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UpClose: George Hattendorf

Eliahu Sussman • Features • October 18, 2014

Concert bands and chamber groups drive Mountain Ridge High School’s comprehensive band program

 

If the performance opportunities offered to students are an indicator of a school music program’s vitality, George Hattendorf’s Mountain Ridge High School band program in Glendale, Arizona is positively thriving. Over the past decade, Hattendorf has overseen the development of an array of extracurricular, chamber-style ensembles that augment the Mountain Ridge concert and marching bands in what he describes as a “win-win” situation. “The kids are able to utilize a number of their skill sets from their concert band experience in the small groups,” he reasons, “and they’re also able to take skills that they learn in the chamber aspect and bring it back to the larger group.”

Hattendorf, who is in his fifth decade as a music educator, migrated to Arizona from the marching hotbed of Indiana some 13 years ago. He cites the concert band element as the driving force of the Mountain Ridge band program, as is often the case with high-level school band programs: it is that concert band experience that provides the opportunity to teach students the fundamental tenets of musicianship and ensemble playing that then resonate throughout a program’s other offerings. And when concert bands spawn chamber ensembles, students then find themselves with a unique opportunity to fine-tune their musical skills in an intimate setting. As a testament to those very efforts, Mountain Ridge is sending a woodwind choir and 15-member saxophone orchestra – which features full instrumentation – to Chicago to perform at the Midwest Clinic this December.

SBO recently checked in with Hattendorf to discuss the development of the Mountain Ridge program, as well as lessons learned from more than 40 years in the band room.

 

School Band & Orchestra: How did you end up at Mountain Ridge High School?

GH: This is my 10th year at Mountain Ridge, and my 13th year here in Arizona. I previously taught at a high-profile program in Indiana. I was doing spring breaks down here, and I just fell in love with the area and I wanted to slow down. I applied for several jobs, and I was not necessarily expecting anything major to happen, because, well, I was hoping I would slow down – even though quite the opposite has taken place. I started at another school in the district, and when this job opened up, I knew this was the school where I needed to work. So I’ve been here ever since.

 

SBO: What was it about the position that appealed to you?

GH: Well, a variety of things, beginning with the culture of the school and the culture of the program. At the point when I came on board, the school was only 10 years old. And because it had just recently opened up – like any program that starts from ground zero – it took a while for the roots to really attach themselves. Eventually, though, it became a very well known program, with a primary focus on the concert band. That is what attracted me to it. They had a relatively successful marching program by Arizona standards, but there really wasn’t any jazz program, nor an extensive chamber music program. So those things have changed over the last ten years.

 

SBO: What was the cultural difference like between teaching music – and marching band, in particular – in Arizona versus Indiana, where there are a ton of outstanding, highly competitive school music programs?

GH: That culture was not as widespread here as it was and still is in Indiana. There are some very solid programs, but by and large the vast majority of the programs, from my perspective, were pretty significantly behind what I was used to in the Midwest. So it’s been an interesting growth experience for me, not only as a band director but also as a very active participant and member of the Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors Association.

 

SBO: So what were your objectives coming in at Mountain Ridge?

GH: One question that was asked of me at my first job interview was, “What do you expect to do? What is it that you want to do with this program?” My response was very simple: “I would like to take this program to the next level.”

 

SBO: How do you define “taking it to the next level”?

GH: National exposure for the program, involvement in national-level activities, and building upon the really sound foundation that was already in place.

Teaching music is teaching music no matter where you are. The point of departure of that journey may be different, depending on the condition of the program, and also on the needs of the program and the kids.

I have taken some jobs where my goal was very simply to come in and stabilize the program. That’s what happened when I first came down here to Arizona – I was the third band director in two years. So I’ve been through that before, and I felt fairly confident that I knew what it was going to take to stabilize and right the ship and get the things moving in the right direction, because I had already been in that situation. You just have to go in and make things better for the kids, grounding them with a greater sense of stability than they’ve had, and using the discipline of music to do that.

 

SBO: What is your strategy for stabilizing things using music? What are the steps you take to achieve that objective?

GH: I think it’s a combination of a couple of things. Number one, it’s developing a sound routine, which should be based on your comfort level in attaining excellence. That really hasn’t changed a whole lot for me over the years – it’s still been the same process. The intensity that you put forth in the process or, say. the patience that you have, is different within the context of each job that you take.

The next step, if you have the means, is to secure a staff that you feel will benefit the kids. And using that model of routine, perhaps the next most important thing is trying to find something to be successful at as quickly as you possibly can. That will help build the level of confidence and buy-in. Attaining the kids’ trust is paramount in making that happen.

It’s amazing what happens when you have your first level of success – things can turn around really quickly.

 

SBO: When you talk about early success, what are some of the markers that you look for?

