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The bands shine at Hudson High

Many of the school's best and brightest play an instrument, directors say

The band members at Hudson High School don't get a lot of publicity - at least not for their musical accomplishments.

But that's no reflection on them, according to their directors.

"Our kids are great. Our kids are fantastic," Aaron Hilden pronounces enthusiastically. "They're hard-working, they're dedicated, they're fun and they're funny. They're energetic and creative. The fact that we get to interact with them - have a relationship with these kids - is something most teachers would dream of having."

Hilden is conducting the school's Symphonic Band this school year. It meets the first hour of the school day for practices.

A lot of high school students are still half-asleep at 7:45 a.m., but Hilden says the members of his band are right with him when he raises the baton. He doesn't have to demand their attention.

"They're waiting for me to say where we're going. Let's do it. And that's an amazing thing."

What's more, Hudson High's band members are highly accomplished musically, according to Hilden.

The Wind Ensemble, the school's top band, plays college-level music and performs it as well as some university groups, he says.

"We have some of the most active and brightest kids in Hudson. They're the ones that come here and want to play an instrument. It's perfect for them because they can really grow and invest in it. And if they do, the rewards for them are pretty big."

Ryan McCarthy, the school's other band director, says the program benefits from a strong arts presence in the community.

While some high school band programs are always looking over their shoulders in fear of budget cuts, he and Hilden are able to concentrate on doing what's best for the student musicians, he says.

"Here, we're really able to focus on creating well-rounded individuals. That's our primary goal," McCarthy says.

The best example of that philosophy being put into practice might be the directors' decision to make marching band a voluntary extracurricular activity.

In most high schools, including his alma mater, Rosemount (Minn.) High School, participation in marching band is mandatory, according to McCarthy. The tendency is to use the marching band as a public relations tool, ensuring continued financial support for the band program.

"We really wanted to keep the focus in this program on the concert band. That's where we feel the highest level of musicianship performances are going to take place," McCarthy says.

At Hudson High, marching band practices have been taken out of the school day. And the marching band still typically has between 70 and 80 members and gives solid performances, according to McCarthy.

"The kids love to do it. They have great experiences," he says.

Hilden, 30, and McCarthy, 32, both arrived at Hudson High in the fall of 2001, replacing former directors Chris Tank and Robin Beauchamp.

The fact that they were hired at the same time, had roughly the same amount of teaching experience and were acquainted had made for a unique working relationship. Instead of one of them being the head director and the other the associate, they share leadership of the program.

This year, McCarthy is directing the top-level Wind Ensemble and Hilden is in charge of the Symphonic Band. Next year, they'll reverse the roles. They team teach the freshman-level Varsity Band, the school's third concert band.

McCarthy, a percussionist in high school, is in charge of an after-school percussion ensemble named ExCuPeEn. He also leads the marching band because of the depth of his experience in that performance area.

Hilden, a high school saxophonist, is responsible for the top-level jazz ensemble that meets during the school day. He and McCarthy each also direct an after-school jazz ensemble.

They offer music theory as an independent-study class. They have a computer lab set up where students can experiment with composing and recording their own music.

Students also can participate in pep band and the orchestra for school musicals.

Participation in the band program has grown to close to 175 students. The year Hilden and McCarthy arrived, 120 students were members of one or more of the school's bands.

Hilden is a River Falls native. At River Falls High School, band director LeRoy Lee fed his love for jazz and encouraged him to pursue a career in music by allowing him to occasionally conduct the band during rehearsals.

He married jazz singer Jennifer Grimm last November, and the couple now has a baby on the way. The two met when Jennifer filled in for her aunt, Hudsonite Debbie O'Keefe, one night as the vocalist for the Minnesota Jazz Orchestra, of which Hilden is a member.

Jennifer's mother is well-known Ellsworth singer Colleen Raye.

The Jazz Orchestra plays the Wabasha Street Caves in downtown St. Paul the second Thursday of each month.

Hilden attended UW-Stevens Point after high school, where he met McCarthy, who also attended the university before transferring to UW-River Falls.

The two actually became better acquainted after McCarthy transferred to River Falls, where they would run into each other in the Fine Arts Building practice rooms during semester breaks.

Hilden served an internship at New London, Wis., and then served in the middle school there for three years before coming to Hudson.

McCarthy taught at his hometown Rosemount Middle School for four years before he was hired as a band director at Hudson.

McCarthy also is married and has a 3-year-old son. His wife delivered their second son by C-section on Monday of this week.

A poor experience in band as a middle-schooler almost caused him to drop out, McCarthy says, but a vibrant high school program made him glad he didn't.

He said he decided when he was a senior in high school that he wanted to give younger people the same kind of experience he had at Rosemount High.

One indicator of the success of the Hudson program is the number of students who go on to play in a college band, even if they don't major in music, according to McCarthy.

"A lot of them are still playing just because they love it," Hilden says. "That's the real deal, when you take it with you."

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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