Lisa Preston: Piping Up in Normal, Illinois

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 9, 2009

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Normal Community West High School, in Normal, Illinois, has a very well developed music program. There is a competitive marching band, which was named class 4A state champion in 2008, and the top group of the school’s four concert bands travels and plays at festivals. There’s also a wind ensemble, pep band, musical pit orchestra, color guard, winter guard, and two jazz bands. While countless schools are gasping for funding, this program is flourishing. While none of this is particularly unusual, per se it sounds like any one of many fine programs around the country, right? a chat with the program’s director, Lisa Preston, proves that Normal West has quite a scene going on.

Lisa Preston was tasked with developing the music department when Normal Community West High School first opened its doors 15 years ago, and her goal was a simple one: to provide every student the opportunity to participate in music education. Perhaps this ideal, too, isn’t exactly unique saying it is would be a discredit to the plethora of other great music educators but that doesn’t make Lisa’s mission any less noble. Speaking with her, it becomes clear that she hasn’t spent her time just dreaming about some lofty goal; it has taken years of tireless work to create an environment in which music is positively thriving, at every level, in ensembles large and small. Perhaps the music department at Normal West High School isn’t the most atypical program around, but it certainly is a great example of what a little vision, a little luck, and an awful lot of hard work can bring about.

In a recent conversation with SBO, Lisa recalls her introduction into the world of music and education, shares why the flute choir is one of her busiest ensembles when it comes to playing out in the community, and makes a passionate plea for an increased role of the arts in our schools.

School Band & Orchestra: Would you talk about your early experiences learning music?
Lisa Preston: I started playing the piano in first grade. I was the youngest of three girls, and both of my sisters took piano lessons. My mom wouldn’t let me play, so I would sit at the piano and play my sisters’ lessons by ear. Soon, my mom figured out that I was better than they were even though I hadn’t had lessons yet, so she decided that she might as well sign me up. I switched over to flute in the fifth grade, when I started playing with the school band.

SBO: Did you know you were going to be a teacher early on?
LP: I knew ever since I was in first grade that I was a musician. I tried a lot of other things in high school: I was a cheerleader, and I dabbled with a bunch of different activities, but I was truly a musician and I realized that I needed to share that somehow. When I was studying Music Education as an undergrad at Northern Illinois University, I knew that I would be involved in music, but it took some time to realize that my interest really was in the teaching aspect of it.

I grew up with Scott McCormick, who is the CEO of Bands of America and Music for All. We sat next to each other in seventh-grade study hall. We became very good friends all through high school, and I went to many great events. Later on, I even worked at some of the Bands of America events, so I was able to see many great directors interact with their students; I think that’s what decided it for me. Seeing that interaction at summer camps, regional competitions, and grand nationals the directors working with their students was just phenomenal. I’d seen that part of myself in me since I was young, I just had to take the leap.

SBO: You went to Northern Illinois University, and then what?
LP: Well, I looked pretty young when I graduated, and I had decided that I wanted to teach high school, only no one wanted to hand their competitive marching band to someone that looked like she was 12 years old. [laughs] I ended up working for Bands of America for two years. Then I got a phone call from Gary Green, who told me that there was an assistantship opening at the University of Connecticut. (He’s at the University of Miami now.) So I returned to school and got my master’s studying with Gary Green, and that was the turning point. He was a great mentor and teacher, just an amazing human being, and it really made me realize that music education was the right field for me. After my master’s, I went ahead and got my first teaching job, which was at Danville High School in Danville, Illinois.

Danville had a fairly similar program to the one I’m in now. There was a volunteer marching band, a jazz program, and three concert bands. We were fairly competitive in all of those areas well rounded with many opportunities for students to play in chamber groups, in addition to the wind ensembles and marching band. I was there for four years, and then I ended up moving to Normal Community High School, which is the sister school of the one I’m at now. At that point, there was only one high school in Normal. When the schools split, I was offered the job at Normal West, and I’ve been here since it started.

SBO: So you had the opportunity to start the program at the new school from scratch?
LP: Yes, I was able to create a new program. It was really interesting. In retrospect, there are some things that I could have done differently, but it was a brand new program, with a brand new image and new ideas.

SBO: What was your initial goal on the outset?
LP: I wanted to create a program that would allow every student a chance at music education, no matter what his or her interest was. I find that sometimes high school music pigeonholes people so that they only get to play in band or classical music, and I really wanted our program to grow in every area. So if marching band was one student’s thing, I wanted to have a program that would make him or her be successful and feel good about that; if students were really into jazz, then there would be a jazz band that would be successful and make them feel good about that; and the same for chamber players, wind players and so on we just wanted to give every student an opportunity. We started small, so we weren’t always able to do everything that we’ve wanted to, but in the past 15 years, we’ve allowed our students a lot of different opportunities to pursue the kinds of music that they find interesting.

