Longtime band director to hand up baton
MIDDLEBURY — Gene Childers, 66, has been marching to his own tune since he was six years old.
Students in the region have been following Childers’ marching orders for more than four decades during his long career as a music instructor and band director, the past 22 years of which have been spent at Middlebury Union Middle School.
While the music will play on at MUMS, Otter Valley Union High School and the other schools at which Childers has provided musical inspiration and guidance, the band leader will be putting down his baton when school lets out next month. Childers, a Brandon resident, has decided to retire to pursue other musical interests.
“I’m certainly old enough to retire, though I have plenty of energy for the work,” Childers said on Monday surrounded by eerily idle instruments during a rare moment of silence and solitude in the MUMS band room.
Childers took some time to reflect on a lifelong love affair with music that has sent him into performance halls, churches, schools and along parade routes throughout the world. Music also helped unite him with his spouse, Jean, more than 40 years ago.
“I take what I do seriously, in part because of my belief that music is in everyone’s heart and soul,” Childers said.
Childers learned to appreciate music growing up as a young child in Johnson. His mom was an excellent singer, and he found out he could also carry a tune. He got a radio at around age 6 and kept it turned on.
“I listened to what was then ‘pop music,’ non-stop,” Childers recalled. “I still know the lyrics to more songs than I should know.”
Pop music back then was primarily big-band and artists like Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. Spurred on by what he’d heard, a 7-year-old Childers summoned up the courage in 1950 to participate in a local talent contest. He took a respectable third place with his rendition of “Me and My Teddy Bear,” losing out to a couple of tap dancers and a ukulele player.
Not long after that contest, the Childers clan moved to Orleans, where another coincidental occurrence solidified Gene Childers’ future with music. A classmate was getting ready to throw away a trumpet that was in pretty rough shape. Childers rescued the instrument from the scrap heap, made some rudimentary repairs, and started taking lessons at 50 cents a pop.
That instrument led to him joining a group of other young teens in a jazz and swing musical group they dubbed “The Saints.” It was around this time that Childers met another music enthusiast — his future wife.
The group became tighter and was ready, by the early 1960s, to perform at local venues. Among them was the Elks Club in Derby, where “The Saints” would rub shoulders with future jazz luminaries and big-band royalty.
“I hung out with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and the Tommy Dorsey Band,” Childers recalled with pride. “Every other week, these guys packed the place. It was a wonderful opportunity to be around great music and great musicians.”
But Childers’ musical future came to a crossroads upon graduating from high school, when he enrolled at the University of Vermont — in pre-med. His flirtation with a medical career proved short-lived, however, as he quickly felt the tug of music. He transferred to the UVM music department, trained as a music teacher, with specific interests in musicology and music therapy.
Childers got his first music-related teaching job in 1966 at the Chester K-12 school. He enjoyed that experience immensely, but after two years, decided to take a band instructor position at Otter Valley Union High School. He developed a special affinity for working with middle school students.
“Kids come in with child-like (traits) in them, but go out as young adults in a short time span,” Childers said.
He summed up his feelings about middle schoolers in a poem:
“They make me smile no matter who, the things they say, the things they do. Part grown-up yet part a child, they do great things, they have a style. They’re only some of what they’ll become but every daughter, every son in school belongs to everyone. They’re only ours a little while but they’re the best. They make me smile.”
After eight years at OVUHS, Childers experienced a touch of wanderlust. He was married, with two children, a dog, a cat and a house in Brandon, but always wanted to travel. Childers decided to seize the moment and in 1977 applied, through a placement agency, for a teaching assignment abroad.
“I told them I wanted to go to Brazil,” Childers recalled. “I ended up going to Egypt.”
Specifically, Cairo American College, where he taught music to primarily foreign nationals. It proved an enriching time for himself and his family. It was the late-1970s, a period of rapprochement between longtime Middle East adversaries Egypt and Israel.
“The tensions were not there when we were over there,” Childers said. “Americans were well tolerated.”
The family made friends and associations that last to this day. But after three years, they decided to come back to Vermont, where Childers dabbled in the international hotel industry, started his own one-man band, and taught part-time at the Clarendon Elementary School. Then, during the early 1980s, he took what would become a two-year job at the Brandon Training School using music as a therapeutic tool for clients at the facility.
“I learned a lot while I was there, about the power of music,” Childers said. “No matter what the person’s limits, they responded to music.”
Childers moved on to the Rochester K-12 school in 1984, spending four years there.
“It was a wonderful place to be,” Childers recalled. “That valley is full of talent. I would involve the entire school in K-12 productions. Almost anything I needed (in terms of resources), I could get.”
MOVE TO MUMS
While content in Rochester, Childers moved on to the middle school in Middlebury in 1988. The new job carried a substantially higher salary and the chance to work exclusively with middle schoolers.
“It was a bigger school system; I could see more possibilities,” Childers said.
During the early years, MUMS shared a building with Middlebury Union High School. Childers recalled the middle school band room was tucked away on a crowded fourth floor.
“There were teachers across the hall,” Childers said, “God bless them, they put up with a lot.”
Under Childers’ watch, the middle school band program grew to one of the largest in the state, at one point counting 182 students in various offerings, including jazz, beginner musicians, percussionists, brass, etc. He established the MUMS “Culture Club” to foster appreciation of music and respect for visiting performing artists.
“I would bring in groups of a cultural nature and we would act as an appropriate audience,” Childers recalled, noting a variety of top-class college performers and military bands visited the school.
MUMS phased out the Culture Club around eight years ago. And since the school dropped its music requirement around six years ago, Childers has noticed a corresponding drop in band attendees. There are now around 65 MUMS band participants, according to Childers.
He hopes band survives at MUMS and other schools. In the meantime, Childers will not rest on his musical laurels in “retirement.” He participates in a church choir, actively writes music and has a show called “Vermont Sketches” he recently brought to the Town Hall Theater stage. He will continue to collaborate with his wife, Jean, a pianist and organist.
“She is a right hand to me when it comes to music,” said Childers.
He will be missed by students and colleagues alike in the Addison Central Supervisory Union.
“He opened my eyes to the wonderful opportunities there are for me as a musician and motivated me to become a better trumpet player,” said former Childers student Ben Elmore, now a junior at MUHS.
As the band instructor at MUHS, Anne Sevry has seen firsthand the results of Childers’ work with young musicians. She said he has had an artistic impact on many young people.
“Gene has provided thousands of students the experience of not only playing an instrument and being in an ensemble, but also (introducing them to) the myriad of different styles of music,” Sevry said. “He achieved this by providing diverse concert programs and ensembles such as World Music, guitar, Jazz Ensemble, in addition to his concert bands. Most importantly, Gene taught students how to love the actual performing of music and to be true to oneself by living in the moment.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].