1 Where the Music Starts

talented teachers, wide participation foster a quality music education system in the valley

by Eric Rasmussen / photos by Kelsey Smith

The Chippewa Valley has a rich musical history, with a lot of people in place who are working harder than ever to maintain those traditions.

Understanding a music education system that has produced locally and nationally notable musicians for decades, that encompasses public schools, private instruction, and nonprofit organizations, and that enjoys broad community support is an incredibly complicated task. Identifying what elements established the quality of music education in the Chippewa Valley might be all but impossible. So is predicting the effects of emaciated public school budgets versus increased civic engagement in music.

Or maybe it’s not.

Maybe it all comes back to one guy, Donald “Sarge” Boyd, who directed the Eau Claire High School band from 1929 to 1963, and who took over the Eau Claire municipal band in 1934. According to local lore, he carried a yardstick during marching band practice, and whoever fell out of step received a sharp swat to the back of the knees. Maybe a legendary educator who was committed to excellence in his students created a whole generation of high-quality musicians, which taught the next generation, and which developed a reputation that attracted other gifted educators.

Giving Sarge credit for the entire music education system oversimplifies history and ignores a lengthy list of educators and musicians who have established Eau Claire’s stature as a destination for music instructors and students. But Sarge is at the center of a theme that describes the training of young musicians in this area better than any other. As stated by Eric Dasher, current director of Memorial High School’s band program and the Chippewa Valley Youth Symphony, “Success breeds success.” And it has been in the Chippewa Valley for generations.

One measure of that success is participation in our music education programs. According to Dasher, “When I went to the Macy’s Parade, all the chaperones were band directors, and the biggest question from everybody was ‘How big is your program?’ Most of the answers were from 150 to 225. When I said I have 330 kids, with another 120 in jazz, their jaws dropped. The participation here is huge.” Rae Schilling, one of the owners of the Eau Claire Music School, agrees. “There is a higher demand for music lessons here than in other similarly sized communities,” Schilling says. “Our enrollment has doubled since ECMS started and is poised to double again.” While that level of interest is nice, it wouldn’t be notable if it didn’t crescendo into some level of achievement. Our students have that covered, too. UW-Eau Claire’s jazz program is often awarded and widely renowned for its quality, the bands at North and Memorial high schools frequently win national honors, and individual students regularly earn scholarships and other recognitions for their musical talents. While plaques and certificates are nice – and trips to New York for the Essentially Ellington festival or the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade are even nicer – Dennis Luginbill, DeLong Middle School band director and longtime participant in Eau Claire music education, cites a measure of success that is simpler and perhaps more profound than anything else: Our community values our student musicians. “Just look at the visibility of our bands, like at the Memorial Day Parade,” he says. “It’s important to have events like that, that make students’ music experience in school meaningful.”

Even if Chippewa Valley musicians and fans are enjoying the output of some complex and inexplicable feedback loop, identifying the contributing factors is critical to maintaining that cycle for the future. The first factor is the simplest, according to Shawn Smets, former director of the Eau Claire Music School: “Parental involvement is highly influential in promoting student success, and I don’t see any changes coming in that proven truth of parenting.” The next major factor is the community. “Think of all the places you can go to see music: Acoustic CafĂ©, Phoenix Park, Owen Park, Stone’s Throw, the Children’s Theatre,” says Dasher. Then, young students need role models, and we now have plenty of locals and former locals making livings from music. Also, as Luginbill points out, several environmental and cultural factors also make big contributions. “The weather can be a unifying factor,” he says, “and there’s a work ethic, a sense of delayed gratification, that’s still in place.”

The Chippewa Valley would be a very different place, at least musically, without any of these elements, but there is consensus that one factor is the most important. As Smets puts it, “Integral to this system and its success is that here in the Chippewa Valley it has been our privilege to enjoy a considerable number of deeply committed, highly gifted music educators.” The names come quickly off the tongues of anyone discussing music education in the area, and they are referred to like old friends. “Sarge” Boyd, Marv Kuehn, John Mills, Howard Lehman, Bruce Herring, Steve Wells, Peter Haberman, Bob Baca, Nobuyoshi Yasuda, Ivar Lunde Jr., and many more are all musicians, directors, and educators who have worked with thousands of students apiece and have built a reputable music education system in Eau Claire, lesson by lesson, period by period, and performance by performance.

