BY JENNIFER AMY MYERS, Valley Dispatch Staff
DRACUT — When Leon Grande took over as Dracut High School’s music director 15 years ago, the entire band could fit on one bus, and the chorus consisted of just over a dozen singers. Today one third of the 1,200-student population of the high school is enrolled in the music program.
“Four hundred kids are certainly too much for one person to handle if you are going to give them the proper attention and move the program forward,” Grande said.
Enter Peter McIvor, stage left.
Seeing the need to restructure the administration of the music program and provide Grande with some much-overdue help, the School Department created a new position for Grande, supervisor of Fine and Performing Arts, and hired McIvor to direct the concert and jazz bands and teach music theory.
“The great thing about coming here is that I don’t have to build the band from the ground up; it’s already in place,” said McIvor, who has held the position for just over a month.
Having taught music for more than 20 years in Connecticut, McIvor took a band of 39 at Old Lyme Middle School and transformed it to one of 114; a 42-member band at Waterford High School became a 69-member group in his tenure; and a 36-piece band ballooned to one of 103 at Canton Junior/Senior High School, which had a total population of 330.
Although Grande continues to direct the marching band, as well as the chorus and show choir, he admits that passing along the baton and watching someone else direct what have been his concert and jazz bands for so many years has been difficult.
“It chokes me up a little,” Grande said. “One of the band members ran up and gave me a hug and said, “please don’t leave us.”
“I feel like I’ve given my kids up for adoption, but I know it is in their best interest because now I can concentrate on the vocal program and opening up more opportunities for all of the kids,” he continued.
“Peter McIvor is a great instrumental teacher and because he has so much experience, he was able to step right in,” Grande added.
McIvor grew up in Waltham, and studied trumpet under “God of Trumpets” Armando Ghitalla at the New England Conservatory of Music.
“I was all set to be a performer, until dental injuries completely ruined my career,” McIvor said. “I knew I had to stay in music somehow, so I went into teaching, which was the best thing in the world that could have happened.”
Having now landed in Dracut, he was impressed by the members of his new band from the start.
“What impresses me is how polite and nice and unbelievably respectful the kids are,” he said. “Getting to know them has been great.”
On a recent afternoon, with only nine rehearsals left before the annual holiday concert, McIvor moved the band through the intricacies of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” a longtime Dracut High School tradition. Without fail, every year at the holiday concert, Grande would turn and face the auditorium full of music lovers, to introduce the popular piece and explain that it is a piece of “program music,” meaning that the composer had a particular idea in mind that he then worked to convey through the music.
“He (McIvor) offered to let me guest conduct “Sleigh Ride,” but I don’t think that would be right,” Grande said. “But, I may still announce it.”
Band Council President Eddie Grace, a senior, admitted that band members were concerned when Grande first announced that he would no longer stand at the helm of the band. At that time, McIvor had not yet been hired and the future looked uncertain.
“The most important thing is that he kept ‘Sleigh Ride,’” Grace said, a sentiment shared by hundreds of DHS band alumni.
“I like him a lot and he seems to really enjoy what he is doing,” he added.
McIvor prides himself on holding his students to a high standard, but also having a lot of fun.
“My goal is for the kids to have fun because they are enjoying being so good,” he said. “When they are loose and relaxed, this is a home and they are happy to be here and ready to play.”
“I treat my students like young adults and give them the respect they deserve,” he added. “I am always up front and honest with them, so they know what to expect from me and we can have a good working relationship.”
McIvor added that he is thrilled to be working with Grande and thinks that their partnership can only strengthen the already robust music program at Dracut High.
“Leon is a wonderful musician and a fabulous teacher,” he said. “We’re so similar in our views on music and education and have talked at length about so many things. I couldn’t be working for a nicer person and I’m having the time of my life.”
Have a story idea? E-mail Jennifer Amy Myers at firstname.lastname@example.org.