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A Conversation on “The Best We Can Be”

Mike Lawson • Archives • November 5, 2010

Frank Battisti is a familiar name throughout the music world. As the founder and longtime conductor of the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, the founder of the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE), past president of the US College Band Directors National Association, as well as conductor and guest conductor of a wide array of premier ensembles throughout the world, Battisti’s resume speaks for itself.

However, of particular note in this storied career is his tenure as a high school band director in Ithaca, N.Y., during which time the band at Ithaca High School, a small and unassuming institution in upstate New York, achieved some extraordinary feats. The band was so good, and so inspired by its director, Mr. B, as he was then known, that such luminaries as Frederick Fennell, Doc Severinsen, and Benny Goodman, among many others, were inspired to visit the school to work with students and guest conduct or perform. The litany of achievements is truly astounding, but perhaps the most impressive realization of just what those ensembles created and achieved was indicated at a reunion of the 1955-1967 bands that took place during the summer of 2006. Some 50 years later, 235 of those former students, now well into their 50s and 60s, gathered to celebrate Battisti’s 75th birthday and recount the exploits of the Ithaca High School band. Touched by the impact that his teaching had had on so many people, Battisti was impelled to catalogue the accounts of the band, and has done so in a newly published book, “The Best We Can Be: The Story of the Ithaca High School Band, 1955-67,” co-authored by Battisti and R. Bruce Musgrave.

SBO recently caught up with the esteemed director to gain some insight into how the remarkable achievements of those ensembles relate to music education today.

School Band & Orchestra: How would you describe your teaching style in your days at Ithaca High School?

Frank Battisti: I would describe it as “individual-focused teaching”: I didn’t ever think I was teaching a group of people. I focused on the individual student and helping him or her grow musically. This meant I really had to get to know each student, know where he or she was in terms of both musical and personal development, and then map out a plan for his or her musical growth. I believed that as each student got progressively better, the band would also continually improve and achieve higher and higher musical results.

SBO: One of the quotes from the book that jumped out at me is you remarking, “This is the best band I have ever had at Ithaca High School,” along with a later note that you said that every year!

FB: “This is the best band I have ever had at Ithaca High School.” I did say that every year, and it was a true statement every time I made it. The title of the book is the give away: “The Best We Can Be.” The IHS band never competed. It was never about being better than anyone else. The Ithaca Board of Education had a policy that music was not to be a competitive sport. They believed that the purpose of music in the curriculum was to enrich and enhance a child’s life, to help him or her develop understanding and appreciation. A student or a band shouldn’t have to prove they are better than somebody else they should be challenged to be “the best they can be.” As I grew as a teacher, so did the achievements of my students and the band, and this, in turn, made the IHS band better and better each year.

SBO: There’s a fair amount of competition in many school music programs these days. Do you think it’s having a negative effect on music education in general?

FB: There’s too much activity, and not enough music education. Music education should focus on teaching students music helping them grow in their understanding and appreciation of the power of music, not the power of activity. Band students grow to love activity. After they graduate, they remain “active,” but do they continue to play their instruments, go to concerts, support musical art?

SBO: Without dangling the carrot of competition and trumpeting the “activity,” how do you transmit that to a student who doesn’t understand the intrinsic value of music?

FB: First, by getting him or her interested in you as a person. I remember one time when I was a young teacher, a student came into my classroom, stood in front of my desk and said, “Mr. Battisti, I don’t like music.” I responded, “Randy, well then why are you in band?” And he said, “Because you interest me. You’re different from the rest of them, and I’m watching you.” If music makes a difference, then when students look at their music teacher, they ought to see someone who is different: someone who loves and is excited about music, someone who excites and intrigues them. In other words, we have to be the Pied Piper.

SBO: What do you hope that music educators who read your book end up taking away from it?

FB: I hope they’re inspired. I hope they see how important it is for teachers to have big dreams for their students and their program. If you read the book, you’ll discover that I wrote to all the great composers in the world including Stravinsky, Bernstein, and Khachaturian asking them to write pieces for my students. Why? Because I thought my students deserved to play music composed by the world’s best students deserve the best! I wrote to Benny Goodman and asked him to come and play with the band. He came because he wanted to see “the band that commissioned all those composers.” And it didn’t cost us anything; he came on his own dime.

SBO: What is the most effective measure of success for a music educator?

FB: While the students are in school, we can measure our success by observing what they do in their free time do they practice, do they go to concerts, do they listen to recordings, and so on? All of us reveal our priorities and values by the way we spend our free time and money. However, a better measurement of how successful we are as music teachers is to see what our students do and what they value after they’re out of school for 40 or 50 years. Do they still love music, do they still play their instrument, do they play in a musical group, do they go to concerts, and do they support the arts?

SBO: There have been significant changes in the music world since the 1950s and •60s, particularly with how the Internet and new technology grant access to music.

FB: There has never been a time when young people have been so plugged into music.

SBO: So how should music educators and programs capitalize on that?

FB: With the electronic devices available to students today, many don’t feel the need to participate in school music programs. If we want to entice more young people into our music programs, we need to expand the musical offerings and the ways we teach music. Band directors need to coach small ensembles and assemble groups made up of whatever instruments and students are available. They also need to expand the kind of music they use with students.

SBO: With popular music so pervasive, how would you go about building interest in the great literature of classical or jazz music?

FB: You start where the student is. If the student likes rock and roll, you start with rock and roll. It’s a matter of making contact with the students grabbing them by the hand and helping them expand their skills, understanding, and appreciation of music. You strike a deal: “I’ll listen to your music and you listen to some of mine.” Being respectful of what the students like is important. You work at gradually influencing them and I stress the word “gradually” into contact with new and different kinds of music. You don’t take anything they like away. What you try to do is expand what they like give them more music to love. When someone tells me, “I don’t like Stravinsky,” what I hear is, “I don’t understand it. It’s too complex.” It’s my job to help them figure it out. When they can understand it, there’s a possibility that they might come to like or love it. That’s my job as a music educator.

I have a lot of opportunities to talk to young teachers, and I find many who have a deep passion for music and for teaching young people. They are worried about entering the profession because they see what goes on in public school music programs, particularly the inordinate amount of time music teachers spend preparing students to perform at events that have minimal musical value. What they want to do is teach music to young people.

SBO: And how does this relate back to your book?

FB: I wrote this book to inspire others as to what can be achieved. In a small town in central New York State, a teacher decided to dream way beyond the realities of what one should be dreaming about as a high school band director. I hope this book inspires others to see what can be created in a very normal kind of school setting.

SBO: So the idea is that if this happened in Ithaca, N.Y., it can happen anywhere?

FB: I think it can. One shouldn’t and couldn’t replicate the IHS program, but educators should strive for the same objective helping students find joy and excitement in making music and the creative endeavor. Fostering an interest among the students to pursue a creative way of life via their band musical experience was the desired goal of the IHS band program.

All good music education is designed to meet the needs of the students in the local school district. We need music educators and band directors who are imaginative, inventive and passionate about music excited about finding ways to share their love of music with young people.

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