This biggest piece of the puzzle is also the one most in jeopardy: State politics has local ramifications, one of which is that Wisconsin is having a harder time retaining talent. Luginbill explains: “The problem with the university in town is that they don’t pay very competitively. The jobs are attracting fewer applicants.” The Chippewa Valley has a rich musical history, with a lot of people in place who are working harder than ever to maintain those traditions. But, Dasher states, “I’ve never been more worried about it all. We’re hitting a point very soon where we have to start cutting bands. Then all of a sudden everything is in danger. Then it’s not inclusive any more.”

For now, though, Eau Claire is still a destination for music, music students, and music educators. Many bright spots remain. Susan Ayres, elementary curriculum coordinator for the Eau Claire Area School District, points out that elementary schools in Eau Claire recently eliminated traveling positions, so each school has its own music teacher and more students are spending more time in music class. Schilling of the Eau Claire Music School says, “We think that the current momentum will continue, especially with the cross-fertilization between the schools, university, Volume One, the growing number of summer music festivals, and local business community.” The lesson rooms are packed, and the school bands are full. If all those kids keep practicing, the success will continue.

2 Kids Are Into It

inspiring children toward a love of music through an award-winning kids music scene

by Rob Reid / photo by Kelsey Smith

“Spoonman” performs at Altoona's library.

Bruce O’Brien won a Parents’ Choice Award for his recording Love Is in the Middle, featuring the song “Owl Moon,” done in collaboration with national Caldecott-winning (for best illustrated children’s book) author Jane Yolen. Bruce’s recording can be found at local libraries.

Colleen and Uncle Squaty, a.k.a. Colleen Hannafin and Brian Schellinger, have won four Parents’ Choice Awards for their recordings 1,2,3 Four-Ever Friends; Rumble to the Bottom; Sing-a-Move-a-Dance; and Shake It Down, Turn-Around. Their newest album, out later this summer and is called Sing-a-Move-a-Dance at The Three ‘R’ Ranch. Colleen explains that the “three Rs” are rhythm, rhyme, and repetition, the duo’s hallmark talents when working with young children.

Indeed, aside from school music programs and the occasional children’s musical put on by local theater groups, the local public libraries are a family’s best bets for hearing live and recorded children’s music.

Shelly Collins-Fuerbringer and Ashley Bieber of the children’s department at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire make sure that a professional children’s musician gets on the library’s summer program calendar annually. Shelly says that music, more than any other type of children’s performance, captivates the crowd and gets them involved. Ashley agreed and noticed that during the library’s own story time programs, music pulls the kids back in if they start getting a little squirrely.

Eau Claire’s library has hosted several prominent children’s musicians over the years, including Jim Gill, The Teddy Bear Band, The Okee Dokee Brothers, Pint Size Polka, Stuart Stotts, Tom Pease, Bruce O’Brien, and Colleen and Uncle Squaty.

All of the children’s staff members who conduct the story programs incorporate some music to go along with the books and finger plays. Ashley often sings the song “Hello Neighbor” by Dr. Jean to open her programs.

“It’s engaging, loud, and long,” she says, “and latecomers often join right in the moment they walk through the doors.”

The children’s department’s staff puts together a setlist of children’s recorded songs to play during each eight-week story program series. The kids get to know the songs and a few weeks into the series will often shout out, “Hey, I know that song.” The parents themselves ask the staff about the songs which leads to a great opportunity to showcase the library’s children’s recorded music collection.

One final note (pun intended) about music at the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library: Musical instruments are in rotation for the children’s department’s Play and Learn area. Many kids will grab an instrument or microphone and do a little performance. Shelly states that even the shyest kids get on stage and belt it out. She does admit that she and her staff do get a little weary of hearing “Let It Go” sung dozens and dozens of times, hence the rotating schedule. But overall, music and libraries go as well together as books and libraries.

3 Finding a Rhythm

UWEC jazz program reaches legendary status on strength of ensembles, festival

by Tyler Jennings Henderson / photo by Zach Oliphant

Robert Baca, the conductor of UW-Eau Claire’s jazz ensembles, greets the crowd before a Jazz I performance.

“It creates a certain kind of emotion. And that’s why people like listening to these bands.”

Robert Baca director of Jazz Studies, UWEC

“It creates a certain kind of emotion,” Baca said. “And that’s why people like listening to these bands.”