GH: It could be anything. Right now, as in most high school situations, it turns out to be those first couple of marching activities because that’s usually the vehicle that we first have to operate with in the school year.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be one particular thing. Again, I think a lot of it revolves around the kids recognizing that there is some level of positive payback for the work that they do, that they’ve been instructed correctly, and that there have been reasonable goals that have been set for them. And maybe most importantly, they have to know that their directo cares about them as individuals and as a group. When that starts to take place at the level of buy-in, trust, and faith, that mental culture that’s needed in every successful program starts to develop and take root.

 

SBO: Right now you have a very diverse program, with all kinds of student activities available – different ensembles and so forth. How did those come about?

GH: The focus of our program, and as I mentioned earlier the thing that drew me here, is a really strong concert band program. If you go ahead and delve into any of the highly successful programs in the United States, you’ll find a strong concert band program at the root of their success, too. It’s in a concert band that we learn the fundamentals of playing and music making, both from the standpoint of the performer’s involvement as a mechanical artist and also as an intrinsic part of something larger, as a part of the ensemble.

Unfortunately, what happens with many of the top-tier groups is when those skills are transferred to the outside performance groups, like marching band, then the marching band becomes the only group that the community, the school, and other folks focus on. Many programs build an identity based on their marching band and that can be used in a very positive way to promote the program, because it’s so visible. But at the root of most strong programs, including ours, you’re going to find a strong and deep concert band program. You must constantly make the public aware that, besides marching band, there is another aspect to your program that exists and also excels.

 

SBO: How has the concert program evolved over the past decade?

GH: When I came here there were three concert bands, and there still are. From that concert band program we have spawned a number of extracurricular groups. We have multiple brass choirs and woodwind choirs. We have a standing saxophone orchestra _ the only one in our state _ and you’d be hard pressed to find many similar high school ensembles in the country with full instrumentation. We also have a clarinet choir, smaller woodwind quintets, brass quintets, and so on.

The jazz program was just hit-and-miss when I started. We now have multiple jazz bands and percussion ensembles. So we’ve really stressed the importance of those chamber-style groups because that’s where the individuals are able to take those important skill sets which they have learned in their large ensembles and apply them within a chamber setting.

 

SBO: Tell me about the standing sax orchestra. How did that come about?

GH: My assistant, Michael Warner, is a woodwind specialist. Mike started it as an afterschool project. It has grown to the point that now it utilizes not only the saxophones from our top wind ensemble, but there are also saxophone players from each of the various levels of the program – freshmen through seniors – participating in that group. They have played numerous times in a solo & ensemble context. They have played at our state convention. They were featured in one of the national saxophone association conventions at ASU a couple years ago. They’re also playing at the North American Saxophone Alliance conference, which is going to be up at Northern Arizona University later this spring. It’s become a wonderful exploration for our students.

 

SBO: How would you characterize what those opportunities add to the program?

GH: The right hand takes care of the left hand. The kids are able to utilize a number of their skill sets from their concert band experience in the small groups, and they’re also able to take skills that they learn in the chamber aspect and bring them back to the larger group. It’s really a win-win situation.

 

SBO: What were the challenges you faced associated with setting up those kinds of ensembles?

GH: Time. There’s a time commitment on both sides, both from the instructor and from the ensemble members. Right now, both the sax orchestra and our woodwind choir are prepping for the Midwest Clinic, where they’re going to be playing in December. So that is the biggest challenge – finding the time and making it worthwhile so that, again, there’s buy-in from the kids. They have to want to practice the literature, as opposed to learning it there in the rehearsal setting, so the activity for them is just much more enjoyable and they’re not chasing their tail as much.

 

SBO: Have you found it hard to find appropriate literature?

Mike Warner and the Mountain Ridge Saxophone Orchestra.

GH: Both Mike and I arrange: he does arranging for the sax choir; I’ve done arranging for the woodwind choir. One of the most exciting aspects of the Midwest performance is that it has forced us to explore the available literature a little bit more, especially in the saxophone area. We have become very aware of the contributions from the Japanese music community, and more and more of that repertoire is now available here in the United States. So we’ve made some connections that we didn’t have before, and that has been very worthwhile.

 

SBO: For somebody who is interested in getting the ball rolling on something like this for their students, what would you recommend?

GH:  If there’s anything that’s new in a particular area, it’s important for the kids to be able to have access to either recorded or, better yet, live performances by these kinds of groups. You can try to sell something until you’re blue in the face, but in music, when kids can see something new, especially if they see other kids doing those kinds of things, that’s when they say, “Boy, I’d really like to try that.” I think that’s a very healthy way to introduce something that may be completely foreign to someone.

 

SBO: On the topic of “selling” something, as you mentioned, what’s your approach to motivating those students who might be more into the concert element than the field show for the marching band?

GH: That’s an excellent question, [laughs] and I wish I had the definitive answer for that but I don’t. I’ve been teaching long enough that I have worked in programs where it has been a volunteer marching organization, and in programs where everyone is required to participate. It was a mandatory activity when I came here to Mountain Ridge, and I felt comfortable enough with it that I didn’t change it. My selling points, primarily to the parents because the kids won’t get this right away, are to focus on both the social and musical aspects.

