UpClose: Paul Parets

Mike Lawson • November 2009 • November 6, 2009

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School Band & Orchestra: Why did you first take up an instrument, way back when?
Paul Parets: I’m not sure I can explain it; I just liked classical music. I was probably the only kid in junior high who actually bought classical music on vinyl.

SBO: Do you know where that interest came from?
PP: No, and my parents asked themselves that a dozen times, too, because neither of them was particularly musical. When the chance came to take beginning band, I took beginning band and I just fell in love with it.

SBO: Could you describe the moment when you decided that education would be in your future?
PP: That turned out to be a sort of a family crisis. The expectation all along from everyone in my family, including me, was that I was going to go into medicine. I came home from school one day and announced that I was going to be a music educator and my father was just floored. He was not happy.

Later on, he became supportive, but I was going to be a doctor in the family, if you can imagine that.

SBO: What was your musical experience like in high school, then?
PP: Where I went to high school, we had a fairly average band. Of course, you have to think back to the 1960s bands were forming stick figures on the field. We weren’t particularly good at it, but I just liked band.

SBO: Apparently enough to stick with it.
PP: Yes, enough to stick with it for a lifetime. If someone had told me in 1960 that I would be directing and still doing it today, I would have said, “You’re nuts!”

SBO: Would you describe some of your early teaching experiences?
PP: My first teaching experience right out of college was a high school band. I just sort of fell into it because the school district had fired the previous band director and here it was in August and the school board was in a panic. My college director, George Cavender, gave them my name. They called me and I took the job. It was a rural high school in the middle of nowhere and I worked there for ten years. I really enjoyed working with those kids and building a band there.

SBO: What prompted a move?
PP: I guess it was just time to move on. The same guy, George Cavender, recommended me for a job in Delaware at a much more successful band program that had gone into a tailspin. So I moved to the East Coast and took this job. I can remember my in-laws saying, “Delaware… that’s in New Jersey, isn’t it?”

SBO: What was the A.I. duPont band program like when you arrived?
PP: They had had a longtime director, Bob Streckfuss, who had just moved on to the University of Delaware. They then hired a man who came in and proved that a lifetime of work can by toppled by one man in one year. When I got there, some of the kids had quit the band and there was scandal around the program. I came in when the ship was sinking, which is a good way to take over. If you take over a really successful program, you never get the credit for what’s going on, but if you take over one that is not doing so well and you can bring it up, then people really take notice of what you’ve accomplished.

SBO: When you stepped in that first day, did you have a solid vision of where you were going to take the program?
PP: I had a vision in my mind of what a high school band should be like and I started working in that direction, rather than just taking the band-aid approach. I definitely had a vision of where I wanted this band to go.

SBO: How long did it take to achieve that goal?
PP: It took ten years to accomplish that vision. No question about it. People say, “Wow, it must be nice to have so much success,” but they forget the ten years of grief and ulcer making of trying to build that village.

SBO: To take it out of abstract terms, what exactly were you going for and what did you do during those formative years?
PP: First of all, I’m a very strong believer in student power. One of the very first things I did was establish a student executive board. It had to be made up of seniors, because those are the students who understand the organization the best. I handed them the power to select music, to approve drills, to pick the trips all of the things that I thought a really great band should be doing. Instantly, the kids bought into that. They have taken it unbelievably seriously for 34 years. One of the reasons why I gnash my teeth at so-called competitive bands is that they tend to drive kids who have jobs and play sports or do other activities out of the band because many young people can’t put in that kind of time. In my view, public education means public music for the broadest number of students possible. We restructured how the band rehearsed, when it rehearsed, got out of the way of athletes, and kids who could play football and tuba came pouring into the band.

SBO: Do you really entrust the kids with the selection of repertoire?
PP: In terms of classical repertoire, during concert band season, which runs basically from November through the end of the school year, I’ve already put a lot of music in their folder. Then, after we’ve gone through it all, I ask the executive board which ones they would prefer to perform in public. And they aren’t dumb. I get comments like, “I’m not sure we have the trombone section to place this piece, so let’s go with this other one.” These are kids talking! They realize that I take what they think seriously.

SBO: So you give them some responsibility and they respond positively.
PP: Absolutely. And in terms of marching band, they pretty much decide everything. We take a committee of students up to Philadelphia to JW Pepper and they pick the music. Sometimes I think, “Oh they’re making a terrible mistake” and sometimes they are, but most of the time they aren’t.

SBO: It can’t be as simple as saying, “Okay kids, you are running the show!”
PP: Of course it isn’t. And the kids know that. Once again, it comes back to the type of students that their peers elect to lead the organization. Because they realize the gravitas of what they’re doing, they tend to elect the right people. It’s not a popularity contest. When those kids come on board, the first thing we do is meet, at which point I tell them, “You are going to be making decisions that will impact this band for your entire senior year, so you don’t want to make bad decisions. My job is to enforce what you decide, but also to comment on what you decide.” We have a lot of give and take and sometimes it gets heated. The kids understand and they really respect the fact that they own this band. It’s their band.

