Interview by Sean Traynor, Assistant Editor, age 13
Steve Kuske is the Director of the Evergreen Marching Band from Evergreen High School in Vancouver, Washington, directly across from Portland, Oregon. With a long tradition of excellent marching bands, Evergreen High School has won more than 250 trophies and awards over the past decade, for both field and parade marching. Some of the most noteworthy performances include the Portland Rose Parade, the premiere parade in the Northwest. Evergreen has won the Sweepstakes Award for this prestigious event each of the last six years. In 2007, the Rose Parade earned the International Festival & Events Association’s “Best Parade in the World” award. Additionally, Evergreen is a six-time Northwest Marching Band Champion and twice has been nominated for the National Sudler Shield Award for Excellence in Marching Band. This exceptional marching band was recently selected as one of a handful of marching bands to perform during the inauguration parade in Washington D.C. Their director, Stephen Kuske, has led this amazing group of kids for 12 years.
In addition to being the Director of Evergreen’s band program, Mr. Kuske has also been instrumental in the music industry as an advocate of music in schools. He has judged numerous competitions including concert band contests and regional marching band competitions. He has had great success in raising bands to high levels in competitions and has motivated many students to surpass their expectations.
AK: Why do you believe students should pursue involvement in a band?
SK: I believe that students should pursue involvement in something that excites them, makes them feel a sense of accomplishment, gives them a peer group that supports their efforts in a positive way, and pushes them beyond their comfort level to produce something that is aesthetically pleasing. I have found that band stimulates students to strive for perfection rather than being “just good enough to get by.” The “team” atmosphere is enhanced by the fact that you need to be 100% correct in band, and when one band member fails, the entire band fails. A performance that is 90% accurate, which would be an “A” grade in most classes, is totally unacceptable in band. If a band has every member missing one out of every ten notes, the audience and the band would definitely notice, and consider the performance to be disappointing.
AK: You’ve had great success in leading your bands to high achievements. What traits do you find necessary to achieve this level of success?
SK: The important things students learn in band are the same things that any worthwhile activity teaches: dedication, perseverance, patience, and a commitment to excellence. The great thing about band is that you get to create something that elicits an aesthetic response. Our goal is to create beauty; Beauty that an audience can interpret and that we as musicians can enjoy while we perform it. I admit that we work students very hard. There are multiple after-school rehearsals and sectionals. Students know that the standard is very high, and I believe that is what attracts them to the program. Students want to know that their hard work will mean something, that they will be rewarded in some way for the time and effort. To some students, it’s an intrinsic knowledge that they are creating something emotionally satisfying. To others, it is being able to play music with their friends. But the common thread is that they want to create something “magical.” Once that potential is unlocked within students, they will work harder to achieve more than they ever thought possible, and success becomes a natural byproduct. People come to our concerts and say “Wow, that band is really talented,” but I measure the success in the internal emotional response of each individual student. That smile from a student when they play something that they judge to be really beautiful is more important than any trophy or pat on the back.
AK: What is your teaching style and why do you think this motivates kids?
SK: I make no apologies for being a very demanding teacher. Students will raise or lower themselves to the expectation that surrounds them. I choose to have high expectations so that students will push themselves to be successful. Students should be challenged every day. When students come out of an uncomfortable situation they are mentally stronger and are more ready to face the challenges that face them every day. To do that, I have to be ready as a teacher to challenge myself in the same way. I cannot expect anything from my students that I don’t expect from myself. Students can sense that in a teacher.
AK: You were recently selected to perform during the inaugural parade. There were around over 1400 applicants and only about 50 bands, marching bands and color guards were selected. Your band was the only one from the Northwest. Why do you think your band was selected?
SK: The application was extensive, including a video, an audio recording, and two pictures of the band, along with a narrative about the band. We spent months making sure every part of the application was carefully revised and detailed so that we put the best possible foot forward. The inaugural committee told me on the phone that because the quality of our materials was so high, our band was one of the first selected. The video of the band showed how hard our students work in rehearsal, as well as the pride and dedication our students have in their work.
To see the Evergreen Marching Band in the inaugural parade, click on the link or copy and paste to your browser the following:
AK: What were your students expecting when they went to the parade? How did they feel as they passed by the new President?
