History of the Joliet Township High School Band – Part Three: “Making It Happen”

Tom Merrill • Travel/Festivals • February 8, 2019

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Last month we continued the history of the Joliet Township program and its influences.

This month, we share how they work to continue that tradition today. Lega’s model of sound made sense—as during his school days he and fellow students took the train into the city to study with members of the Chicago Symphony. This was no small feat for this working-class town, where such extravagances demanded sacrifice.

“When Charles Peters was directing the middle school band, every kid had a private instructor—and had to have four lessons before they could even be in the band,” said Fiske. “It was a sacrifice for parents who worked in the steel mills, the phone company, etc. to do private lessons. But they did it.”

As the demographics of the community changed, and as economic challenges set in, fewer students would study privately. “When I came to Central, maybe 25-30% were studying privately,” said Fiske. “By the time I retired it was 10-15% due to how the student population changed. Those are challenges so you solve them with things like the peer tutoring Don is doing.”

“We’ve been able to protect the schedule the band has,” continued Fiske. “The band meets in the middle of the day, during lunch period, and has 75 minutes per day. That can be used for sectionals, etc. That goes all the way back to when Ted was in the band.” That’s been maintained because the band is the “crown jewel” of the school, which a very supportive administration has protected. That flexibility has allowed them to creatively solve the time or financial challenges with taking private lessons by bringing in section coaches and clinicians to work with the students. The students also teach each other lessons, with the older more experienced students taking on leadership roles in the ensemble.

That large concert band tradition has prevailed over the years even while more bands moved towards a smaller wind ensemble format, but it has served the program well. “A lot of the kids, if you put them in the ‘top band’, it pulls them up,” Stinson shared. “The premier ensemble is about 25% freshman and 25% sophomores.” He acknowledged that, like many schools, they have attendance challenges…so having students missing in a large band can have less effect. Fiske added, “It’s harder to clean a bigger band. But more impressive when you do!”

It must be working, because for the past two years Stinson and the symphonic band returned to the Illinois Super State Festival…an annual audition-only, highly selective festival that features 28 of the finest concert bands in the state.

Along with the symphonic band, there is a non-auditioned concert band of 40-45 players. There are two jazz groups that meet outside of school: a traditional 1940’s style swing band, and a jazz “lab” group where anyone and any instrument can play. Their marching band exists as a non-competitive group for Friday night football games and pep band. There is a jazz combo and chamber groups, and they also offer an AP music theory class. They are a significant source of pride in the community— not only for their remarkable performances, but for their dedication to community service as well.

For example: beginning with World War I and continuing all the way through the Vietnam War, the band would be summoned on a regular basis to the train station a few blocks from the school to play for the draftees as they were shipped out for training. A bell would sound at the school during the class day, and band members would scramble to gather instruments and rush to the station in time to play patriotic melodies at the platform. Even yet today the school continues to emphasize community service, requiring every student to complete 40 hours. Parades are often the way band members can help fulfill that responsibility.

“We performed seven times within the first two weeks of school,” Stinson said. “The kids play at district events, community events…parades, open house, football games.” In response the band has enjoyed unwavering support, even during hard times.

Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music. He has over 25 years of experience as a music educator, travel planner, and festival organizer.

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