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Time Line

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Music Department '81-'84
by
Pete Mills '84

petemills@grandecom.net

 

If there was one thing I looked forward to going into Millikan, it was being a part of the music program. Little did I know that I and my friends would hold court over a program that changed so much, so fast due to forces beyond our control that we could barely keep pace with tradition during our years there. The following is an attempt to capture what went on leading up to, and during my time there from the fall of '81 to spring of '84.

I had watched with envy as my older brother and sister took part in performing with the concert bands, jazz bands & orchestras during the 70's, conducted during those years by Roger Johnson (RJ) and Robert Gibson, among others. These were men who took their commitment to music education quite seriously, and set the bar high for their students. During the late 70's, Millikan's first-string jazz band (there were 2) would duel it out with Wilson for top spot in the heavy division of jazz band competitions all over So. Cal. These ensembles contained and nurtured some very talented musicians, and it showed in their performances.

At the time, Long Beach's public schools benefited from a strong tradition of music education in - and out - of schools. Students who took music classes at school almost always augmented their musical training with private lessons. Taught in living rooms and garages across suburban Long Beach, pro or semi-pro musicians augmented their income by teaching kids theory and technique for practically nothing - $20, $30 an hour max and usually much less. Names like Marjorie Reid, Joyce Atteberry, Scott Wells, Jim Nelson, Michelle Chase, Tom Duclose, Billy Wilson... Clearly not in it for the jack, they taught out of love - for music, and for the students.

The first blow to the quality of the music programs was Proposition 13, passed on the CA ballot in 1978(?). Authored by tax watchdog Howard Jarvis, Prop 13 boiled down to one simple issue: rape public education to cap property tax increases. If the debate at our own dinner table was any indication, Prop 13 deeply divided voters. It passed, and in rapid fashion school districts found it more and more difficult to fund their own schools, and the tsunami of budget cuts began. To say that arts in public schools suffered would be an understatement; they were eviscerated where they stood & left for dead.

First came the brain drain. RJ and Mr. Gibson left Millikan a couple of years before I arrived. RJ went to LBCC to continue music education there. I would imagine that salary or wholesale position cuts assisted their decisions. At the reins of the bands & orchestra when I arrived were Dan Sullivan and John Strickler. Young, talented, sharp, and both possessing a key ingredient to successful high school music instruction - genuine conducting skills. And the kids in the ensembles liked & respected them both very much. But they were both musicians & educators, and with the staff cutbacks occurring, suddenly the educators were also required to raise funds, coordinate transportation, administrate equipment & inventory... you get the picture.

The second insidious result of Prop 13 was the rapid disappearance of the aforementioned private educators, who either aged, gave up, or relocated to places that had not hung the arts in schools out to dry. The result of this was a subtle shifting of the public school's music programs from accompanying some student's music education, to becoming their primary music education. Without private lessons, band and orchestra classes became their lessons. And as any musician can testify, this is a recipe for mediocrity - there's just not enough rehearsal time for the mind-numbing repetition required to perfect a performance. To offset this effect, our conductors brought in some help in the form of - 'coaches' - paid and un-paid college friends and locals that could function as assistants in sectional rehearsals.

The budget cuts manifested themselves in other more obvious ways as well. Aging uniforms, instruments not repaired or not replaced. We actually built a set of tri-tom marching drums from scratch using colored plexiglass from an aircraft plastics company in Los Alamitos; they barely lasted a season. Before the '81-'82 school year started, the second jazz band was among the first of classes to be eliminated from the curriculum.

Travel to performances was cut back - including performances at area grade schools that provided valuable inspiration to younger musicians. I will never forget sitting in Prisk's auditorium & watching Joe Burger heft a cello over his head w/ one hand to demonstrate "...it's not heavy at all." Once standard, these performances practically ceased completely. The marching band did continue to follow the football team to most of the away games, but when the jazz band headed out it was almost always in a convoy of our own cars.

We weren't exactly being nurtured by the administration in place at the time. Jack Dubois, Millikan's principal for many years and a champion of the music department, had traded positions with Dr. Joe McCleary from Jordan. Rumors had Dr. McCleary in place at Millikan to get him away from growing problems at Jordan that could soil a clean entrance into retirement. He seemed mostly ambivalent about the arts, but we had no reason to think he was against us either. Then Mr. Sullivan started a typical spring rehearsal by dropping a bomb on us; after months of preparing multiple Henry Mancini tunes in anticipation of performing at Dodger Stadium for "Henry Mancini Night" (with the man himself conducting), Dr. McCleary had decided that the Dodger organization was exploiting the high school bands to attract ticket sales, and summarily killed our participation. We suspected the real reason was transportation fund re-allocation.

A big blow came in '82 -'83, when Millikan's orchestra was invited to perform in Vienna, Austria as part of a youth music festival. This created a wave of excitement among the students that was palpable - a HUGE opportunity. But reality set in fast; we would need to raise $120,000 in less than a year to pull it off. The 'Vienna '83 'Committee was formed. We optimistically started bake sales, car washes, and en-masse trips to work concessions at Rose Bowl events to raise cash while some of our parents & Mr. Sullivan solicited sponsorship money from local corporations - McDonnell-Douglas top among them. After several months, it became apparent that there would be no corporate sponsor, and there would be no trip to Austria. But we had managed to raise about $12,000 and purchased - among other things - a sweet set of tympani. Perhaps they're still there in room 505....

Amongst this gloom there were moments of greatness that at the time reminded me of what had been. The orchestra took 2'nd place at an intense competition in San Diego in '83. If you had witnessed our singing "We Are The Champions" as the bus left the parking lot late that night, you never would've known we just lost. Millikan's jazz band continued to appear at a couple competitions a year - Riverside, Saddleback, Northridge - but never in the heavy division. The drum section even participated in the budding drum corps. circuit competitions for a time, enduring quite the razzing over our gear that had no business appearing against other school's more modern instruments.

Looking back, it's easy to view that time and come up with any number of other reasons why music programs everywhere experienced decline.... The rise of MTV culture, training musicians that drummers came from boxes, and that what you looked like was as important - or more important - than what you or your instrument sounded like.

I also silently suspected that the musical patience of baby boomers did not have what it took to withstand the - let's face it - horrific sounds of a young musician practicing at home. Violins and clarinets in the hands of children equal dissonant torture, and baby boomers grew up in a time of popular musical excellence.

Far more serious issues made it worse for others. Domestic stability was few & far between for many families, creating a home environment where practicing your instrument slipped way down on the priority list. At school, I was unknowingly surrounded by kids who piled plenty of domestic baggage onto their schooling, making their participation in music education & performance that much more remarkable.

I fear the worst result of this erosion was our attitude as students and musicians, and our behavior's effect on our conductors. John Strickler left after 1982, leaving the orchestra, concert band, marching band AND jazz band to Mr. Sullivan. Dude was Incredible. But the stress of the hours, the increased non-musical responsibilities, maybe even the lack of musical excellence took its toll. Dan continued music education for a couple more years after '84 before jumping into administration duties at Millikan and beyond.

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