School Music: The Biggest Bands on Earth

Playing in the Pep Band circa 1974

Tim Van Schmidt | New SCENE


Over the years, a number of people have given their record collections to me. They’re usually downsizing, moving, or just plain getting rid of stuff — and I find piles of old stuff interesting.

Recently, I finally got around to listening to an unusual record I received in one such pile — a five-piece mini-LP recorded by the 1963-64 Fort Collins High School Symphonic Band. Under the direction of conductor Curtis Johnson, the record is an example of just how successful school music programs can be.

My high school marching band circa 1973

Forget that description — “school music programs” — for a moment. When I listened to this record, featuring compositions by DeNardis, Bach, Nelson, Reed, and Seitz, I was struck by just how successful these MUSICIANS had been. The sounds they made prompted me to listen to and enjoy what they were doing. These weren’t just students, they were artists.

What did I like about it? Through the twists and turns in the music, the changes in dynamics, and the blending of a lot of instrumental voices, I think this band really knew the music. I could hear a genuine attachment to it. 

This takes more than just learning how to play an instrument in school. It takes more than just playing the right notes on the sheets of music. What it takes is a group vision of creating something fine and the FCHS Symphonic Band of 1963-64 had it.

1963-64 FCHS Symphonic Band record release

My first experiences with music in the schools, back in my hometown in Illinois, were not quite so successful.

The day came around when the beginning music teachers first asked us to pick an instrument — besides the “flute-o-phone”, that is. I had just watched Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on TV and wanted to play the marimba. But the school had only one marimba and they gave it to another student.

Next, I asked to play drums, but, as you might expect, many of the other little boys (and girls) in my school wanted to play drums, so I didn’t make that list either.

Interestingly enough, many years later, when I was visiting my grandmother, the next door neighbor lady came to visit and it turned out the girl who got the marimba instead of me was her granddaughter. She informed me that her granddaughter went on to be “state champ” with her instrument.

I guess the school made the right choice.

It took a move to Phoenix, Arizona to get me back into music at school. One day, I found myself going to school with a trombone in hand and was placed in the beginning band. From then on, I played in the bands in all of the schools I attended.

In elementary school in Phoenix, I played in the “B” and “A” bands and got my first taste of performing on a stage. In high school in California, I joined the marching band, which was also a concert band in the spring season. This was also the case when I finished up high school in Washington State.

These experiences were just great. It was an extra social scene for us, we got out of PE, we got to travel, and we got to play music together. There was a special bond among band members that made it exciting — and sometimes the music really rocked.

Once I graduated from high school, though, I put down the trombone and kind of got lost in guitars and rock and roll

My interest in school music programs was revived when my daughter was going to Lincoln Junior High here in Fort Collins. She was in the starter band and I attended one of their programs.

I was shocked when they successfully played Holst’s composition, “Mars”. I was impressed enough to write to the band director to congratulate him and the band on attempting such a dynamic piece. To my daughter’s chagrin, the director read the letter out loud to the band.

Also, I just loved hearing and seeing the CSU Ram Band perform at more than a decade of football games, underscoring that school music programs don’t just end with high school. Over and over again, I watched the Ram Band stoke up the people in the stands and then fully take over the field at halftime for big-time entertainment.

CSU Ram Band helps debut the new stadium 2017 (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

One of the grandest days of all was Band Day, when CSU hosted high school bands from around the region in one big gathering. On one occasion, I watched as the entire football field filled with bands, and I wondered if I might be seeing the biggest band in the world at that moment — I estimated there were some 500 musicians on the field playing together.

Here’s the thing — they are all big bands; truly, the biggest bands on earth in terms of really giving kids the opportunity to enjoy success with music.

Of course, today’s music programs have so much more to offer. At FCHS today, for example, the music program boasts orchestras, bands, and choirs. But more, they also offer courses in “unified music, music technology, AP and beginning music theory, beginning and advanced guitar and piano, and history of rock and pop”. Fantastic!

Finding that FCHS record from so long ago was such a powerful reminder of an important part of my life. It also sounded great.

It was a recording that was reaching out to me over a span of 59 years with a message: support school music programs.

Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. Check out his YouTube channel at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt”.


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