The top jazz band at the university, “Jazz 1” and its members have been nationally recognized on many occasions: They’ve garnered six Downbeat Awards for best college big band, “countless” DownBeat awards for individual students, and two Grammy nods. Baca says the band has been invited to play at “every national venue educational groups are invited to play on.”

The jazz program is one part of a successful and sizable music department: With 257 majors last fall, UWEC had the third largest music department in the UW System behind Madison and Milwaukee, said department chairman and professor Alan Rieck.

In the 1970s, the department was at a peak. Thanks to a supportive chancellor and encouraging culture, it reached more than 500 majors. Baca attributes that to former trumpet professor, Dominic Spera.

“Mr. Spera was not the one to start the program,” Baca said. “But just as in jazz, Louis Armstrong didn’t start jazz, but Armstrong brought it into the limelight where it became a staple of American culture. And I think Dominic Spera did that for this program.”

Baca said the program hit rock bottom in 1984, when four jazz ensembles deteriorated into one-and-a-half big bands. Participation was down in the music department due to a concerted effort to cut numbers. But help came in the form of Baca, who joined the music staff in 1986. “Anytime there’s a new instructor, there’s a change in culture,” he said. “So it just took a little while for our new culture to take over.”

Since that time, the program has reached new heights, regularly having three to five ensembles each year. The 1990s and 2000s were the best times for the ensemble, which was nominated for Grammys in 1997 and 2001. But Baca doesn’t believe the talent has dropped off since then. “It all depends, quite frankly, on one or two musicians in the band,” he said. “I guess my biggest job is to get the band to believe. There have been outstanding musicians that come out of (the program) … but all 18 have to believe.”

What makes this ensemble different from other college big bands could be a number of things, but the Eau Claire Jazz Festival has something to do with it. Since 1967, the popular event has been drawing high schoolers, guest artists, and jazz enthusiasts to Eau Claire to embrace the genre through competition and performance.

The festivities have expanded, with high school attendance reaching an all-time high last spring. More than 2,000 students performed in 122 jazz ensembles during the 2015 jazz festival, and Baca sees the figures continuing to go up: “There are opportunities for much larger growth.”

But the program amounts to more than numbers. A tried-and-true approach to jazz has turned a small college into one of the top jazz universities in the world.

“A component that we have that’s very rare is that the faculty thinks about the students as human beings, and not just based on their musical content,” Baca said. “We produce holistic, confident human beings … not just musicians.”

4 Group Harmony

diversifying the scene with choral groups and music clubs

by Mike Seitz / photo by Nick Meyer

Choral Groups

Performing with a choir is often only an opportunity people get while in school. However, Eau Claire is home to a several choirs open to community members, such as the Eau Claire Male Chorus – which, having been founded in 1946, is the region’s longest-running performing arts group – and the Master Singers. The latter choir, now in its 23rd season, was created by Gary Schwartzhoff of UW-Eau Claire and is still directed by him. “I began this choir to offer the opportunity to people, after they’ve graduated from college, to still sing in a quality choral ensemble,” he said. (There are a few spots open on the choir, so contact Schwartzhoff through www.themastersingers.net if you’re interested.)

Groups such as the Master Singers put on concerts for the community, often in collaboration with other groups such as the Eau Claire Chamber Orchestra. However, their reach stretches beyond the Chippewa Valley. The Master Singers perform on the national level and sometimes travel abroad. Next April, they perform at their largest venue ever: the Four Freedoms Choral Festival in Washington, D.C, an event inspired by the four freedoms outlined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 inaugural address.

Music Clubs

Learning how to play an instrument can be intimidating, but it’s something many people strive for. Local clubs that help musicians master their instruments are also part of our music scene. The Ukulele Klub of Eau Claire is one such group, and club founder Gordy Bischoff loves that this can be a group for people of all levels. “This is a pathway back to music for some people,” Gordy told me.

Group members range from those who have never played a ukulele to seasoned veterans of the instrument, and new members are always welcome. In this way, the group has really reached to the community and given folks a chance to play music while having a lot of fun doing it. Since the ukulele isn’t an intimidating instrument, it’s a great way for people to get into the scene. “It shows you don’t have to be an amazing musician and still offers a satisfying experience,” Gordy said.

