I first met Ken Rogers in 1986 when he was helping with the vocals on the production of Evita. While this was a community project Ken was just starting his teaching career. I had the pleasure of working with Ken on numerous shows and had interviewed him countless times for his work with the Community Band along with many other school initiatives. He always had that passion for what he was doing and always wanted the people he was working with to be the best they could. I was fortunate to have had him as a vocal instructor in many of the shows I’ve done and I can imagine there are countless students who loved having him as his teacher. He has decided to retire after 32 years. That doesn’t mean you won’t hear from him anymore as he is set to launch Titanic this fall with Fran Rude. Ken is also a talented Trombone player and an amazing vocalist himself. I thought I’d find out a little bit more about his illustrious career.
When did you decide teaching was what you wanted to do?
I never really thought I’d teach but did my B.Ed following my B. Mus because it was one extra year at that time and EVERYONE seemed to suggest it as wise. It was in my last student teaching round, with Mike Richey at Catholic Central HS, I realized I loved it. Mike had been teaching about 10 years and asked me what I wanted out of the 6-week round and I said “I want to see if I want to/can do this all day every day”. So he let me take over everything from day 1, which we weren’t really supposed to do, but it was exactly what I needed. Baptism by fire. I remember a group of 4 grade 8 girls who said at the end of the round that they needed to apologize for something. They asked if I remembered saying on my first day if anyone else was hearing voices in their grade 8 band. They were under the band room risers the whole time giggling and felt really bad about doing that. Mike’s been a wonderful mentor ever since and in his retirement was a favourite band sub of mine and the kids at LCI.
Who were some of your mentors as you journeyed on your way to a 32-year career?
I’ve had lots of great mentors over the years, but my main professional mentor has and always will be Bill Wahl of Medicine Hat. While still in university I taught trombone at a U of L summer band camp for which Bill was conducting the bands. I really liked how calm and civil he was with the groups and how collected he was every day. He seemed more like a dad than a teacher. I was heading into student teaching at that point so chatted with Bill every lunch hour for that camp and learned so much. I phoned Bill (pre-internet!) at least monthly my first few years of teaching and he always had such sage advice. We did a couple of band exchanges too early on. Over the years the calls decreased in frequency, but he is still my main mentor. Bill had a balance of work/family/spirit that I aspired to and continue to through the present. Even in his retirement he is still my mentor as I hope my retirement activities and wise life balance may mirror his. One of Bill’s main philosophies is “band as family” and I’ve tried to create that kind of safe place in my room and groups throughout my career. I also owe an eternal debt to my U of L professor/conductors who encouraged me to develop mentor relationships such as Bill’s and who have continued to support me and be mentors as well: Dr. Linda Pimentel who was my main music ed prof and band conductor, and who worked tirelessly for us and loved us like a mom, Dr. Vondis Miller who preceded Linda at the U of L and was the epitome of grace under pressure, and Dr. George Evelyn who was my U of L voice teacher and choir director. I still get to sing with George and other friends on occasion, which is wonderful relationship. I hope through my 32 year career I’ve somehow repaid them for what they did for me by turning around and doing the same for others.
My main LIFE mentors have been my parents, of course. My dad passed away 4 and half years ago on closing night of conducting the symphony production of Les Mis (your rendition of Bring Him Home that evening is etched in my memory even though I don’t remember much else from the show during the 10 days Dad was in ICU), but his endless patience and unconditional love I’ve known my whole life were exceptional. I guess I grew up assuming everybody had parents like that. He and my mom taught us to serve others, to get involved, to keep our commitments, to leave things better than we found them, to accept consequences and live up to our mistakes, and to treat people well. It’s easy to learn lessons from someone whose actions speak as loudly or louder than their words.
Speaking of mentors, here’s a pic, from the funeral of my LCI band teacher, Jerry Pokarney, 2 years ago. In it is almost every Hamilton Jr. High, Gilbert Paterson, and LCI band teacher, L to R:
Doug Scales, Karly Lewis, Susie Staples, Mike Richey, me, Bob Brunelle, Karen Hudson, Mark Ward. A sad day, but what a legacy – Jerry would have been thrilled to see us all together. We really are quite a small community who support each other very much.
Obviously, music has been an integral part of your life as far as a career goes. What did it mean to you growing up?
My musical career growing up was not stellar! I can remember sitting on the piano bench in grade school crying and refusing to practice. I got to about the beginning of Gr. 2 piano, at which point our family moved to Lethbridge, where the piano lesson rates were much higher, and with 4 kids in lessons and money tight from the move, my mom finally let me quit. Seemed like such a personal victory at the time, but I sure wish still that I could play piano better! You’ve probably heard me attempt to play and can attest to that sentiment. I also remember the first week of Junior High School Grade 7 band practicing what the book said, but then getting to the end of the first line of 4 whole notes and 4 whole rests on one note and seeing the instruction “repeat 3 times”. There was no way I was doing that boring exercise 3 times and I don’t think I practiced again until late in high school. Fortunately there was lots of music in our house, my dad faithfully sang in choirs and in some shows and mom often played piano for him and other singers and at church. So it was normal in our house to do music and perform music. I eventually wised up. Singing came later. In high school LCI Band ruled in the late 1970’s and the LCI choirs had just barely begun, just a small group with guitar and no way I was going to do that. In university I joined Elinor Lawson’s Madrigal Singers with the sole motive to get a little closer to Christine, who I had noticed earlier in my first year. She was second year so i had to do something to get her to notice me. Let’s just say choir has been good to me. The following year George Evelyn arrived at the U of L and I’ve been choral singing and conducting ever since. I’ve been leading my McKillop Church Choir for over 20 years now and they are simply a wonderful bunch of people from all walks of life who love to offer their singing to our church.
