Report: Chris Izzo

Mike Lawson • Features • January 7, 2011

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A Half-Century Later, Band Director Still Inspiring Students

In the 1960s, La Salle (Illinios) Peru Township High School touted a powerhouse marching band under director Christopher Izzo, who ran the school’s music department from 1960-1970. On October 15-16, 2010, a number of alumni from those groups came together for a reunion to honor Mr. Izzo and celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary.In the 1960s, La Salle (Illinios) Peru Township High School touted a powerhouse marching band under director Christopher Izzo, who ran the school’s music department from 1960-1970. On October 15-16, 2010, a number of alumni from those groups came together for a reunion to honor Mr. Izzo and celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary.

At the festivities, 45 former band members, now mostly in their 60s, marched and played with the current LP High School band during the halftime of that week’s Friday evening football game, and 65 people attended the formal dinner Saturday evening with guest of honor, Chris Izzo. Former colleagues of Izzo’s, including assistant band director Melvin Pontious and middle school director Ruth Moyle, were also in attendance. Alumni had an opportunity to share memories of their involvement in the band program through scrapbooks and a DVD of select performances from that decade, which, the alumni agreed, had a major impact on their development and future life choices. Respect for self and others, self discipline, promptness, and appreciation for many kinds of music were a few of the qualities mentioned.

In 1960, the LP High School band was in a unique situation. It was an AA school that had three separate feeder grade school programs – La Salle, Peru and Oglesby. Chris Izzo was the director at Peru Grade School and also served as the woodwind instructor at the high school. At that time, band philosophy and direction was well coordinated between the high school and elementary faculties.

That year, the high school Board of Education decided that the band should participate and compete with the Chicago area high school programs, but the geographic location of LPHS made it next to impossible to make private teachers and lessons available to the students. Izzo was approached by the Board of Education and offered the position of director of bands, which he accepted with the agreement that LP would also bring on a number of specialized music teachers to teach lessons and develop small ensembles. In short time, LP had a staff complete with flute, high/low brass, double reed/lower woodwind and percussion instructors that met on a regular basis. In 1960, this was one of very few high school programs in the country with this depth of instrumental staff – if not the only one.

Under Christopher Izzo’s directorship, the band achieved a superior rating each year for state competitions, and had great success in festivals. Mr. Izzo enlisted many of his fellow professional musicians to appear with the band in clinics and performances, including: guest conductor Lt. Col. A. Gabriel and trombone soloist Sergeant Larry Wiehe of the United States Air Force Band; composer/conductor Vaclav Nelhybel; French horn soloist Louis Stout; pianist Skitch Henderson; flute soloist Frederich Wilkins; trumpet soloist Carl “Doc” Severinsen; Bernard Izzo, baritone voice; clarinet soloist Robert Lowry; composer Austyn Edwards; and coronetist Leonard Smith.

The band was also invited to perform at sites around the country, including the New York Worlds Fair; Washington, D. C.; the Virginia Beach Music Festival; at halftime of a Chicago Bears NFL game; and a Southern States Tour of Texas and Louisiana.

According to former band member Mary Lindenmeyer, Izzo played the roles of father figure and drill sergeant to many of his students. She recalls, “He’d be patient and caring in our teenage moodiness and when someone would pull a prank, he’d top it with one if his own. He even gave most of us endearing nicknames that remain to this day. Yet, whenever it was time for practice or a performance, he’d be commanding. One glare from the podium and you knew you had better give your best. He didn’t need to raise his voice – we were terrified of that glare!”

Another former student who attended the reunion, Cheryl DePaepe, also remembers Izzo’s unflinching disciplinary principles and his lighter side. Says DePaepe, “During one evening practice, two students arrived late. With Mr. Izzo, no excuses were accepted and we were all sent home! Why did we consider one another a family and Mr. Izzo our fearless leader? He knew our potential. He demanded excellence. Our intrinsic motivation would kick in and we wanted to do our best for him, our school and ourselves. There were expectations of Mr. Izzo’s students: high grades, community service, and exceptional behavior. He wanted band students to be well rounded and well thought of by the high school board and faculty.”

A closer look at the LP High School band reveals some of the details behind the ensemble’s success. Participation in the band was by audition only, and all students were expected to be able to play scales in chromatic style beginning on the lowest tone and covering two octaves. Clarinetists hoping for first parts had to play scales over three octaves and, for all instruments, all scale patterns had to be played in the required range in chromatic pattern. Students practiced their scales in front of a tuner strobe and an intensity machine in order to maintain pitch and dynamic levels. The director selected the first chair section leaders, who were given the responsibility of leading practices. A written report was submitted to the director each week.

Instruments were adjusted by the staff on a regular basis and repairs were recommended as needed. Practice booths were available in the band room and were monitored by the director using a two-way sound system from the booths to the director’s desk.

For rehearsals, students were expected to be in their seats, pitch checked on tuners and with each other before the scheduled start time. At the beginning of each rehearsal announcements were made and the scale of the day was identified, followed by Solo Soli. Starting in one of the rows, a student played the scale and the band responded followed by the next student. This was in a set tempo and was graded. The treasury of scales was then announced. These were played and sung – several each day. The band was expected to be able to sing and play all of these. From time to time, articulation studies were worked on to unify the overall band concept, and the remainder of the rehearsal period was spent in practice for performances. Once a week an evening rehearsal was held for sight reading. Music dealers would supply sets of 12-18 new scores, which the band would rehearse and then write evaluations of. These critiques were shared with the music dealers and publishers.

“Mr. Izzo’s students went onto successful careers-many in leadership positions -teachers, administrators, directors,” notes Lindenmeyer. “Many credit the leadership skills Mr. Izzo instilled in them during their band experience. It was an honor to be one of Mr. Izzo’s band kids. We carried that honor onto the field for our 50th reunion and, as we did so many times a half century ago, we still gave our best.”

Christopher Izzo left La Salle Peru Township High School in 1970 to become the director of bands at Western Illinois University. Now 86 years old, Izzo continues to work as a clinician and give private lessons.

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