SK: The crowds were amazing – so many people and so much energy. People seemed to have a sense of purpose, a sense that something great was about to happen. People who didn’t know each other, from all walks of life, were smiling, shaking hands, and helping each other. Students commented about how it felt like we were one huge family. The morning of the parade we loaded the buses early in the morning and arrived at the staging area five hours before the parade. We went through many security checkpoints and met some of the other bands in a warming tent as we awaited the start of the parade. The weather was bitter cold, with wind that chilled to the bone. We were so cold that the valves and slides on our instruments started to freeze and many students had to put their instruments under their arms to warm it up so it would even work! We waited for hours before we walked about a mile to the start of the parade. It was getting dark, and everything seemed to be moving in slow motion as we approached the first leg of the parade. Once the drum introduction began that signaled we were on the parade route, our bodies miraculously seemed to warm a few degrees; At least enough to be able to put our instruments to our mouths without worrying about our lips freezing. We were in the last part of the parade, so a lot of the crowd had already succumbed to the weather and left for warmer hotel rooms. But the crowd that was there was incredibly supportive. Our parents, who had been out in the freezing weather for 14 hours, cheered from the sidewalk as we passed by. Somehow, that 20 seconds of seeing their sons and daughters pass by playing “Washington, My Home” was worth the long wait. As we passed by President Obama, we saw him smile and wave. Every student said later that they were sure he was waving directly to them. Megan R., a sophomore trumpet player, says “It was a once in a lifetime experience. The first African American president and we were there playing for him; it was incredible.”
As one of the mothers, Colleen E. said during the trip, “What an incredible trip this is! The positive energy and shared sense of boundless joy and optimism among the visitors here make for a completely unique experience. The hope and optimism is palpable. To be here, to bear witness to history, as we take our first exuberant steps down that road is a privilege and an honor, something I will never forget. My only regret is that everyone can’t be here to be part of this important event in our nation’s history.”
At the end, we were told that Evergreen was one of the only bands who didn’t have a single student drop out of the parade from fatigue or the cold weather. All of the hours of rehearsal and fundraising were worth it to get to this moment. They were making history.
AK: What roles do parents play in the band environment?
SK: There are many reasons hard working students create their success. I believe that strong parents make strong kids. The parental involvement at Evergreen is amazing. They see the effect the band program has on their students, and they want to be a part of it. The band program is one of the few activities where parents can feel like they are a welcomed part of their student’s education. They chaperone trips, cheer from the sidelines at performances, video the band concerts, adjust their uniforms. The students call all of our parents “Mom” or “Dad” no matter who they are. I see as many smiles of pride from parents as I see from students. They know what great things their students are experiencing, and they feel a part of it.
AK: How have kids and the schools changed since you began your career in music? Why does this make it important to keep music or some other art in kid’s lives today?
SK: Students are very different now than when I began teaching 22 years ago. Even in the past few years, I see more students in the hallways who don’t feel a connection to their school. Unfortunately, many students are being parented by video games, text messaging and television, which is leading to a decline of important social and communication skills. Schools are focusing on getting students to pass state testing and ignoring the important influence of electives, especially the arts. Students are losing their desire to excel at something. The upper 10% of students are tending to be involved in too many different activities, excelling at none of them, and feeling that “more is better” rather than focusing on one or two things and working towards mastery. The middle- and lower-level kids are getting less active in school and thus feeling less connected. They think, “Why work for hours at mastering a talent or a sport when you can play a video game whenever you want and not have to break a sweat?” In many ways, the payoff for the teenager is the same, albeit less lasting and less useful, to prepare students for work and becoming a more productive member of society. Music and the arts provide these skills on a daily basis, and provide a deeper understanding of beauty and culture. I believe we need to stress these life-skills in school as well as what others might call the “basics.”
AK: What lessons do you think students learn by being a part of a band or other art program?
SK: Students may spend years of dedicated work until the “payoff” of creating meaningful music. Nearly all band members at the high school level have gone through seven years of instrumental instruction by the time they graduate. They have persevered through frustration, disappointment and the general ups-and-downs of honing a skill that involves fine motor skills, high interpretive qualities, and long hours of practicing something multiple times until it is perfect. Not only are these skills highly marketable in the workplace, but they also blend and influence every other part of their lives.
AK: What have been some of your proudest moments as a Director?
SK: I’ve had proud moments when my bands win trophies or perform well at a concert. My proudest moments are when I witness a student find an emotional connection to a piece of music. I love seeing them show emotion during a performance such as crying or smiling, which means what they are creating touches them in some emotional way. Once that happens, they will work to create that higher-level understanding in other subjects and in other areas of their lives.