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A Lifelong Pursuit of Music

Mike Lawson • Archives • September 17, 2008

Ben Brooks is a veritable institution in the greater Portland (Ore.) orchestra scene. He’s been teaching music in Oregon Public Schools for over 35 years, with the last 30 of those years in the town of Troutdale, on the outskirts of metropolitan Portland. Under his direction, the Reynolds High School Symphony Orchestra and String Orchestra, whose primary performance venue since 2003 has been the school’s Ben Brooks Auditorium, have won six state championships and numerous other awards. He’s also spent 15 years conducting a renowned community ensemble, the Mt. Hood Pops Orchestra, and has been active with the All-State Band, the Northwest Bandmasters Association, the Oregon MEA, MENC, ASTA, and a slew of other music education organizations.

Such dedication to a profession, while perhaps rare, isn’t unheard of, and it is fitting that Ben Brooks declares music to be a “lifelong pursuit.” A living testament to this philosophy, Brooks has spent decades fostering, as he likes to say, “musical appreciation through performance.”

In this recent wide-ranging SBO interview, Ben speaks of the vital role of classical music in modern education.

School Band & Orchestra: What’s your own musical background?
Ben Brooks: I started piano at five and violin at seven or eight. I grew up in a musical family. My dad taught high school music, so I went through all of his classes. I went to the University of Oregon, and graduated from there in 1969 with a performance degree on the violin.

I was on a prospective teaching fellowship in 1970, but then I got drafted and went into the military. There, I joined the Armed Forces School of Music. I played the clarinet in a military band for a few years. Then I got a master’s in music ed and conducting from the University of Oregon around 1976.

It’s a bit of a varied kind of a background, in some ways.

SBO: When did the education bug bite you?
BB: Well, I never planned to be an educator at any given point. When I was getting out of the military, my young wife and I had a daughter on the way. I had some auditions lined up which were very tentative, and because I went to the University of Washington on this prospective fellowship, I’d gotten some teaching certification, so I was qualified to teach music. A job in education came along which was a sure thing. Once I got into that, I knew that that was the right place for me. After a couple of years it takes four or five years to learn what to do right I really enjoyed the teaching.

I still enjoy the teaching. I enjoy going to work every day.

SBO: What was it about teaching that first appealed to you?
BB: It was the kids; it’s not the music. Helping shape kids and helping them grow up to become productive citizens. Also, transferring to them the love of music that I have, to influence that. I think of it as teaching music appreciation through performance.

In 1972, I started at Oregon City High School, which is only about 20 miles down the road from where I am now. I was teaching at seven elementary schools and the high school orchestra. Then, after a year, the high school band director retired, so I became the band and orchestra director. At that point I didn’t teach at so many elementary schools. From there, I went to Columbia High School, which is actually the forerunner of Reynolds High School, which I’ll explain in a moment. I was there from 1977 through 1989 or so. At that time, our school district had two high schools. In the late ’80s, we had a real statewide budgetary crisis so our districts response was to consolidate the two high schools. Combined, they became Reynolds High School, where I still teach.

SBO: So, basically, you’ve been at the same school for just over 30 years. How has the music department evolved in that time?
BB: When I first got there we had a pretty standard program. We almost lost the orchestra program a couple of times over the years, especially during this time of budgetary crisis.

SBO: Why do you think the orchestra was targeted?
BB: Perhaps because the orchestra doesn’t play at the football games and that sort of thing. I’m a dual person, I still do band and orchestra. In a sense, the orchestra was the least visible program, but then the orchestra got noticed by winning a pretty large award at a state festival and administration figured out that they wanted to keep the ensemble. Since then, it’s grown quite a bit. Now, I’m running three concert bands, three string orchestras, a symphony orchestra, two jazz bands and we run a low-key marching program.

SBO: Low-key?
BB: We participate in a few competitions and parades, but we mainly just do halftime shows for our constituents. I have one gentleman who assists me part-time on the band side, and I have a one-third-time person who helps me with the orchestra.

SBO: Approximately, how many students are in each of these ensembles?
BB: We have about 175 kids in the band program. Ensembles are in the range of 50-60, and I have about 130 string students. There are probably 30-40 kids per class, and those are ability-based. My select group is the smallest of them; that runs around 30 students.

SBO: Is there overlap between the band and the orchestra students?
BB: No. Where there is overlap is in our jazz program. That’s another 50 kids, but those students are also in other ensembles. Overlap-wise, the symphony orchestra is not an official class. I wish it were, but it isn’t. I run that ensemble before school and most of my brass players come from jazz ensembles, and I get the best woodwind players out of the wind ensembles. We just do a lot of extra work, and that’s a wonderful experience for the kids to have, of course. I run a symphony of standard wind instrumentation with probably 80 or 85 students, but those students do overlap with the other ensembles.

