Teacher leads battle for excellence

March 06, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

Editor's Note: The Herald-Mail is featuring one high school teacher each month through May. The eight-part series highlights excellent educators on the first Monday of each month. Coming in April: South Hagerstown High School.

An army of young musicians lock eyes on the man holding his fists high in the air, one of them gripping a slim baton.

cont. from front page

Duane McNairn, Smithsburg High School's band director, stands at the center of a tiered semi-circle, his orchestra-style classroom. The 32-year-old looks ready to lead the class into battle.

Instruments poised, holding breath, the students look ready to follow. For a moment, it is quiet. McNairn says, "One, two, ready, go!" The baton bounces and "Gettysburg: The Third Day" begins.


The class plays Jay Dawson's composition, sounding out the symphonic clash with gusto. McNairn conducts, pointing and waving hands while he follows the music on paper. The drums flourish, imitating cannon fire.

He gives instructions like a friendly drill sergeant. "The battle is winding down!" he calls. Heads bob, feet tap, lips purse and fingertips pump keys. Some 75 students play their separate parts.

When the last note fades, the teacher gives his class advice: Judges frown on excess volume. "They love to say, don't overblow," he says. "Prove to them that you can play it soft enough."

As the students practice, their teacher constantly coaches and coaxes. He makes subtle changes, corrects flaws, recommends a finger position. He smiles and laughs but makes the pauses brief.

The advanced band class has some 84 students and he will not stop the music for long. "When you've got that many bodies, you've just got to keep things moving or they will lose their focus," he says.

A Washington County native, McNairn enjoys teaching music at the school from which he graduated. He took the job in 1998, replacing his retiring mentor. Harry Wacker was Smithsburg's band director for 37 years.

"He had big shoes to fill and he did a great job," said Terri Martin, president of the school's band boosters. "He stepped right in, took over and the kids loved him. The program has done nothing but blossom."

McNairn had 157 kids in one class last year. This year, the band is split into two classes and he expects as many as 202 next year. He teaches general band, advanced band, jazz ensemble, music theory and sectionals.

It's a job that involves a lot of evening rehearsals and weekend work, but he is dedicated. "I firmly believe in what music does for people," he said. He believes the positive effects, such as improving mental development, are evident.

McNairn has loved music since he first started banging pots and pans as a kid. He plays several instruments but he is mainly a percussionist.

"I kind of jumped in with both feet," he said. "My parents probably wish they had insulated their walls."

He received his bachelor's degree in music education from Towson State University and earned a master's degree in counseling from Western Maryland College.

Throughout high school and college, he played with different bands. He now performs with the Ray Birely Orchestra, a Frederick-based group made up mostly of educators.

He married his middle school band teacher's daughter, Roni McNairn, who now teaches first grade at Winter Street Elementary. They have a 2-year-old son, Connor, and a 5-year-old daughter, Jordan.

For eight years, McNairn taught in Frederick County at West Frederick Middle School. He couldn't ignore the opening at his alma mater. "It's a great school," he said. "I love it. The kids are awesome."

The teacher does not want to make music majors out of his students, he said. Instead, McNairn hopes his students might continue to play instruments all their lives and look back at band as a valuable experience.

He teaches respect by showing respect. "I try to motivate them," he said. "I tell them, 'Do your job and do it well and that will give you the respect of those around you.'" His counseling background strengthened his skills as a mentor.

"I'm here for the kids," he said. "When I have kids who will work hard, I'll do anything for them."

Lauren Belella, a senior in the percussion section, said McNairn helps him prepare for college auditions. "He's real supportive of everything we do," he said.

"I think he's awesome," said Luke Buhrman, also a senior in the percussion section. "He puts in a lot of extra time with the students. I think he's going to take this band a long way."

McNairn is good at keeping time, and he can think of no better place to spend it than Smithsburg.

"I'm at the best place to be right now," he said. "I know this sounds corny, but I wouldn't leave this job for another high school anywhere."

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