My Generation
The Beat Goes On and On

The Beat Goes On and On

What does it take for a music program to flourish in a rural community? Here's a look at one that is and has been, for 24 years.

A friend recently shared a photo of Main Street in her hometown and noted that when you go home, somehow you suddenly feel 17 again. That is truth for those of us who have moved away from the town in which we grew up. And though I now live in a rural Illinois town very similar to the one in which I grew up, visiting home brings back a torrent of memories. Most of them related to being 17: the cruising, the fair, the games, the practices, the band, the dinner theater. The dates and the mistakes, and the highs and the lows. That one time at that one place. Those conversations.

I went home a couple weekends ago, with a very specific purpose: I drove nearly 500 miles, roundtrip, with two small kids, to see my high school's dinner theater production. Clearly, this was not without memory and reason. Because no one does that.

This trip was a big deal and in fact, the whole production was a big deal. The Edwards County High School dinner theater began in 1991, when I was but a freshman in high school. David Snapp and Mary Jo Grubb, the band and choir teachers who made a life in Edwards County, envisioned a dinner theater with music at its heart. A community effort.

They formed a show choir and a combo band, they elicited help from local program designers, they sold ads for a 70-page program and they choreographed shows. The entire community pitched in, creating set decorations that transformed the gym into another world. Year in and year out, the Edwards County Dinner Theater has gone on for 24 years. This year: a lowered ceiling, wall panels that highlighted each decade in music, table decorations, a red carpet at the entrance and more.

One year, they made palm trees. It was, in a word, impressive.

Over the years, they used proceeds to purchase equipment and take kids to theatrical and musical experiences they never would've had access to otherwise. I played the digital keyboard they purchased, and saw "The Phantom of the Opera" in Nashville via charter bus.

This year was special, however, because Mr. Snapp is retiring. He began teaching 4th-8th grade band in 1980, and took over high school band in 1986. They estimated that since that time, he has taught nearly 8,000 grade school students and more than 2,000 high school students.

Friends, he taught 10,000 young people to read music and play it and appreciate it. That is a legacy.

If I think hard, I can remember him coming to my kindergarten class, and teaching music to our third grade class when our school was condemned and we attended school in the local Christian church. By fourth grade, he taught me to play the flute. He recognized strengths and built on them; I was crushed when I wasn't chosen to be a drum major in junior high. In retrospect, rhythm isn't my strong point and I can't walk and chew gum at the same time, so let's be real: marching backward while directing the band really wasn't going to work out well for me. He knew that and he also knew I'd rather play piano anyway and so by high school, he let me play keyboard during pep band, while our lone tuba player played basketball. (Sidenote: welcome to small-town high schools. Divide and conquer.)

What we saw last weekend was the culmination of a career of that sort of skill. Mr. Snapp – who may always remain Mr. Snapp to me – has built a band program that's stronger than ever. Roughly a fourth of the entire high school plays in the band. Granted, it's a small school, but that's nearly 75 students. When I was in school, we barely fielded a band of 25; we played from the football sidelines because fielding a marching band was a minimalist embarrassment. For a high school of a shy 300 kids, many divided among every sport and extra-curricular activity available, his band is impressive.

He, of course, credits their 8-block schedule. More band time at one time made for more progress. I suggested his presence had a lot more to do with it than that, but he wasn't having it.

But really, what does it take to get a music program to flourish like that in a small town? In an age of budget cuts and ridiculously devastating state funding decisions, where schools are cutting their music programs right and left, I have to wonder: is it the support of a school board? Is it the commitment of music teachers, to stay in a school system for an extended time, and to tackle big programs? Is it the support of the community? Does a tradition like the dinner theater feed upon itself over time? Or perhaps some combination of it all?

I don't know. But I'd be interested to hear what the music program is like in your community.

I do know that I have a million teenage memories wrapped up in dinner theater. Late-night practices and early-morning rehearsals. I learned to practice – hard and for a long time – and to play with the group. I developed skills that I use in our church worship band today. I teach my children.

Music is a worthwhile endeavor. And so is agriculture. We as a rural community have to be willing to invest – and to fight – for them both, whenever the question arises.

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