Issue: July - September 2008
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by M. Max McKee

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Building a Program: Early success in southern Oregon.

Over my first two years teaching at then Southern Oregon College in Ashland, Oregon (1967-1969), we enjoyed a lot of success with the school's new marching band program. Our unique track entrance out of a huge teepee following an authentic Indian dance by our Raider Chief contributed to the growth of our 48-piece band to over 70 in just one week. We traveled extensively with the band, including a trip 450 miles north to participate in the Daffodil Festival in 3 adjacent communities (Auburn, Sumner and Puyallup, Washington) and then presented an evening field show for the high school playoffs in the Tacoma area. The next day we presented a similar show at the University of Puget Sound where Southern Oregon was playing.

The following year (1970) we were invited to present the pre-game, half-time and post-game shows at the last game ever held in Kezar Stadium, where the San Francisco 49ers played.

Learning to Teach: The "Hmmmm" Story

At the same time, I was now in charge of the concert band program and all was not well. By the end of my second year of teaching, I knew that my concert band teaching skills left a lot to be desired. In the spring of 1969, Randall Spicer (my father-in-law and Director of Bands at Washington State University) came to visit and asked to hear the reel-to-reel tape of our final concert.

After several attempts to beg off, it was clear that Spice was determined to hear the concert. So, we went to the house of a close friend, who was my age and a member of the percussion section. Gary Wiese put on the tape while Spice sat quietly in the big easy chair facing the Sony tape recorder. When the hour tape ran out, the blap blap blap blap of the tape and the quickly-spinning empty reel continued for over two minutes without a sound being uttered.

Finally, Spice stood up. Then simply said, "Hmmmm...." and walked out of the room. (It turned out to be the single most important thing anyone ever said to me.)

One month later, Clarence Sawhill (Director of Bands at UCLA) came to Ashland where he often served as conductor at the Siskiyou Band Camp. Since I was on campus as the new band director, he hired me to do woodwind sectionals for the two weeks.

I sat down with Clarence on the second day and told him the Hmmmm Story, telling him that I really needed help. Clarence had me bring to him 9 pieces that I planned to play with the Southern Oregon College Symphonic Band the next year. That day he gave me a packet of colored pencils and, over the next two hours, showed me how to mark every pitch problem, every balance problem, special attack and release problems, etc, etc, etc. He told me to take the entire two weeks to COMPLETELY analyze everything about every piece of music and then come see him.

By the end of the two week camp (where I observed his fantastic teaching techniques), my late (very late!) night analysis produced a "war zone" of color on every composition. When I went to Clarence and asked if he still wanted to meet with me before he left Ashland, Clarence said, "So, do you need to meet with me?" I responded, "No. I get it."

That following year the entire concert band program turned around. I was on my way, utilizing a very full and special toolbox that changed my teaching forever. That would soon make me aware of the reasons I had not succeeded trying to be a Randy Spicer. Within just two years, the foundations of what would later be the American Band College fell into place because of that one devastating utterance by my favorite mentor.

Next time: Helping a friend

 

 

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