Alexis I. duPont Tiger Marching Band at a Glance

Location: 50 Hillside Road, Greenville, Del.
On the Web: www.aidupontbands.com
Director: Paul Parets
Number of students: 220

Recent Notable Performances:

2009: The inauguration of President Barack Obama

2009: The Lord Mayor’s New Year’s Day Parade, London, England (also 1989, 1992, 1996, 2005)

2009: ABC Thanksgiving Day Parade, Philadelphia (1987 2009)

2008: The Tournament of Roses Parade, Pasadena, California (also 1990, 1995, 1999, 2004)

2007: The New Year’s Day Peace Parade, Rome and the Vatican

2006: The Fiesta Bowl Parade, Phoenix, Arizona

2003: The St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Dublin, Ireland (also 1993, 1997, 2000)

2001: The Orange Bowl Parade, Miami, Florida (also 1998)

SBO: Looking at the bigger picture, what’s your objective as a band director?
PP: I have two objectives: One, when the kids leave high school, they have actually played some great music by some great composers. Transcriptions they will be, but they will have played them. And secondly, that they recognize that there is only one purpose for music, and that is to thrill people. Nobody listens to music that doesn’t do something to them emotionally. It’s funny you mention that because last summer I was driving home and my cell phone rang. There it was, a former student of mine who is living in Atlanta, Georgia, and he was in his car and he said, “I just heard ‘Pines of the Appian Way’ on the radio and I remembered we’d played that!” So when we got done talking about his kids and everything else, I hung up the phone and thought, “That’s why I’m in this business. That guy was thrilled to have played that piece, and he knows and understands that piece, and he was excited enough to call me about it.”

SBO: There have been a number of fabulous opportunities you’ve been able to provide your students, whether traveling abroad, or marching in high profile parades. Is there anything that really stands out from those experiences?
PP: I guess the thing that sticks out in my mind is the miracle of all of these kids getting all of this stuff done. They actually got it done and enjoyed themselves doing it. I have a Facebook account, and I limit my connections to current and former students. I have over 1,300… I guess you’d call them “friends.” The entire Facebook page is about nothing but the band and what’s going on in former students’ lives and “P-Dawg, aren’t you dead yet,” and stuff like that. [laughs]

Whatever is happening here sticks with these kids and it seems to stick for years. Right now, I have five kids in band whose parents were in my band that’s scary. The first time a kid walks through the door and says he’s a former student’s grandchild, I’m outta there!

SBO: Your assistant director was a former student as well, wasn’t he?
PP: That’s right. Richard Weaver is a graduate of A.I. duPont High School and a member of my band and the percussion section who went on to get his music degree and now he’s back assisting.

SBO: Switching gears a little bit, this has been a challenging year for the American economy. Has your program been directly affected?
PP: We have an extremely successful and very visible program. That makes the budget cutters a little reluctant to get themselves in trouble with John Q. Public. In the broader sense, I see it in programs in trouble here in Delaware and across the country. Choir, music, art, band they all are taking huge hits. Sometimes it’s budgetary, and sometimes there are complete program cuts.

SBO: Do you have any advice for other directors out there to put their programs in the public eye and hopefully keep them off the chopping blocks?
PP: Sure: involve the broadest base of qualified kids you can. If you’re going to be in a high school with 1,500 students and there are only 60 in the band because those are the ones that meet your criteria, then you are asking for trouble. At that point, someone will sit down and say, “We’re spending X amount of dollars for a program that only serves 60 students?”

The other thing is to keep your band connected to the public. We do a lot of community service parades. Are they a pain in the butt? Of course they are! Do they win the respect and appreciation of the larger community? Absolutely!

SBO: Does your booster program contribute considerably to your funding?
PP: We have a large booster group that spends a significant amount of time raising money and they are very good at it. The money that they raise is earmarked for equipment and uniform repair. The district buys our uniforms.

And these are very active parents. The parents go where their kids are. If the kids are interested in soccer, you can be sure that mom and dad are going to be at those soccer games. If the kid is interested in band, mom and dad are going to be at the performances. I’m blessed with an overwhelming amount of parent help for that very reason.

SBO: Do you take parents with you when your band travels?
PP: Sure we do, but I tell the parents and I tell the kids that if I have to bring the Gestapo with me when we travel to make sure that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to, then we aren’t going to travel, because that’s not going to be fun for anyone. Parents go as what I call “low profile chaperones” and, amazingly, God bless my luck, we’ve never had a major incident on a band trip.

SBO: That’s amazing, considering how many variables there are on those trips.
PP: Absolutely, and anytime you get 200 people together, I don’t care if they’re adolescents or in their 60s, someone is going to be a knucklehead. That’s just the nature of the beast. You try to head off the knuckleheads and keep the rest of the organization moving.