SBO: Has that ideal of making the department accessible to every student changed in the past 15 odd years?
LP: What’s changed for me, as a music educator, is that I’ve realized that you can’t be great at all of those things. I do employ people to help me. I’m sandwiched between three major universities: the University of Illinois, Illinois State University, and Illinois Wesleyan University. For example, when it comes to the jazz idiom, well, I’m a flautist and jazz isn’t my thing. So I hired doctorial students from the University of Illinois who are jazz majors to come over and run my jazz program. That way, the students get the best of the jazz world. I implemented the program and I help it along, but I don’t teach jazz. Yet, I am able to make sure that my students get the absolute best jazz education that we can find for them. It’s the same with marching band. As I got older, I decided to let the younger people who are right out of drum corps come over and be on my staff. They run a good portion of it, and they’re fresh and excited to do it. So that old ideal that you have when you’re young, that you have to do everything and you can do it all, eventually you realize that that might not be possible as your program grows.

SBO: Let’s talk about your marching band for a moment. You mentioned that it’s purely extracurricular?
LP: The marching band rehearses after school and on the weekends. We find that it is a great venue for teaching. It’s the students’ choice to participate and they enjoy it, so really it’s just a group of people working hard together that all want to be there.

SBO: And this is a competitive group?
LP: We compete throughout the state of Illinois, as well as in Missouri and Indiana. We’ve also done a few big trips over the years. For example, we flew all of the kids down to Arizona to perform at the Fiesta Bowl a couple of years back. We also participate in Bands of America events the regionals, grand nationals, and other similar activities.

SBO: Obviously, you’re okay with combining competition and music?
LP: That’s interesting because only my marching band competes. My wind ensemble and the other inside groups are non-competitive. We simply don’t go anywhere where we’d be ranked against another ensemble. Philosophically, I just don’t believe in it. Would they have ranked Picasso against Monet?

Lisa Preston: Piping Up in Normal, IllinoisI just want our students to have a better appreciation of all of the arts. Really, I look at some of the best coaches. The ones who achieve the most success are the ones who believe in doing your personal best and working together as a group. Even though our marching band competes, we really strive to play the best music we can, put on the best show we can, and hopefully the audience will enjoy us, and the rest of it is neither here nor there for us. We rarely let our kids look at recaps and we don’t really talk about numbers. We’d rather just talk about how the show went, how we can perform better, what we can do better musically and that carries over to our indoor groups. We look for performances for our concert ensembles that are worthy. For example, my Wind Ensemble is playing in Disney Hall in Los Angeles next summer, and we’ve played in Carnegie Hall in New York. Those events are ones that lend themselves to great music, a great hall, and a great audience, elements that are what musicians are really meant to be looking for.

SBO: They present a great opportunity for the students, as well, I’m sure.
LP: Oh, a great experience. To stand on those great stages and perform is just life altering for the students.

SBO: How are your indoor ensembles organized?
LP: We have four concert bands: the top one is the Wind Ensemble, and the other groups are Symphonic Winds, Symphonic Band, and Concert Winds. We don’t name them anything like “Freshmen Band” because we think those distinctions can be a little demeaning.

SBO: I see, but they are still divided by age and ability, right?
LP: It’s broken up by skill level in the top three, and the overflow of freshmen goes into the Concert Winds.

SBO: Placement is by audition?
LP: Yes, we have auditions every six months. I sit in a room with each student, and they play excerpts and scales. That way I can monitor everybody’s progress and I feel really strongly that I hear everyone. I know of other programs that have outside people come in and judge auditions, but being the one who has to monitor their progress and give out grades, I feel very strongly that I need to hear them at least every six months to see how they’ve progressed. And if they haven’t made progress, then I haven’t done my job, so I’ll need to find help in the form of a tutor or a private teacher for them.

We’re so fortunate to be sandwiched between three universities that have graduate students, undergrads, and even professors who offer lessons. Depending on a student’s money situation, he or she could study with a full-fledged professor or with an undergrad, which is much cheaper but still allows students to have private study. I would say that probably 90 percent of my Wind Ensemble studies privately.

SBO: Has that percentage fluctuated in the past year or so, since the economy has hit some hard times?
LP: Interestingly, it hasn’t. And our students are continuing to buy step-up and professional horns, too. They are also able to go on the Los Angeles trip. I think that they find that this is so important in their life that they somehow make room for that, and their parents feel the same way. I’m very blessed that our program hasn’t been affected much at all.

SBO: Very fortunate, indeed. And you also have a number of smaller ensembles, such as the clarinet choir and flute choir. How did those come about?
LP: We believe that everyone should have some sort of chamber experience. We break all four bands into small ensembles, give them the music, and have university students come in and coach. Every student actually becomes a part of a chamber ensemble for the solo and chamber event; it’s part of the class. We coach them during class time, so for the younger students who may not have made the time commitment or aren’t ready to jump in with both feet, their only responsibility is to show up and play in their group.

As for the flute choir, well, I’m a flautist, and of course there’s that special bond with other people who play your instrument. I use them for a lot of community events, especially during the holiday season. I think we did 12 gigs last year in the course of two weeks.

