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Keith Owens

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 30, 2006

“Then I get to Kanika, and out of her came the most beautiful vibrato. That put a lump in my throat—and woke me up as a music teacher. That’s when I discovered what it was to be a teacher.” Perkins found success in music, becoming good enough to earn a spot in the Kansas City Youth Orchestra, and “grew up to be a fine young lady.”

She’s not a professional musician, but that is more than fine with Mosier. “I guess it’s kind of bad that I say this, but I don’t really care if my kids play music once they are out of school. I don’t teach orchestra—I teach excellence, and what it means to live a full life. For me, music happens to be the tool.”

Mosier grew up in a suburb of Kansas City, Raytown, which is much more working class than neighboring Lee’s Summit. His childhood was reportedly less than Leave-It-to-Beaver-esque (he often inspires his students with stories of his upbringing and the challenges he had to overcome), but by high school he was already an excellent musician, his main instrument being the euphonium. With it Mosier marched in the Orange Bowl and he received a music scholarship to University of Kansas, Lawrence. While there, he spent up to six nights a week driving an hour or more to Kansas City to play jazz piano in hotels and clubs, or to play and sing in the local dinner theater.

“Playing late in Kansas City, then driving back and trying to make it to my Clarinet Techniques class was just too much,” Mosier laughs. So he transferred to the University of Kansas City Missouri, Conservatory of Music and finished his Music Education degree in 1985. (He would return to the Conservatory in the early 1990s to receive a Master’s in Composition, and is currently an adjunct professor teaching arranging for music education and master’s degree candidates.)

For the next nine years Mosier taught at Raytown’s South High School before moving over to Lee’s Summit in 1995.

“He’s just amazing,” says Madison Maddox, a former string player in Mosier’s concert orchestra at Lee’s Summit. “He knows every instrument so well, and can help every student, whether it’s the trumpet or the Irish whistle.” While she maintains her former teacher is “laid back,” “like a friend,” and that “everyone likes him,” all that certainly doesn’t undermine his effectiveness. She says it’s not uncommon for her music classmates to spend weekends playing weddings and other professional gigs, and often seniors are treated to full rides at music schools and conservatories from California to New York.

But it’s his stories she is most fond of: “He’s got a different one every day and they always get you really pumped up,” she says. “They are the perfect stories for teenagers to hear. It’s not even orchestra, really—more like psychology, or a motivational seminar. It’s exciting to be in his class.”

School Band and Orchestra: What about working in the Lee’s Summit school district appeals to you?

Mosier: Music support seems to be in the water here! Everyone is really supportive of the music program. There’s a tradition of excellence, which was began by Russ Berlin [now retired], and Lee’s Summit prides itself on not only having an outstanding orchestra, but the band and choir are also wonderful. Many places have a great band, but the choir will be so-so and the orchestra nonexistent, or vice-versa.

SBO: Is the school district supportive of the music program, financially?

Mosier: Very. They maintain the library yearly, and sometimes we spend $800 to $1,000 just to go to contest on one song. We just did a Bach piece, and when you have 100 strings, that is a lot of parts. We make sure we abide by copyright laws and not rip anyone off, and it can be very expensive.

The budget for the music program, including “instructional purposes,” is between $3,000 and $5,000 a year.

SBO: How did you come to be offered a position at Lee’s Summit?

Mosier: When I started teaching at Raytown, I had 13 kids playing strings. When I left, there were around 200 performing in two orchestras. By 1993, I had won the National School Orchestra Association’s award for a composition of mine, Baltic Dance [published by Kjos music]. I was doing a lot of composing, and was commissioned to write orchestra pieces for Russ Berlin, who was head there, and when Lee’s Summit grew to the point where they needed two orchestra directors, I got hired.

SBO: What are some of your other career highlights so far?

Mosier: In my heart, everything I’ve accomplished pales in comparison to the things that have happened between individual students and me. But putting that aside, we played a performance in Carnegie Hall. I’m a big Russian music freak, and we included in the program Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky – the real piece, a difficult piece, in Db. And we did several movements, one of which included the Russian National Anthem.

There were Russians in the audience, and at the end they had tears in their eyes and were throwing carnations on the stage. And for a high school group to have that kind of response was really awesome.

SBO: How is the string program structured?

Mosier: The students begin in fourth grade in a class that is taught every other day. But in seventh grade, we are seeing them every day, and that’s huge. Most middle schools don’t do that.

SBO: What’s the advantage?

Mosier: For those students that don’t study privately, if they are just a little interested, I can get them motivated to practice more.

Once they hit middle school, we say it’s a major bump up in playing level and they buy it. We have them playing vibrato, and in third position, and for those who are studying privately, I get them into fifth position.

SBO: How do you keep them motivated?

Mosier: It doesn’t hurt that I’m 6’3″ and fairly large! (laughs) Also, I lift weights and run, not just for me, but because I want my life to be an example of excellence, and that includes the physical [aspect].

If I don’t practice what I preach, I lose credibility. They make fun of some of my speeches, but they like them… in one I say your life is like a house: you have different rooms, and when you’re in the “math” room, you should act like you’re the next Einstein and really go after it. When you’re in the “music” room, same thing.

SBO: And that’s effective?

Mosier: It’s impacting our dropout rate, which is next to zero. Retention is so high and we’re becoming so big that it’s almost out of control.

SBO: How do you recruit students?

