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Class Notes 


At ear-splitting volume, about 40 student musicians onstage in the Hunt Middle School auditorium are energetically warming up their instruments for a rehearsal. The band director, Craig Olzenak, puts two fingers in his mouth to whistle for their attention. The cacophony subsides. These lively Burlington eighth-graders seem well aware of the mantra behind every aspiring virtuoso: practice, practice, practice.

The bearded, bespectacled Olzenak, who turns 49 this week, claps his hands with purposeful syncopation. The seated kids follow suit. This is a way of "establishing a basic rhythm," he notes, for the rather martial-sounding piece they're about to tackle, "Of a Distant Galaxy."

Boys tooting saxophones, trumpets and trombones in an attempt to master a particular refrain are distracted by girls chattering in the clarinet section. "Ladies," Olzenak admonishes the talkers. "Too loud."

Everyone settles down. It's 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the last antsy period of the school day. But this artistic pursuit fosters a gravitas not usually evident in people who are 13 or 14 years old. The first concert of the season is scheduled in two weeks. And although amateurs, they may be imagining themselves on the threshold of -- what else to call it? -- show business. As Olzenak picks up a baton to lead them in a run-through of the tune, he chants: "One, two…one, two, yeah, go!"

SEVEN DAYS: What is the upcoming event?

CRAIG OLZENAK: It's a district fall sampler, at Burlington High School on October 22, to demonstrate what we've learned this semester.

SD: Just this particular group?

CO: No. Our seventh and eighth grades will be combined -- that's 80 or so all together. It's a sampler for bands and choruses from Hunt, Edmunds Middle School and BHS.

SD: How many kids do you work with?

CO: I have 180 of them on my roster. In addition to directing band, I teach three sections of a music history survey, with a hands-on guitar component. And I work individually with students before and after school.

SD: That must make for a long day.

CO: You bet. I'm here at 7:15 every morning, then ‘til at least 3:45 every afternoon. I've been in the Burlington district for eight years, but teaching for more than 30 in some shape or form.

SD: Where are you from originally?

CO: Minneapolis. I got my degree in music education at the University of Minnesota in 1976, then attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in a two-year master's program for orchestral clarinet.

SD: That was your horn of choice?

CO: Well, I imagined myself a trumpet player because you get to stand up and solo. Louis Armstrong and Al Hirt inspired me. But I didn't have the lips for it. Clearly, the trumpet wasn't happening for me. I always tell the kids, "You may have some physical limitations in playing your favorite instrument, but try it anyhow."

SD: Have you performed professionally?

CO: Yes. To put myself through college as an undergraduate, I played swing with the Jules Herman Big Band. I met my wife, Amanda Amend, who is a violinist, when we both were members of the Monterey Symphony in California. That was from 1979 to 1981, when I'd finished grad school.

SD: And then?

CO: Amanda was offered a job teaching the Suzuki violin method in Wisconsin. I was an adjunct music instructor there for two years, at Carleton College in North-field, while running a private studio for clarinet and sax. I also commuted two hours to play with the Minnesota Composers Forum, a contemporary music ensemble. In 1983, we both accepted positions at Grinnell College in Iowa, where we spent the next nine years.

SD: Academia was your goal?

CO: Amanda changed careers in the early 1990s by concentrating on Spanish. She stopped teaching strings and earned her language credentials. Our idea was to live abroad. We moved to Seville, Spain. She directed an English studies program; I was a house mouse.

SD: A house mouse?

CO: I needed a sabbatical. So I cooked, cleaned and did the laundry. But, at the same time, I gave master classes at some conservatories, played chamber music and opened a private studio.

SD: That sounds like a lovely lifestyle. What made you decide to leave Europe?

CO: Both of our fathers were in ill health at that point. We wanted to be closer to family. We looked at a number of communities, then flipped a coin to see who would go after another graduate degree. Amanda wanted a master's in English as a Second Language, and St. Michael's College has a very good ESL program. She now teaches Spanish there. Burlington seemed to be a friendly place, with a number of schools, the Vermont Symphony Orchestra [for which I play clarinet], the beautiful outdoors and proximity to bigger cities like Montreal, Boston and New York. Plus, we hadn't really lived in New England before.

SD: What next?

CO: I started teaching in Johnson State's external degree program, freelancing with the VSO and taking on private students. I also began as a teacher's aide at Edmunds Middle School and thought, "Wow, I really like what I'm seeing." In 1995, when the previous band director retired, I took over that role at Edmunds and Hunt for three years. After another full-time person was hired, it was difficult for me to choose which school to stick with. Hunt, though, means a 10-minute walk to work. And I've really become part of the community here -- I feel like part of a family now.

SD: Do you and Amanda have children?

CO: We've chosen not to have our own. But as teachers, we get to spend all day with youngsters.

SD: Are the kids in band generally taking private lessons?

CO: The majority of my students do not. Very few are financially able, or else they're too busy. Although some own or rent their instruments, we provide school instruments to everyone who needs them. They may have had some music in elementary school. However, I always put up a sign: "No experience necessary, only enthusiasm."

SD: Are they enthusiastic?

CO: Very much so. We have them sign a contract. They're expected to practice at home six days a week if they want an A. Beginners need 10 to 15 minutes; seventh and eighth graders should do 20 to 30 minutes per session. We collect their practice charts, signed by their parents, every Friday. At school, the band rehearses every other day for 45 minutes.

SD: Does that approach pay off?

CO: At the end of each semester, it always blows parents away how much their kids have learned in three months. By graduation, one of every three students has tried band. Studies show that when you participate in the arts, it makes you better at other subjects. This is an environment to discover themselves as they work through adolescence.

SD: Do they tend to continue after leaving Hunt?

CO: Some are very serious about it. I try to model music for them as a lifelong skill, but if it's just a hobby, I'm happy with that.

SD: What's most satisfying about your occupation?

CO: I like to think I've helped teenagers blossom as individuals and mature.

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