SBO: Why is that group so busy, exactly?
LP: Flute holiday music is gorgeous, so that’s part of it. We use that group when we reach out to the community. We went and played at the cancer center, we played at the hospital, we played at a lot of the retirement homes performing for people that can’t easily make it out to enjoy music. The flute choir is really mobile, as it’s easy to bring those students to different venues. We can just grab our stands and our flutes and go stand anywhere.

SBO: Right, you don’t have to lug around tubas or drum sets.
LP: Exactly. Even with jazz, it’s hard to do that sometimes because of space limitations. With the flute choir, sometimes we’ll just take five or six flutes, because that’s all that’s needed, and sometimes we’ll take all 25 of them, depending on who needs us and what we’re doing.

Normal Community West High School at a Glance

Location: 501 North Parkside Road, Normal, Illinois
On the Web:
Student Population: 1,800
Students in Music Department: 400
School Mascot: Wildcats

As for the clarinet choir, the junior high school band director is a clarinetist, and she started that program. As she became more and more busy, we decided to select a first-chair clarinetist from the high school Wind Ensemble to actually run the group. So they select the music, and they get to be the teacher. We find that that does enormous good for anyone that wants to be a music education major, because they’ll have the opportunity to have a hands-on approach to teaching. We think it’s amazing to be able to offer that experience in high school.

SBO: Do you recruit for these groups?
LP: Again, I’ve been very fortunate. We are a unit district, which means that our elementary, junior high, and high schools are all part of the same district, and the communication between teachers is remarkable. I can simply run over to those who are recruiting the fifth graders and say, “We are really limited on flutes,” and they’ll go out and encourage students to pick up whatever it is we need to balance instrumentation. So I’ve got great balance, for the most part. Not that it’s perfect, but most of the instruments are fairly well represented other than double reeds, like the bassoon, which are a little bit more expensive.

SBO: If you look at most 14-year-olds’ iPods, they’re likely to have a lot of pop music, rock and roll, hip hop, and that sort of thing. How do you approach the challenge of introducing standard classical repertoire to your students?
LP: It is a challenge, because for many people classical music requires a kind of intellectual appreciation that only happens as we grow as musicians. Early on, I’ll be honest, we don’t try to “dummy down” our music, but we use technology to help introduce it into their lives. We all have SmartBoards now, and we put up Web pages of every song that we’re playing so the students can go onto YouTube, or they can “tweet” about it or whatever they need to do. We try to enter into their world and allow our music to seep in. A lot of kids will go in and say, “Oh, I saw this on YouTube!” It might be classical rendition of what we’re playing, so I’ll make it a “pick of the week” on our Web page and all of the students will go home and watch at it. If you allow yourself to take your genre and put it in their world, they will buy into it. To a certain extent, they think, “Hey, I saw it on YouTube, it must be good even if it is classical!” That’s just how kids function. Until we realized that, we were trying to update what we do to stay in touch with what they were into.

SBO: Considering the incessant changes in social media, how do you keep up with your students?
LP: It is hugely challenging, especially the older you get in your career, and I’ve been teaching over 20 years. I’m fortunate to have my assistant director, who’s in his mid-20s and is very much a part of the digital generation. He’s very Web-savvy and Internet-savvy, and so long as you have an open mind, you can pick up on these things. It really helps to have some support. We’ve also done a lot of training in our district to allow us to be able to start to get into students’ world and function in it and use all of the new technology as teaching tools. I think it’s very important.

Technology has opened up so many different avenues. Students can watch almost any symphony orchestra on YouTube, when in the past we wouldn’t have had access to those performances. In the past, we would have had to buy the DVD or try to hook up a video, and now we can just say, “Go home and look up this link on your computer” and they can all watch the Berlin Philharmonic that’s amazing. It simply allows us to bring the whole world, and all of its musical contributions, into our world. It is amazing.

SBO: To date, is there any one particular accomplishment or moment that you are most proud of?
LP: Probably our performance in Carnegie Hall, because that was a landmark moment for the program. Our performance next summer in the Disney Hall, which is the silver building in Los Angeles that Frank Gehry designed, will be another landmark for us. When we bring these kids from the middle of Illinois not just to these great halls, but to great cities like New York and Los Angeles, it brings so many opportunities to these students. In fact, after the New York trip, many of our students went on to go to school in New York, or live there, and I’m hoping that the trip to Los Angeles will expose kids from our town to that side of the country. It broadens their world, and that’s amazing.

SBO: Although you mentioned that you weren’t feeling many direct effects of the economic downturn, are you concerned about funding down the road?
LP: Money will always be an issue, and it’s not just the economy. There are a lot of restrictions being placed on the arts, as I see programs around us being cut, and arts being thought of as less important and not a part of the core curriculum. We find more and more that we are struggling and fighting for our cause, when arts simply should be a part of everyone’s life.

As a cultured society, we need to have some access to the arts, and not just through the Internet. Students have to live, breathe, and create arts in order for a certain part of them to come alive whether you believe that’s in their mind or their soul. If we remove that element from our children, we will end up with an adult society that we won’t recognize anymore, one that is missing some of our humanity, some of our culture, and some of our basic communication skills. All of that will be impaired in our children if we don’t find a way to continue doing what we do as teachers of the arts.

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