really want the oboes to be louder than the flutes? Honestly, we don’t, especially in high school.
    I prefer to think of the sound as a circle. We all fit into that circle. Maybe that circle has a different color. If it is just the flutes and oboes, maybe that color is a mix of orange and yellow. Chorales and slower music help to develop a good balance and blend. Sometimes when something sounds wrong as we are playing, I make a circle using my hands and everybody knows to get back in the circle.
    Typically we will then move on to a section of a new work before going back to review at the end of the rehearsal. The biggest problem for students entering high school is that they have learned fingerings and notes but do not know how to listen closely and determine their role in the music. I will sometimes ask students: “How do you know if something is a wrong note?” They will answer, “Because it sounds wrong.” That is the right answer. Students have the ability to fix problems without my help, and at a certain level they need to take responsibility for playing the right notes in tune. I try to help them learn to do that.

What other techniques do you use to help take responsibility for fixing problems?
    With the younger group, if we are playing a tutti passage in a band work, I will ask them to play a section again and determine who is sticking out in the ensemble. When we play it again, everybody listens so hard to hear who is sticking out that no one does stick out. When they really listen, the sound improves considerably. The problem corrects itself. This technique can help with any aspect of the music that needs improvement.

What is the key to a strong concert band?
    Regardless of instrumentation or money, there is no excuse for bad sound. A band may have only 25 students in it, but it should sound like 25 students playing really well together and playing the right literature to make them sound like a fine ensemble. It won’t sound like an 80-piece ensemble, but it should sound good.
    Secondly, there is so much great literature now for our genre, compared to when I was going up. I still play transcriptions and think they are important, but we have so much music that has been written in the last 30 years that it is essential to pick great literature that will cause students to grow as musicians.

What is the greatest difficulty your program has faced this year?
    One of our struggles has been instrumentation even with 240 students in the program. From the beginning of the year we have not had enough tubas. Students quickly volunteered, which led to a tuba class with eight students that meets once a week after school.
    The tuba class is led by a young man who is a DMA student at UNLV, and he helps us with our marching band. On Friday afternoons, he comes to work with students who play other instruments and want to change to tuba. He is having a blast, and students are excited about playing tuba.

What is your best advice for new teachers?
    It is really important to continue to grow as a musician. Over the summer it is important to go to workshops. There are so many great sessions in the summer to get conducting help and classroom management tips. When I go to the Midwest Clinic, I never miss a concert because I think it is important to hear this music performed live, not just on a demo recording.
    When you graduate from college, that is when you know everything. You are ready to conquer the world. Then you start teaching and you realize, “I know nothing.” I think it can be great when people wait on graduate work until they have taught for a few years, because then they really know what they need to learn. My advice is just to keep on learning all the time. Once you start teaching, that is when you really figure out what you need to learn.

What makes teaching fun for you?
    I am married to another educator, and he taught history for many years and is an administrator now. I always felt bad for him. He taught U.S. History and loves it, but every year he would teach the same material. It is not likely that early U.S. History is going to change. In the same way, the basics of teaching music are all the same, but every year I get to play whatever music I want. I do not have to repeat anything. Every year is fresh and new, and that is what keeps it really interesting and fun.
    At an early October football game, some teachers from the other school came to see me. They were my former students. I looked at them and said, “I am just too young to have taught you.” I think something about working with young people keeps you young and active, as long as you love what you are teaching.


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A Raffle Changes a Life
    My parents are immigrants from Greece, and there are Greek churches all throughout Chicago. They have these food festivals all summer long. Some raffle off cars. When I was 21⁄2 years old I won a Lincoln. My dad had put my name on the ticket. My parents sold the car right away. They were middle class and had just bought a Ford Fairlane. When I was six they bought me a Baldwin Grand Piano. It is amazing that they thought it was important to have in my life. My mother felt it was going to elevate our social status. I often think about that car and how it changed my whole life. We have a Greek church here that recently offered a Mercedes. I didn’t win, but I still keep buying tickets. I owe so much to my parents. They are not musical in any way, but they saw the value of music in our society.