By GREG STILES
ASHLAND — They come from hamlets and resort towns, metropolitan suburbs and crossroads.
All 200 of the young music teachers at the American Band College this summer share a common love and goal, acquiring a Master of Music degree from Sam Houston State University.
While it might be a bit of a geographic stretch, the annual American Band College fits perfectly into the Huntsville, Texas, college’s distance learning conducting program. Once a summer staple at nearby Southern Oregon University campus for two decades, ABC transitioned to Ashland High School in 2010.
This is the third summer Craig Godfrey has trekked from Cartersville, Ga., where he has 120 band members in a school of 800, to the Rogue Valley.
“You breathe and just live the content we are learning here,” Godfrey said. “Oregon was someplace I had never been, so it was kind of an adventurous thing. You show up the first summer and then you do a lot more the next two summers.”
After the program wraps up July 5, students analyze 30 scores they played during their studies and discuss what they learned from 20 clinicians who presented at ABC. Each summer students are tested on their instrumental weaknesses, which in turn become part of their practical application pursuit. Godfrey’s final effort is the trombone.
“It has become one of my best instruments to play,” he said. “I’m writing a beginning method book on it.”
Laura Baker, another third-year ABC student who teaches middle school band in Brandon, S.D., admitted she was skeptical a summer program could deliver the expertise she sought.
“How could it cram an entire master’s degree worth of stuff into such a short period of time?” Baker said. “But after the first day I was convinced it would. We have hour after hour listening to titans of our field.”
Her primary instrument was the trumpet, followed by percussion coming out of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., but her proficiencies have stretched to everything but strings. She’s now ready to direct a high school band.
“The things I was missing that made me want to start in middle school was a lot of confidence and a lot of skills in different instruments that I have gotten from this program,” Baker said.
Among the visiting clinicians at ABC is Bob Breithaupt, a percussionist who teaches at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. On Saturday, he reviewed techniques and fielded questions about snare drums, cymbals and vibraphones.
In an interview, Breithaupt said band teachers are better prepared for their careers than their predecessors a generation ago.
“It’s far superior,” Breithaupt said. “More awareness of band pedagogy in general. Specifically in terms of percussion. Expectations of composers have changed over the years, both in symphonic music, for string and orchestra, but also for band.”
Among the challenges facing today’s band directors is exposure to some instruments as commonplace as a trombone. He recalled watching Meredith Willson’s “Music Man” featuring a band playing “76 Trombones” as a youngster in the 1960s.
“It’s very difficult to even see a trombone in the media these days,” he said. “Therefore, if you don’t know what a trombone looks like or don’t know what a trombone sounds like, it’s really the responsibility of the instrumental music director to introduce that sound and instrument to kids.”
His first appearance at the American Band College, in 1993, happened to coincide with the dawn of the Internet. From the beginning, Breithaupt said, founder Max McKee pushed for music directors to embrace technological change and incorporate it into their programs.
“If people understand and embrace technology they can use it in some unique ways,” the percussionist said. “For those people using it, they are coming up with wonderful results.”
Although fewer students are finding their way into instrumental music in schools, often because of budgetary constraints, those who get into the field have greater musical, artistic and social experiences.
“It helps kids find themselves,” he said. “In some cases it helps kids save themselves.”
Instructors, who in the past may have been part of community bands, their own ensembles or musical theater, are now less likely to take on such endeavors because fundraising and competitions compete for their time.
“Conductors are not as engaged in the community across the country as they were, partially because of what they are up against on a daily basis, just trying to keep their programs going,” Breithaupt said. “The band director, who was also conducting the local musical, is less part of the engagement, but still very important.”
Finding and keeping positions may be harder than ever before, he said, simply because of diminishing programs.
“That’s why ABC is so important,” Breithaupt said. “Because it helps the director to stay current, keeps them sharp and helps them think about what’s yet to come, as opposed to the way it used to be.”
Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.