Like music to his ears – Band director covers 2 schools, 6 grades
As a teacher, Rob Merritt is in a unique position.
Unlike most educators who teach students for a year, maybe two, before advancing them, Merritt follows his students from sixth grade through high school, watching them progress and grow. They often take the skills he has given them to the college level and beyond.
Merritt is band director for Glenwood Springs Middle and High schools.
“It’s kind of a multi-multi-tasking challenge to be able to meet the needs of all my students,” he said.
Merritt first blew into the brassy mouthpiece of a trumpet at age 6. He surprised everyone by actually producing noise.
“It came very naturally to me,” he said. “Very early on I knew this was going to be a very important part of my life.”
By third grade, Merritt was playing at the junior high level. By sixth grade he was tapping tunes at the high school level. “I got an early start, and I kind of enjoyed playing and practicing,” he said.
Merritt attended the University of Oklahoma with the goal of earning an engineering degree, but decided he missed music. He graduated in 1968 with a music degree. He then worked as a graduate assistant while earning his master’s degree at the University of Denver, where he met his wife, Jeanette Darnauer.
His first teaching job was at Maryland State College, a small black school. “I might still be there had I not been called by the military,” said Merritt, who received ROTC training in college. He spent two years in the Signal Corps at Fort Gordon, Ga., and Fort Lewis in Washington.
He returned to Colorado in 1970 and taught at Alamosa for two years before returning to college. In 1976, he accepted a teaching position at Aspen High School, replacing long-time music director Bill McEachern.
In 1979, the Aspen School District had a reduction in force. With only a three-year tenure, he was cut.
“I wanted to stay in the valley, but was a little disillusioned about teaching,” said Merritt. So he became a deputy with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Department. In his six or seven years with the department and with the Snowmass Village P.D., he worked his way up to patrol supervisor. He also worked one winter on the Buttermilk Ski Patrol.
One day at Snowmass Village, he got a phone call from Glenwood Springs High School principal Mike Wells, inviting him to come look at the school’s music program.
“I’d been anticipating a return to teaching,” said Merritt, who had kept all his credentials current. He lived in Aspen, but decided that getting back into music would be worth the commute.
Merritt signed on as band director for the middle and high schools at the start of the 1989-90 school year. Things were a bit different then, he said. The program was small – about 30 students in high school band at the start of the year and 15 in middle school – and the middle and high schools were located back-to-back.
Band student numbers quickly climbed, nearly doubling in Merritt’s first year.
By the 1994-95 school year, he had built up award-winning bands that received “superior” ratings, the highest possible, at regional competitions and earned a trophy for “meritorious performance” (no pun intended) at the state level.
Back then, beginning band started at the fifth-grade level. When the middle school moved to West Glenwood and fifth grade was shifted to the elementary schools, logistics and costs made it impossible to start students at the fifth-grade level. Even so, the number of beginning band students continued to rise.
In 1995, Merritt, who still lived in Aspen, returned there to teach. But, he said, he and the district had different goals and objectives. Dean Pelz had taken over as band director in Glenwood Springs, and was stricken with cancer. By the time Pelz resigned for health reasons in 1998, Merritt was anxious to return.
“Dean kept the program alive and thriving at the high school level for sure,” he said. But once again, Merritt had to go back to the middle school students and begin building his band empire. “I have visions of getting back to the 1994-95 level. That takes about six years.”
One key ingredient to the program’s success, he said, is that students want to be in band and want to improve.
To keep their interest, Merritt offers a variety of musical opportunities. This school year he established a high school jazz band. A wind ensemble offers challenges for the more serious and advanced students. Middle school students can perform with the after-school jazz band.
While the opportunities seem endless, funding is always a factor, said Merritt. Most students purchase their own instruments, but high costs and large size make owning some instruments, like the French horn or the tuba, prohibitive. The school owns several of those instruments, but they need repair or replacement if those instruments are to be included in the band.
Merritt would also love to outfit his students with uniforms, but at $300 per uniform for 100 students, or $30,000, that’s out of the question right now, he said. The high school bands have tuxedos for the guys and matching outfits for the gals, but even those need to be replaced.
“It’s an ongoing struggle to come up with the finances needed to run the program,” he said.
Merritt said support from parents and the community has been tremendous. Ed Wilson, owner of Roaring Fork Music in Glenwood Springs, keeps students supplied with instruments and helps keep those instruments in good repair. Jazz Aspen and musicians Chris Bank and Tim Fox help keep the jazz band program in tune. And parents like Carrie Melby work to publish newsletters and help with fund-raising events, which provide about half the program’s budget.
The Re-1 board of education has been very supportive, said Merritt, but there’s only so much money to go around. Since he started teaching in the district, funding for band programs has decreased while student participation has increased. If he needs money for a French horn and the social studies department needs new textbooks, it’s obvious where the money will go. “That’s understandable,” he added.
While music and other arts aren’t included in state educational standards, the district is one of only a few in Colorado that have created their own standards for grades K-12, said Merritt. That shows that the board understands the value of music in education, he said.
“I really love teaching here, I love the community, I love the kids here,” said Merritt. While the program’s success ebbs and flows, for now, it’s on the upswing. He anticipates more than 100 students in high school alone next year. “I’m glad to offer what we do,” said Merritt, who admits that his job takes an incredible amount of patience. He invites parents to drop in and observe classes any time and to help with fund-raisers.
Merritt said he has no grand expectations that all his students will move on to greater musical accomplishments. Still, many have gone on to college and have been awarded scholarships, and a smattering have gone on to be professional musicians and teachers.
If nothing else, he would like to see his students go on to perform in community bands and orchestras and have an appreciation for a variety of music.
Practicing what he preaches, Merritt performs with Bill Parish’s Power Company band, with the Aspen Community Orchestra, and at weddings and other social events. “I get up and play with the kids once in a while,” he added. “Sometimes, even when they don’t want me to, I’ll play just for the heck of it.”
Merritt is also learning to play guitar in anticipation of a high school acoustic guitar class to be offered next year. “I just find it very zen, very relaxing. … Much more so than playing my trumpet.”
While the job can be frustrating, Merritt said he won’t quit until retirement. “It’s important for kids to be exposed to music and self-expression and the satisfaction you gain from them,” he waxed philosophically. As with sports, “For a lot of kids, the arts are the reason they stay in school.”
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