SBO: With such a visible program, do you still do recruitment?
PP: Not really, and part of that is because behind every successful high school band director are a number of successful junior high school band directors who never make the newspapers. The kids tend to know about the band because their brothers and sisters were in the band, they’ve seen us on television, or they just like music so they end up in my program.

Paul Parets: At the Helm of the A.I. duPont Student BandBecause we have four high schools and 11 junior highs, coordination between the different programs in the district is kind of hard to pull off. And I have to say, band directors are kind of standoffish people, much more than most other members of the education profession. They want their own turf and don’t want other people stepping into their turf. Isn’t that interesting?

SBO: Perhaps that’s for the best, considering how isolated band rooms often are. What about retention? Is it as simple as making band a fun place to be?
PP: Our attrition rate, that is the rate of dropout from my band, is less than one percent per year, and that’s all they way through graduation. I’m pretty astonished by it.

I attribute this to the fact that the kids enjoy what they’re doing. They really do. In many schools, being in band is sort of like a nerd activity. At AI, it’s the place to be. Kids are touchy about their own self-image and the organizations they belong to. In many schools, they might not want to touch high school band, but here it’s okay it’s even cool to be in the band so the dropout rate is incredibly low.

SBO: Do you have to turn students away?
PP: We follow a policy of never turning a student away so long as he or she has a continuous interest in learning. We keep freshmen in a separate band because I have some real concerns about a kid who is one step out of childhood hanging out with kids who have driver’s licenses and can stay out until 11 o’clock at night. I have a freshman who came up to me recently and said he had heard of the band and he would love to be a part of it, but he’s never picked up an instrument before. He’s now learning to play the trombone.

SBO: Let’s talk about your marching band for a moment. Is it a curricular ensemble?
PP: There are two levels of band freshman band and senior band and if you’re in senior band, you have to be a participant in the marching band. When I say participation, outside of the regular school day, our band practices one night a week, and that’s a very low impact in terms of hitting kids in their study time, sports time, job time and whatever else.

It comes down to this: if math teachers could pick only the kids who were outstanding at math for their courses, most kids would graduate from high school without learning math because they wouldn’t ever have the chance to study it. Why is music any different? Are we assuming that only four percent of the population should appreciate, understand, or perform music? When did that happen? I have been a stalwart on this issue. I’ll have kids sitting third clarinet and I might say, “Young lady, you’re doing a great job on these eight measures in this one piece and when we get to those eight measures, you play them. That’s your contribution… and stay out of the other parts!” Everyone feels like they have a role in what we’re doing.

SBO: That’s empowerment, in a sense.
PP: Exactly. In some ways, that’s what my whole career has been about: empowerment.

SBO: What do you find to be the most challenging element of your daily routine?
PP: The most challenging thing is dealing with 220 variables. You have 220 kids sitting in front of you and they’re not the same as they were yesterday and they aren’t the same as they are going to be tomorrow. They aren’t even the same as they were an hour ago; some kid just got into a fight with his friend, another just got yelled at by his teacher, another just found out that his parents are going to get a divorce you constantly have to measure and evaluate where these kids are and how they’re feeling. There have been rare occasions when I have said, “You know what? Let’s put our instruments away because you all don’t want to be here today.” And they say, “Thank you!” Then the next day, they’re ready to go for a month non-stop. I try to keep my finger on the pulse of the organization both as a group and as individuals, to the fullest extent that that is possible.

SBO: On the flipside of that last question, what’s the most rewarding element of your school day?
PP: The kids always let me know how they are feeling at the end of every rehearsal. Last year we were beating ourselves to death with Richard Strauss’s Allerseelen. At the end of rehearsal, the kids were actually cheering because we finally got it. They let me know whether they’ve enjoyed the rehearsal or not. Nine times out of ten, they’re energized. I can’t tell you how many times a student has told me that this is the one class in their day that they look forward to. That’s nice to hear. Band is an outlet for creativity and personal drive.

SBO: Any additional thoughts to share with your music educator brethren?
PP: Yes: I’ve had a unique ride in the sense that I can look back at my career and say, “Wow, I led the only band to go to the Rose Bowl five times under the same director. No one has ever done that before.” But you don’t have to make the Guinness Book of Records to do a great job. Success isn’t measured by what events you participated in, but by what lives you impacted, and how you changed them. I spoke to a group of students at the University of Delaware about 12 years ago. I said, “Remember this: you don’t teach math; you teach people. And the minute you forget that, you’re in trouble.” Every day I walk into that band room and I think that I’m the luckiest man in the world because I have all of these kids, and they’re all eager to be here.

To my fellow band directors, stop worrying about the score you got in Saturday night’s band competition; worry about the kind of people you are creating. Will music remain a part of their lives?


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