Brandon Loomis is city editor of the Juneau Empire.
Popular culture tells us that high school band members are socially awkward, regaling us with tales of "this one time, at band camp ... ." It's a pervasive joke in a country that values individual and athletic achievement so highly. I've even called myself a band geek in this column.
Not now. Not this weekend. This is Southeast Alaska Music Festival week, and it is unquestionably the coolest thing that happens all school year around here.
Six hundred high schoolers from Skagway and Metlakatla and most places in between descend on one Southeast school each spring in a mega-concert unlike any other. Numerous quirks of our isolated experience have joined with what may be an unusual rural appreciation for fine arts and, somewhere along the line, passionate music teachers who started a tradition that made Southeast's classical music a point of pride for students of all cliques.
Who would expect young teens to make their fingers, tongues, lungs, brains and "feeling" keep pace with Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro?" I still can't believe we did that. I'm living proof that music education's influence on mathematical smarts is overrated, but damn, we licked Mozart. Juneau-Douglas High School will sound good this weekend.
I called my former Ketchikan High School band teacher looking for affirmation: This thing is special, right? It's not just me.
Randy Bjur retired from Kayhi last year and moved south, where he found a Washington state high school in need and was coaxed from retirement. No disrespect to Washington, but Southeast Alaska was on Randy's mind Thursday.
"I'm feeling a little withdrawal," he said. He knew the festival was afoot. "I'm probably going to call (Kayhi chorus teacher) Jerry Hughes tonight, and I'll call him tomorrow, and I'll call him Sunday to see how the kids are doing."
It isn't just that he formed an attachment in 21 years on the job, though there certainly is that. (I dropped by to see him during my move here and he spoke of Southeast as "God's country)." What he really missed was the unique throng of hundreds of young musicians wedged into one school and one little town for days at a time just because they wanted to learn from each other. His fondest memory is of a little ensemble from Kake that played beautifully at music fest even though they had no regular music teacher. Everyone always comes to music fest eager to learn and to outdo themselves.
Juneau-Douglas High School band director Ken Guiher was pleased with Thursday's start. Two Juneau-Douglas musicians already had earned command performances. He didn't want to gloat, but when pushed he agreed that Southeast Alaska has unusual talent for the population. "It's just real interesting to see how well these directors are doing, and they don't have too many kids to work with."
And the kids thrive on the competition, right?
"To a point," Guiher said. "But not so much. They just like to share."
One thing that Bjur considers rare nationwide is students' initiative to learn who's got the expertise and go ask for it. He recalls students from all over Southeast asking his advice with trombone, his specialty.
"I have never encountered an event like that that was more about real music education," he said. "It's unique."
Part of what he meant was the ratings system on which groups and individuals are judged here. Judges can assign a "superior" or elect instead to provide comments. Bjur thinks that makes for an environment stressing learning over competition.
I reminded him of those times that we, as I recall, got all those superiors while Juneau and Sitka were getting comments. Come on, Randy. We were better.
"Your motivation was always to play better than Juneau," he acknowledged. He meant mine and my classmates' - not his. And he maintained that over the years the system minimized competition. Maybe he's right. Maybe it was just our group, the guys who played Zeppelin - "been a long time since I rock and rolled" - on the boom box while waiting in the dressing room, like Sammy Sosa playing salsa before a ballgame.
But that brings us to the kinds of kids who go into music in Southeast. I suppose I might fit the stereotype, being president of Thespians and all. But we had basketball players, too, and many swim team members, some wrestlers, some runners. Some were straight-A students; others I saw throw fist-size spit wads at blackboards with teachers present. A few who just might have been our school's best musicians smoked a good deal of pot. It didn't matter who you were. You weren't just going to class for an elective credit. You were in it for music fest.
Great school trips are part of growing up here. You don't take a bus to the adjacent school district in the morning and back at night. You take a ferry, sometimes for days. If you're lucky, you take a jet. Either way you're planted in someone else's town, meeting new people, staying in their homes. Bjur thinks that's part of the beauty of the festival. The key to friendship is mutual respect.
OK. So really. We were superior. But Juneau was pretty good.