You could write volumes about the positive attributes of being involved in a large-group high school activity, especially a band situation, where you usually start before the beginning of the school year. The marching activity provides those incoming freshmen and new kids a chance to cross that social barrier well before the school year starts, so that by the time the school year starts, those barriers don’t exist.

Many of them, after they have gone through that period, say, “Yeah, that was so nice, to come to school the first day and I knew so many people, and I wasn’t a nervous wreck like some of my other friends were.”

As for the musical side, it’s one of the few opportunities that kids will have where a freshman could be marching right next to an all-state player. The learning that takes place both directly and indirectly from that kind of association is invaluable. Not only do they see extremely positive behavior role modeling taking place, they also see it happening musically. So that’s another situation where everyone benefits.

 

SBO: Speaking of older and younger students working together, do you have an active student leadership hierarchy in place?

GH: Most definitely. If your older students have been trained correctly, and if they are supported in an appropriate fashion, they almost become secondary teachers. Every year we host a leadership conference at our school, and this past year we had more than 300 students in attendance.

It can be a real positive for your program. On one side, you have the kids that are receiving the help from the older kids, but it’s also a way for the older kids who have gone through the program since they were freshmen to have an opportunity to have some say in things. And of course for those kids who are toying with the possibility of a career in music, and especially kids that have some desire to become music educators, it’s a wonderful way to dip your foot in the pool, so to speak.

 

SBO: You’ve been at this for more than 40 years. How has the profession changed over that time?

GH: I don’t think a whole lot has changed over the course of the years. I think that we have gone through some cycles, just like we do with anything in life. I lived through the marching band epidemic that took place in the ‘70s and ‘80s – and I say that in a nice way – back when that was what everyone did and that’s all they did, except for the really smart people who figured out that there was more to life than just marching band. There have been more changes in the area of education, and everyone’s perception of education and teachers, than there has been in the music education area in particular. A good concert band (or a good marching band or a good jazz band) still sounds exactly the way that they used to years ago.

Kids today have many more resources than they used to. Obviously, we’ve seen the whole advent of technology and the wonders that does in terms of providing access for kids to hear and see great performances. There’s just so much that you can learn that doesn’t have to be necessarily human-to-human in real time; it can be human-to-human in technological time. So it’s been quite exciting to see that whole thing take shape.

 

SBO: Where do you see music education going?

GH: I’m not sure. I hope that we, as both teaching professionals and most definitely as consumers, don’t allow the unique magic of live performance to disappear in any form. I’m not going to preach about symphony orchestras, even though that’s my particular background, along with concert band and jazz band, as live music. There’s nothing quite like being involved in live music on both sides, as a performer and as a listening participant.

 

SBO: Yeah, for sure. What keeps you going after all this time in the band room?

GH: Two things: the kids, and my passion for music. When you get to a certain age, it’s really easy to become bitter about things. For the most part, I don’t let the other education things that are happening right now get in my way of making music with kids, because that’s still the utmost priority to me. So every morning I wake up and I’m excited to get up and work with kids. There is no price tag that can be placed on that moment when the connection is made and you witness that special twinkle come into their eyes because they’ve either done something very well or they’ve witnessed and been a part of something very special musically. You can’t put a price tag on that.

 

 

Mountain Ridge High School Bands at a Glance

Location: 22800 N. 67th Ave, Glendale, Arizona

On the web: MRHSBand.net

Students in school: 2,217

Students in band program: 181

Performing ensembles:

  • Marching Band (181)
  • Wind Ensemble (48)
  • Symphonic Winds (41)
  • Symphonic Band (49)
  • Percussion Ensemble (14)

 

 

RECENT PROGRAM HIGHLIGHTS

2013-2014

  • Midwest International Band & Orchestra Clinic featured ensembles
  • Superior or Superior w/Distinction Ratings (Concert/Jazz/Marching)
  • Heritage Festival Gold Rating (Concert/Jazz)
  • Arizona Wind Symphony Solo/Ensemble Competition – second place (Sax Septet)
  • ABODA Program of Distinction Award (only AZ Band)
  • Performance, Arizona Music Educators Association Convention (Saxophone Orchestra)
     

2012-2013

  • Superior or Superior w/Distinction Ratings (Concert/Jazz/Marching)
  • Heritage Festival Gold Rating (Concert/Jazz)
  • Arizona Wind Symphony Solo/Ensemble Competition – second place (Woodwind Quintet)
  • Performance, Arizona Music Educators Association Convention (Wind Ensemble)
     

2011-2012

  • Superior or Superior w/Distinction Ratings (Concert/Jazz/Marching)
  • Arizona Wind Symphony Solo/Ensemble Competition – second place (Clarinet Choir)
  • Pride of the West Marching Band Pearl Harbor 70th Anniversary

 

 

 

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