Reynolds High School Music Programs at a Glance

Location: 1698 SW Cherry Park Road, Troutdale, Ore.

Director or Bands: Ben Brooks

Number of Students in Program: 300

Recent Accomplishments:

  • Winners of the Mt. Hood Conference Jazz Competition (19 championships in the past 20 years)
  • Clackamas Community College Jazz Festival champions: Band in Black (2007)
  • Mt. Hood Conference Champions: Wind Ensemble (10 years running), Symphony Orchestra, String Orchestra (both orchestras have been champions of the Mt. Hood Conference since its inception)
  • Disney Heritage Festival: 8 first-place trophies (2008), including festival’s “Most Outstanding Band and Orchestra”
  • State Champions: String Orchestra (2008)
  • State Champions: Symphony Orchestra (2008)
  • State Competition: Wind Ensemble – Fourth Place (2008)
  • Rose Festival Starlight Parade: 2nd Place (Marching Band – 2007 & 2008)

SBO: You mentioned that the symphony wasn’t curricular.
BB: No, it’s just something we need to do in the music program, so we do it. Sometimes I’ll rehearse some of the symphony material during wind ensemble and sometimes I’ll have a jazz band period where I’ll rehearse. We meet before school, and sometimes we have an evening practice here and there.

SBO: When the orchestra programs were under fire from the administration, what steps did you take to defend the ensemble?
BB: I was very active. We serenaded the school board, attended meetings, and I organized a parent group that lobbied for us within positive guidelines.

My opinion is that the greatest music ever written in the history of western music was written for the symphony orchestra. It would be horrible to deny our kids that experience. The great masters wrote for that idiom, so it was a necessary element our schools had to introduce to the children.

SBO: How do you inspire students to appreciate classical music, a genre which often gets very little exposure outside of a curricular setting?
BB: Well, a part of that is the exposure. This year we did Mendelssohn’s “Reformation Symphony” and “Poet and Peasant” by von Suppé, just as an example of that kind of the material we tackle. First of all, if the students are simply exposed to wonderful music, they tend to love it. I try to do introduce quite a bit of historical background and talk about things like what Beethoven went through when he went deaf, or what some of the other greats went through. There is quite a bit of tragedy and intrigue in the lives of some of the great composers.

The kids seem to learn to love the music because the music gives them something that no other class provides: it fulfills a need that is not filled by any other class we offer kids.

SBO: What specific need are you referring to?
BB: It’s a hard put into words the kind of wonder, emotion, and the art of performing the music at a very high level and the love of the wonderful melodies that the students get. They also get a great experience of working in a team, although that element is something they can find on the football field or in other places; but the musical appreciation is something that you can’t get just by listening: you have to perform it.

SBO: How would you describe your own teaching style?
BB: In the classroom, I’m pretty old fashioned, pretty authoritative. But, especially with my advanced groups, we have a fair amount of collaboration. After we’ve gotten to a certain level and we’re trying to prepare for some of our larger competitions, there’s a fair amount of collaboration where the students can make suggestions and offer ideas. I haven’t always done that throughout my career, only for the last eight or ten years.

SBO: What does the student collaboration add to the program?
BB: The students might hear something that I don’t. The third clarinetist might hear something or someone in the trombone row may hear something that got by me. Or maybe he or she will have an idea on a better way to do something. It works quite well with the advanced groups; they have pretty good skills.

SBO: Speaking of skills, how are your students’ abilities by the time they get to you? How are the feeder programs in your area?
BB: Well that’s a really important point. You have to have really good teaching all the way through; you can’t just create talent. I get kids ages 14 through 18, approximately. In our system, we start orchestra in the fourth grade and band in the fifth grade. By the time they arrive at the high school, the kids are fairly well trained in scales and articulation. As a violinist, they are probably coming to me with at least a rudimentary knowledge of five positions and of vibrato. I push rhythm skills and sight-reading. Those are two elements that are really important to me. A student that gets into the high school orchestra has already had four or five years of playing.

Our students generally can play level 3 or 4 music when they come in.

SBO: And what’s your goal for when they finish?
BB: My goal is that when they finish they will have been able to play some of the music of the masters. I suppose that’s level 6.

My goals for the students, well, this is kind of an old-fashioned ideal, but I think music should be a lifelong pursuit.

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