Why the trombone?
The only reason was we had recently moved from a small town to Lethbridge and I gather what happened was the cost of the move and new house meant there wasn’t a lot of spare cash, so I got to (was forced to??) play the same school-owned instrument my older brother, Jerry, played – the trombone. I remember it was still warm sometimes when I’d open it for band class – I think that may have contributed to my lack of appetite for practicing as well! It wasn’t until high school that I put any real effort in and finally admitted to myself that it was something I could do decently if I applied any effort. Jerry and I just played a Big Band gig together this weekend and that is definitely one of the things I always look forward to, playing beside him. And we don’t have to share a warm trombone anymore! We have a bunch of trombonists and tubists in the family, all excellent players and it’s normal at Christmas or family events to put a “heavy metal” group together. Here’s a pic from a few years ago with L to R: sister in law Joan (Robin) Rogers, brother Jerry, me, our son Christopher, Jerry’s son Gerald IV, sister Mar, and brother in law Neil. And there are even more trombonists in the family.
You’ve taught band and choral music…Is the approach essentially the same for both disciplines or are there vast differences?
They are different indeed, but the end goal is still the same, to bring the group together to be able to connect and communicate musically with an audience, to say something with the music that will reach someone. And they both take a lot of vision and a lot of hard work while keeping your eye on the goals in your vision. The process for me is just as much fun as the product. Performing is fun, but it’s in rehearsal where relationships are built and you can have the most fun and hopefully laugh together a lot. Choir is more “huggy”, but you CAN get bands to hug, at least metaphorically if you really work on it. Orchestras, not that much!
As you think back on your 32 years as a teacher, what comes to mind?
A sea of faces and names and sounds – especially smiles and laughter. The times outside of class seem to stick the most – band trips, festivals, clinics, retreats, concerts, community performances. I’ve been extremely fortunate to work with so many amazing kids over the years, and even more fortunate to have been able to so via music. It’s really important that you’re teaching kids, not music. If you get that backwards, it’s not as good.
I know you’re probably ethically contracted to not say you had your favorites but in 32 years you must have had a number of students that were in a league of their own. Can you name a few names?
Yes, I’d better remain professional and not name names!
Are there people that just shouldn’t be taking music or can you always find a way that they can derive some joy out of it?
That’s a tough one, but in Alberta music is not a required course in high school so students choose to take it, which usually takes care of things. I guess what I would say is it’s probably a good thing we don’t force kids to take music in high school, but I would support mandatory ARTS education in high school, so long as resources, staffing, and PD were sufficiently funded by the province. I also would say that you can always find a way to include ANY student who wants to take music, regardless of their ability. Gone, I hope, are the days where students are told to “mouth it” so the group sounds better. I know so many adults who sadly will absolutely not sing due to some sort of musically traumatic school experience along those lines.
What have been some of your most special moments as a teacher?
It feels like here and now are the most special moments as a teacher, the rest is memories that, while good, are not as “real” as the present. I know students and others have said “you probably tell every group every year how great they are”, but it’s true. When a group works together and rises to their potential, that moment is the best ever, regardless of whether it’s an everyday rehearsal or a performance. I’ve always thought that when any age group excels, the feelings of the human experience must be pretty much the same as when the New York or Berlin Philharmonic excels. And vice versa when it doesn’t work! The times away with kids on trips have been really wonderful, multiple times to Cuba, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Whistler, Seattle, Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer, wherever. Good times and great memories. My very last LCI concert was a special moment too, they played with such passion and desire and I could not be happier to have ended on such a good note! I really enjoyed every moment of that concert. A band parent who works at the Herald sent me the pic of the concert that was used in the Herald. (It is at the top of this story)
What was the most frustrating part of being primarily an arts teacher in the public school system? (Don’t hold back, they can’t fire you now.)
The most frustrating part is the flip side of the sword that fills your class with kids who want to be there – that is, when kids quit. Because it’s an optional course, you can’t make anyone take it, so you sometimes waste a lot energy wondering why so-and-so quit, wondering what you did wrong. You have to consciously not beat yourself up over why anyone would quit something they are so good at. Talking about it with other arts teachers helps, because none of us is alone in that! Keeping it all inside is rarely a good thing.