Mosier: I go into the elementary kids and balance a bass on my chin in front of the kids. (laughs) Or balance a cello on my foot—they love that! We also do elementary school tours with the middle school group, and they come in playing with full vibrato, a strong tone, and it just blows those kids away.

And again, there is just such a great tradition of excellence in this school district. Parents are very aware of what we’re doing. Plus we do a big pop concert at a retirement center here that 1,500-2,000 people turn out for. We perform at an ice cream social and block off the street at the Dairy Queen.

SBO: What’s the audition process to determine if someone gets in your concert orchestra or the symphony orchestra?

Mosier: First of all, there is no audition to the high school [orchestras]. How you conduct yourself in eighth grade is your audition. There’s no white-knuckle audition.

At the beginning, I draw these two circles on the board, having them intersect at one point. I say one circle represents the kids in concert orchestra, and the other one represents those in the symphony orchestra. But I tell them it’s those who fall in the intersected part—some of whom are in the symphony orchestra, but in over their head, swimming hard to stay afloat, and some are in the concert orchestra, being bored and not being challenged. It’s the kids in that intersection you have to work hardest for.

SBO: Describe how you assign seats and positions.

Mosier: We don’t do it the traditional way—all the chairs are always thrown up for grabs at every test, like a deck of cards.

I’ll assign the student 20 measures, a half of a page, and let them take it home for a week and practice. Then they tape it on their home tape recorder. And I let them do as many takes as they want, and they do as many as 97! Then they give me the tape when the test is due and during my planning period, I’ll listen to the tapes and sit at the computer and type comments to each player—sometimes a paragraph, sometimes half a page, going over what they did and didn’t do. Based on that, I rank them.

All these tests are open and the students can come in and listen with me. But I just don’t believe in taking tests in front of an entire class.

SBO: Is there any downside to this method?

Mosier: The downside of the tape testing is the younger ones can’t hear how the older ones are playing. For every test, I’ll play the top chair or the person who surprised me for the whole class, afterwards, but overall that’s the slight disadvantage.

SBO: Describe your process of choosing music.

Mosier: It’s really the major way I’m able to motivate the students—the music we do just rattles them. We might do parts of Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Night on Bald Mountain, Planets—all original. It’s the music that is very inspirational.

One of the most gratifying moments for me came at that Carnegie Hall performance. Backstage, that orchestra had posted every piece they had played that season, and we had played 80 percent of them. The kids went nuts. That was a neat moment, and it made everyone feel good that I was having them play the music the big boys play.

Otherwise, we are a Romantically staffed orchestra, so if I choose a Classical piece, I—and I don’t know if you can print this—do what I call “Bastardizing the Masterworks.” I’ll take a Haydn or Beethoven piece and write a part for tuba, et cetera., and make sure everyone participates and is kept busy.

SBO: That’s an important component to keeping everyone interested.

Mosier: It is. Since I’m a composer, I make sure it’s all as equal as possible. If the percussion is getting ripped off in one piece, I’ll do one of my compositions where there is tons of percussion. If the tuba is getting ripped off in another piece, I’ll make sure he or she has a good part on the [one after that].

You don’t have to worry about double reeds or flutes, but you do have to worry about the trombones, the low brass, and so on.

SBO: Are you satisfied with the music the publishers offer?

Mosier: No, I’m not satisfied with the educational music I see. It’s awfully “Violin I” heavy, and [those players] get to be the superstars while everyone else gets the “boom-chucks.”

Publishers are coming around, and are much better than they used to be, but they have to realize that violists are real people and bass players aren’t idiots.

SBO: How do you compensate?

Mosier: Let’s say there’s a specific composer whose works I like, but whose pieces rip-off the lower strings. I know I will be doing some rewriting. Any good Celtic piece, for example—take [the melody] down and let the cellos play it for a while! That way you have everybody playing.

SBO: What method books do you use?

Mosier: I never use a method book—no way. That’s for elementary school. By the time they get to middle school they are All for Strings-ed to death! I have them do arpeggios, scale tricks, and teach them scales by memory… not even by memory, really, more by rote. The rest, when I want to work on staccato or bowing, I use real music to do that.

SBO: What’s your approach to contests?

Mosier: It should be the highest level of playing we achieve the whole year, and we should play the most difficult literature possible. The whole purpose of contests is to bring the orchestra’s playing to a new level, a new high, and if we do something that’s just within our abilities, then it’s a missed opportunity. I like to stretch it. Last year we did Russian Easter Overture, the real one, and then a piece that I wrote for the All State Orchestra, Out of Adullam. And we got all One-Pluses from the judges.

SBO: What’s up next for Kirt Mosier?

Mosier: I’m currently involved in starting a pilot program for the district called Summit Tech Academy. The facility will have 17 recording studios. We’ll teach scoring media music for TV and radio, running sound for live events, live sound reinforcement, recording studio techniques—we’ll take them to a couple of concerts and have them drag cables, things of that nature.

This fall I’ll be given a half a day to do research, purchase equipment, and organize the program. For this new Tech school I’m starting up, they gave me $10,000 to start the library, and I think I already spent $8,000 just buying the staples.

It’s a very cutting-edge program, but it means I’ll be giving up teaching middle school.

SBO: How do you feel about that?

Mosier: It’s scary! It’ll be the first time I have not taught vertically—not teaching the students from the very beginning, just getting them in high school.

When I think that I might never teach that level again, I feel terrible. It’s my favorite level. When I first started, the things I hated about the job are now the things I love most about it. [Those kids] can’t drive, their bad attitudes haven’t developed, and their hearts are so open.

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