Classical MPR's Teacher Feature highlights the lives and work of music teachers throughout Minnesota.
Willmar Senior High School
Who or what inspired you to become a music teacher?
I knew music was important from a very young age. My dad was a professional musician for almost 50 years, and he remains the biggest musical influence in my life. However, it was my mom who introduced our family to classical music. The first album purchased for our new stereo, sometime in the '60s, was Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite.
I was about 13 or 14 years old when I first thought about teaching. Our junior high band director, Larry Vogel, organized a trip for our entire band to attend a University of Minnesota indoor marching band concert. We were all blown away by the sound, the energy, the size and the beauty of Northrup Auditorium, but it was Dr. Frank Bencriscutto who made the biggest impression on me that day. He was an amazing musician, composer, arranger and conductor, but more important than all of those, he loved music and he wanted to share that with his students and the audience.
The performance was outstanding and we all talked about it most of the way home, but it was Dr. Ben and our band director who inspired us to set our goals a little higher and to work a little harder to make great music together.
Where did you go to college?
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities [where Mr. Brau played in ensembles directed by Dr. Frank Bencriscutto -- explained in the audio]
What would you say is your primary instrument?
I have always been a trumpet player, but in junior high, I started playing the clarinet and tenor sax. I was a member of the U of M Wind Ensemble on trumpet and in the U of M Jazz 1 on woodwinds. My trumpet teacher, Dr. David Baldwin (another big influence in my life) asked me to focus on trumpet and not to play woodwinds during my senior year, so I did. He was right, it is very difficult to excel when dividing your practice time between several instruments. That said, I continue to play professionally on trumpet and saxophone.
What grade levels and classes do you teach?
I teach band in grades 9 to 12 and Advanced Placement Music Theory to juniors and seniors.
Do you direct any ensembles?
I give small group lessons to ninth graders, conduct the sophomore band, and share lessons and conducting of our top band and pep bands with my colleague, Bryan Mara.
In what ways do you try to encourage your students to appreciate and participate in music?
We try to introduce students to recordings of outstanding musicians on their own instrument or ensemble recordings or links to recordings including their instrument. We also recommend or take students to live performances. We are currently participating in an outreach program with the MacPhail School of Music in Minneapolis where our students receive private and small-group lessons via an interactive tele-media network (kind of like Skype) from MacPhail staff, who are outstanding educators and highly respected professional musicians.
We also use our concert bands to teach music fundamentals, drill scales and scale patterns, rhythms and rhythm patterns, music theory, and good rehearsal and practice techniques. This sounds like work but when everyone can read, rehearsing is a blast!
Probably the most outstanding thing about our music department is that the directors and our schedule encourage students to be members of more than one music ensemble. A majority of our students are in two groups (e.g. band and choir, band and orchestra, or choir and orchestra) and quite a few students are in all three. We often share concerts, and every other year, we tour together with our junior and seniors, having performed in New York; Washington, D.C.; Orlando, Fla.; San Diego, Calif.; and in Hawaii.
Where do you see music education fitting into the broader educational spectrum? How does it help or enhance other curricular areas?
Research has shown positive connections between the study of music and academic achievement. The research is extensive, but I'd rather mention what our students do every day in their music classes: When our student musicians play or sing through a piece of music in rehearsal, we have many successes and failures sometime less than a second apart. The students learn the value of continuing and being persistent even though it sometimes isn't easy or comfortable.
We analyze those successes and failures at an incredible rate of speed while we are playing and try to adjust, always monitoring what 2, 3, 10 or 70 other people are doing as far as rhythm, tempo, pitch, articulation and volume. The musician's brain is analyzing these multiple facets of performance aurally while peripherally watching a conductor and directly looking at their written music, which often changes key, range and style while also moving fingers, hands (feet in the case of a drum set) and / or blowing through a mouthpiece. Students get to feel or project emotion with their instrument individually and collectively, interpret and collaborate with the other students.
Music performance is often described subjectively, but we also work to analyze it objectively for accuracy, which helps us to evaluate, set new goals, and possibly adjust our approach.
The really cool thing is that all of this is mentally invigorating and fun. Our students aren't always wide-awake when they come to rehearsal, but they most often fire up within the first 10 minutes and still have that energy when they leave! Everyone needs some music in his or her life every day!
What's one of the most memorable moments you've had while teaching music?
I've been fortunate to work with many incredible students and colleagues over the last 36 years and there are many highlights. There is one performance that always makes me so proud and it happens each year when we combine our band, choir and orchestra for the finale piece at our last concert. The directors alternate conducting duties, so whether I'm conducting or performing with the ensemble, I always make sure to look at all of the students. You can see in everyone's eyes that music is very special and that it makes a positive and significant impact on all of us.
Do you participate in music outside the classroom?
Yes, my wife and I had a dance band for more than 25 years. We were fortunate to work with outstanding musicians, and we performed for corporate events, community celebrations, college and high school homecoming dances and proms, county fairs, and lots of wedding dances.
In addition, I co-owned a recording studio and now have a smaller recording studio in my basement. I continue to freelance in several recording studios and with a few jazz combos, with big bands, and in churches both in Willmar and in the metro areas.
If you were to help program a day of music at Classical MPR, what is a piece of music you'd play in the morning? What piece of music would you play in the evening? And what is it about these pieces that make them a couple of your favorites?
I would choose Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 for the morning, and in the evening, "Pavane" by Gabriel Fauré.
The Brandenburg Concertos are my favorites because of the limited "exposed" instrumentation and the light, bright, intertwining melodies. It also has piccolo trumpet.
The Fauré is another favorite because of the relaxing, haunting (but not in a scary way), simple, and elegant melody.
Start and end the day in an uncomplicated way and toss in some of Orff's "Carmina Burana" in the afternoon. You just don't need to start most days with a gong!
Listen to Classical MPR in Willmar on KSJR 90.1 FM
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