Music clubs often perform for the community as well, and U.K.E.’s performances are often tied with community fundraisers. However, as Gordy put it, “If it were a band, I wouldn’t see it as a community thing.” While bands are made up of community members and often play for the community, groups like U.K.E. (www.ukewis.com) are different. Music clubs include a wide variety of people and form a real sense of community.


5 Every Good Boy Does Fine

piano lessons aren’t as odious as emptying the garbage

by Eric Rasmussen

I took piano lessons the old fashioned way, in my teacher's dim basement. With sheet music tucked under my arm I biked to her house, then let myself in through her garage door. I sat on a floral couch in the unofficial waiting area farther down the wood-paneled room while the kid before me finished up. It was my teacher’s personal space, with a bar and family photos, and I felt like I was trespassing until my turn to sit at the piano arrived. Our lessons were a flight of mnemonic devices for remembering notes and “One-ee-and-ahs” until the music was so familiar that I can sit down, 20 years later, at any piano anywhere and play “The Pink Panther Theme,” or “Linus and Lucy,” or, if you give me a minute, Chopin’s Prelude in E Minor.

My son’s lessons look a little different. While I was convinced I was the only unfortunate child forced to bear the agony of piano lessons on beautiful summer days, Gordon takes lessons in an old dentist’s office, where he is joined by kids of all ages popping in and out of converted exam rooms for instruction in all sorts of instruments. The building throbs with a constant symphony of growth and learning, violins from one end of the hall, piano and guitar from the other, and in the middle, an earnest young girl whose weekly progress on Annie’s “Tomorrow” is as measured as a staff on a page.

My piano teacher certainly looked the part. She was a middle-aged woman back then, with big glasses and conservative clothes, with impeccable posture and pristine handwriting that still decorates the piano music Gordon now uses. His teacher is not Mr. or Mrs. anything, it’s just Paul, and before Gordon started taking lessons, he and I visited YouTube to watch footage of his new teacher play in several of his different bands.

I liked my piano teacher, she did a fabulous job teaching me the piano, but, man, I wish I had Paul for a teacher. Sometimes he and Gordon jam for part of the lesson, or through the door I hear Paul pull out his guitar to accompany Gordon’s hesitant, one-handed, novice songs.

Of course, Gordon is as unexcited for piano lessons as I was. On the ride there, he often explains that he has a hard time deciding which is his least favorite day of the week, Sunday — because we make him collect all the garbage, unload the dishwasher, and take a shower — or Tuesday, because we make him go to piano lessons.

For now, he just needs to trust me that progress will occur until one day it will all have been worth it. and absent that trust, he still has to do what I say, at least for a few more years.

I accuse him of being overdramatic and comment that what he actually needs is acting lessons, but I understand. At his age, the pride inspired by playing a piece well never compensates for the frustration of learning new songs and watching his fingers refuse to cooperate and fail to produce the sounds he expects. The parts of his brain that handle those connections have yet to develop. For now he just needs to trust me that progress will occur until one day it will all have been worth it. And absent that trust, he still has to do what I say, at least for a few more years.

This past spring Gordon participated in the first concert of his life. When the recital sign-up sheet went up earlier in the year, he declined because he felt he was too young and too nervous, but then he changed his mind. Perhaps one of those brain synapses sprang into existence on some random late winter day, or maybe Paul was more persuasive than me.

On the day of the performance, Gordon was nervous and antsy all morning. While we waited for the program to start, he couldn’t sit still and bounced around the school’s little theater until I threatened to rescind my offer to go out for pizza after the show finished. The rows of chairs filled with the other students, some accompanied by several degrees of relatives, others by just Mom and Dad. The performers were of all different ages, playing all different instruments.

When it was my son’s turn, he walked fast to the front of the room and rushed to introduce himself and played his song, which required both hands, just about flawlessly. His smile and bow told me that he knew he had done well, and he noticed that his was one of the harder songs in the recital, even though several of the other kids were older than him.

He is still a long ways from grasping the idea of hard work as investment, or recognizing the unnoticeable, glacial progress that will accompany his lessons as long as I make him go. But his apparent pride as he sat back down must have made his piano lesson Tuesdays better than his Sundays, at least for a little while.

His performance is on YouTube now. Maybe someday his students, or his fans, will look him up, and maybe they will get excited about learning the piano, too.

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