The leader of the band
There is something uniquely decorative about the wooden bass drum adorning the band room, with its distinctive-blue lettering denoting "Woodburn High School" next to a sketched, cartoonish mug of a Bulldog mascot.
The drum and its trimming evoke a subtle, yet distinctive element of school history.
That may, in fact, be why band director Brian Gingerich likes it; few things or people around Woodburn High School are more iconic to the school's past half century than Gingerich.
"I've seen pictures from the 50s with that drum in them," said Gingerich, who has been guiding WHS musicians for 35 years. "It used to be the junior high school drum."
The drum continues to adorn the environs that Gingerich is leaving behind -- with a tremendous legacy in his wake.
The leader of the Bulldog band retired this year.
WHS's Mariachi Band performed before Woodburn City Council on Monday in Gingerich's baton-wielding swansong.
His penultimate performance came June 4 in the school's modest, yet ear-pleasing, Spring Concert, where mariachi and jazz bands each performed three pieces, and the traditional concert band delivered four, including a John Phillips Sousa "Stars and Stripes Forever" arrangement that featured one solo each by the smallest (piccolo) and largest (tuba) instruments in the band.
The talented student musicians had fun with that, while the audience received a mix not paralleled in many places, if any.
That has not always been the case. In fact, at the time Gingerich arrived on campus, concert band was the only fare.
Starting a career
A native of a rural hamlet of Amish character, Topeka, Indiana, Gingerich shed the Midwest following high school; his first foray was to North Texas State as a college freshman, then to the University of Oregon where he graduated in 1982.
His nutshell version of coming to Woodburn -- "I interviewed in a few places and got the job" -- becomes a tad more interesting in detail.
"In that time, most band teachers starting out had to go to eastern Oregon to get their first job," he recalled, noting the dearth of instructors for programs in remote rural areas. "I felt incredibly fortunate to start teaching in the Willamette Valley."
He remembers interviewing in Woodburn, and the Oregon Department of Education Music Education Specialist, Del Aebischer, was at the interview, as was longtime Woodburn Principal Pete McCallum.
"Pete told me 'Our superintendent wants a band program that he can be proud of, and one that the district can be proud of,'" he recalled.
He expressed his confidence and desire in doing just that, and he was hired.
Curiously, about three years later he ran into Aebischer at the Oregon State Fair. Gingerich recalls state overseer telling him:
"That job should not have gone to you," stressing that it was a position more suited to an experienced band director. "But it sounds like you are doing alright."
Jazzing things up
The music curriculum was a much simpler arrangement in the 1980s than it is today.
"When I first came here, I had two classes to teach at the high school: concert band and beginning band," Gingerich said. "The rest of my classes were at the junior high.
"It was a good gig because I controlled the whole thing."
But there was something missing. When Gingerich went to NTS as a college freshman, it was the school's jazz program that lured him. He emphasizes that "Jazz is my first love."
After getting settled into his Woodburn skin, the band teacher began putting out feelers to test the pulse for expanding the program. Jazz was popular with many students, as well, but to participate and learn involved an extracurricular commitment.
But the school board looked over the idea of changing that, and found it amenable.
"Four years after I got here we got a jazz band that was actually curricular," Gingerich said. "It was okayed by the school board…and jazz was my first love, so I really wanted to start that."
That marked the first of a number of changes that would be forthcoming over the next several decades. Not all of them were good.
There were times when the band numbers thinned out. There were some good times, like in the 1990s and early 2000s, when school band trips to places like Canada or San Francisco, were a feature. But crimped budgets saw those go by the wayside.
There was also the transition of the general high school to the four-school, academy-based system.
Spicing things up
One of Woodburn High School's most well received musical groups is so popular that it has to turn away gig requests. Aiming to add something that reflected Woodburn's cultural complexion, Gingerich formed the WHS Mariachi Band, the first of its ilk in Oregon.
""Brian's unique contribution is that he embraced and promoted a powerful representation of the Mexican culture that has helped all of our city's residents feel proud.," said Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson, who worked for decades as an administrator and educator in the Woodburn School District. "That, in turn, has helped the rest of Oregon experience the beauty of one of Woodburn's cultures. It also impacted countless students and their families in how they see themselves and how we see ourselves as a city."
Gingerich started the mariachi band 15 years ago; "This is our Quince," he noted earlier this year.
"One of my original goals with the group was to perform traditional mariachi music with traditional instruments," Gingerich said.
That was accomplished from the get go.
"The group quickly grew into a phenomenon, in that, requests for performances were many: the band usually performs 30 to 40 times during the school year. I turn down a lot of requests for performances because I don't want to burn out the students or myself."
In that vein, summer break is a break for WHS mariachi performers as well.
"As a band director trained in traditional American band repertoire and ensembles (concert, marching, jazz), I can say that starting a mariachi band at Woodburn High School has been one of the most incredible things, personally, that I have done," Gingerich mused. "This group takes me places and we meet people that traditional band directors never get to experience."
A few examples: the band has played for the Mexican president; Delores Huerta, who along with Caesar Chavez is a co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association; last January Oregon Gov. Kate Brown specifically asked WHS Mariachi Band to play at her inauguration.
"The mariachi band, as much as they go out, they know how to represent themselves and the community," Gingerich said, underscoring the group's professionalism. "I tell them, when you are on stage you reflect on more people than you realize."
Calling it a career
Gingerich, 59, still exudes an affability on the job that suggests he accomplished another goal: he did not burn out.
Nor does he want to.
"I think 35 is a good, round number," Gingerich said. "I wanted to go when there was still some 'what will we do without you' (sentiment) instead of 'good, you are leaving, finally.' A teacher can stay too long."
It probably helps in that part of his legacy will be taking the reins. Washington Elementary School music teacher Nadia Maksimov, has been named as his successor. She's entering very familiar territory.
"The program is in good hands," Gingerich said. "Nadia is an alum, she grew up here and was in the mariachi band and the concert band. She's an incredibly strong teacher and a trained band director."
Gingerich leaves with no complaints: "This district has been really good for me over the years; that's why I stayed."
But he also plans to stay away, let Maksimov spread her wings, and maybe play some trombone for Salem Concert Band or work in political activism, maybe even as a Latino advocate. In addition to music, Gingerich also taught social studies courses at WHS, covering government, economics and history of the Americas.
The retiring instructor also has a few outlying connections where something of interest may emerge.
What will he remember most?
"Woodburn students are the best."
What will be leave behind?
Well, 35 years and a legacy for one.
"I might add that Brian is a reminder to us of what one talented, dedicated and committed individual can accomplish," WSD Superintendent Chuck Ransom said. "To see Nadia step into the role speaks to the importance of role models and continuity in what we value."
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