Another frustrating part is lack of truly consistent funding for arts programs, being at the whim of provincial politics, education bureaucracy, and local/school decision making. I’ve been fortunate for most of my career in this regard, but I’ve seen the opposite and it’s frustrating to see something that is so incredibly good for kids to be treated like a useless fluffy frill, or worse yet, cut altogether. Fortunately in Lethbridge support is decent across the schools and our programs are in quite good shape relative to the rest of the province. Having said that, I am not sad to no longer face endless fundraising and grant writing in order to get the materials needed for a good music program. The funding from the province and/or schools is just not there for everything you need. There was more direct school board funding in my first 10 years or so of teaching, but Alberta Education switched to a site-based school system, at which point funding for instruments pretty much dried up. At that point I gave up my purist stance of insisting the province supply what was needed for classes and my wife Christine helped me write grants for the next 15 years. She finally had enough of that, so the last 5 or 10 years I’ve written them myself during my spare time, which is like pulling your own teeth during your spare time when you’re a right-brained arts teacher! We probably averaged somewhere around $10,000 per year in grants, so multi-6 figures in total over the years and tons of quality equipment going into several schools along the way, most of which is still in use. I’m not talking fundraising for trips and events, just for equipment to teach the course. Again, frustrating to have to do a LOT of work for grants, but the alternative was to go without. Most of that grant funding has been through Alberta Culture and Tourism from lotteries, but major kudos to local organizations such as The Community Foundation for Lethbridge and SW Alberta and most recently Sunrise Rotary club, among other service clubs, for their community funding.
Was there ever a time you wanted to give up because things just weren’t clicking with your students?
Yes, I seriously considered packing it in around the 11/12 year mark. The beginner enthusiasm had worn off but I didn’t yet see the full circle. I’m so glad now I didn’t leave the profession as the sum of the 32 years has been phenomenally rewarding and gratifying. I’ve noticed a lot of teachers hit a low around that decade mark, maybe for the same reasons.
When you do what you do and you want to take your kids to special events you have to fundraise. Discuss.
See my previous response. Fundraising seems to be a necessary evil in music education in 2018, at least in Alberta/Canada. I can honestly say I have had more than enough of fundraising and will run from it as fast as possible for the rest of my life. I’d be happy to pay more taxes and get a better community for it.
You’ve done so much extra-curricular work in the community. How were you able to balance it all?
Christine. (My wife) She was very patient and if/when I was out too much I always knew the kids were good and that I’d see them and make up the time soon. I was lucky to be a school teacher so i could really give back during Christmas/Easter/summer holidays. We didn’t travel a lot and I rarely did much during those holidays as there usually isn’t much on during those breaks (tons leading up to those breaks though!) and pretty much every group takes a rehearsal hiatus during them, so I was able to really give time back during my breaks. And our kids seemed to have turned out OK! Of course they came to a lot of musical events as they were growing up so being involved in and committed to things is something that seems to be normal for them. These pics are of my son Christopher in Stanford Univ Summer Orchestra (that’s their new concert hall on campus) and a promo shot of my daughter Camille in the lead role in a Toronto production last year of Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers.
Was administration ever in the cards?
Thought of it very briefly early on, but quickly figured out why not to do it. Teachers seem to need to exercise a lot of catharsis (we are the WORST behaved group when asked to pay attention to a speaker), I think from dealing with so many kids at a time. It’s easy to deal with kids who are basically doing their job of being teenagers, but I can’t imagine dealing with all the teachers’ complaints and problems all year long!
What are you going to miss the most?
Definitely the kids, especially getting to know them over time. I believe the world is in really good hands. It is refreshing to be around their creativity, energy, and idealism and gratifying to know how much they care about making a difference in the world, in other people’s lives, and how accepting they are of each other and being free to be who they really are. Even though they get a bad rap from much of society, they really are finer people than many/most adults! It’s amazing to think what they will solve/create/cure with their talents and intellect. We need them for our future, and they just need us to love and accept and encourage them. Even when they’re goofy teenagers who occasionally are misguided! After working with kids for 32 years I truly believe they are inherently good and when they do they bad things, there is always a reason, usually resulting from having been hurt in some way. I’ve not met a kid who is all bad, just some dealing with more stuff than I’ve ever had to deal with.
It’s been good to articulate these thoughts, so much has been swimming through my head the last month. This has been a timely exercise. One thing I’m going to miss is working with my LCI Fine Arts team colleagues, they are all phenomenal at what they do and being on a very creative team like that has been a real bonus. Many arts teachers teach in relative isolation and that can be hard. The last few months have been full of “lasts” – some good (last staff meeting, last report card marks submission), some sad (last concert, last rehearsal of group X, last class, etc.) but that whole time I’ve felt there must be some firsts coming. Lo and behold, I opened an email on my very last day of teaching last Friday with an invitation to adjudicate the Fort McMurry festival for 5 days in March – I’ve always wanted to see Fort Mac, and now I get to! The next morning on my first official day of retirement I opened another email with an invitation to adjudicate Edmonton Kiwanis Festival for 5 days in April. Talk about timely – in the words of Broadway’s Annie, “I think I’m gonna like it here”. Festivals treat you like royalty! And I’ve got a couple of Honour Bands lined up in the spring, which are always fun and exciting – 2 or 3 days to take top recommended kids from all over from scratch to concert. I’d love to do some supervising work with U of L student teachers, we’ll see.