BRATTLEBORO — For Stephen Rice, moments of joy come in “the countless moments in rehearsals when a piece of music we've been working onstarts sounding really good and everyone feels that powerful feeling of connection - that something truly special, unique, and memorable is happening.”
Or they might come “in lessons when a student has been struggling with a skill or concept, and then there's the moment when it clicks and you can see the sense of understanding and accomplishment.”
Next Thursday, May 25, Rice will conduct the Brattleboro Union High School Band and Jazz Band for one last time at the annual Pops Concert.
After nearly 37 years of teaching music and serving as band director and music department head, Rice, 57, will take a final bow to begin his retirement in June.
Rice estimates that during his career here, he's taught more than 1,100 students, served as music director for 35 musicals, and brought students to 140 music festivals, including district, all-state and New England, and all-Eastern. He's directed bands in 270 concerts and led bands at 140 football games.
“The thing above all that has kept me here is the way the Brattleboro community so values my work and the arts in general,” Rice says.
“Music specifically has such a rich tradition,” he continues. “Whether it's classical, or jazz or traditional music, music of all styles, there is a lot of honest valuing of the work of musicians and the value of the arts. Those values of the community have kept me here.”
The biggest challenge in the last few years was teaching band during a pandemic, when most of the learning was done remotely. “It proved itself to be difficult at best, if not impossible,” he says.
“And so then conversely, over the last few years what's been rewarding is getting back into in-person live band and rediscovering the magic in that,” Rice says, noting the joy comes not only for him but for his students as well.
Growing up musically
“As a preschooler, I'd take things like wooden spoons and bang on chairs,” recalls Rice, who was born and raised in Buckland, Massachusetts. “Eventually after I'd done some damage to the furniture, my parents got me a play drum set - the Monkees drum set - which had paper heads on it. I'm sure I went through that pretty quickly. When I was 8, they got me a snare drum.”
Rice credits Don Kitson as “the first teacher who connected me in meaningful ways to music.”
“He started me as a percussionist in the fourth grade and gave me my first drum set lesson in fifth grade,” he says. “He made a place for me in the Jazz Band and was an important influence on my feeling connected to music and feeling successful in music.”
Although Rice's parents were not musical themselves, they were “wholeheartedly supportive” of his passion for music and participated in the music programs at his small high school in Massachusetts.
“A lot of my early education in music was through people I was listening to: countless drum set players and other artists that gave me the real fever for music,” he says. Included among them: singer/songwriter James Taylor. “I loved to sing his music and singing was in some ways as central to my music identity as drumming was.”
“I had a group of friends who liked to get together to sing and harmonize and I had a little bit of singing training as a young child singing church choir,” Rice says. “Later, I got roles in high school musicals, which gave me solo singing opportunities.”
When he graduated from Mohawk Trail Regional High School, the prospect of a career as a music educator “was not even on my radar screen yet,” says Rice, who started his post-secondary education at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“But at the beginning of second semester of college I opted to transfer to UMass and had to declare an aspect of music which I would major in,” he says. “So by default I chose music ed.”
Though he did so because he didn't see himself “trying to make a living as a performer,” teaching as a career “very quickly started to grow on me,” he says.
“I thought it was something I could do well and something I could balance that need to make a living with continuing to be a musician,” he adds.
Rice received bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in music education.
In January of 1987, he began student teaching at BUHS and that fall served as a long-term substitute teacher, applying for the permanent position that became available when his cooperating teacher chose not to return from maternity leave. He was made music department head in 2004.
Rice says one of his mentors shared the idea that “as teachers, we should be very interested in who our students currently are” but that the larger responsibility is to be interested in who they are becoming - “to help them see who they want to be.”
The goal, he says, is to get students to think about their reason for being on the Earth, so they don't get “so wrapped up in the here and now.”
An accomplished musician, Rice plays a variety of instruments.
“I can make sounds and get through different scales on all of the instruments in band but the ones I'm most proficient at are in the percussion family,” he says. “Those are the ones that I can play at a professional level. I feel most at home on timpani and drum set.”
He considers his “strongest secondary instruments” to be low brass instruments: euphonium, tuba, French horn and trombone.
“They're my favorite because I can play them best,” says Rice, who has led a Tuba Christmas event at the First Congregational Church in Brattleboro for many years. “I like the feeling, the sound of that low, low brass.”
Along the way, Rice has received numerous awards and honors, including a Governor's Arts Award -The Arthur Williams Award for Meritorious Service to the Arts - in 2016 from then-Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Vermont Arts Council.
He was named Vermont Music Educator of the Year in 2014. He adds that the most meaningful awards were those from his peers. One example: the Madlyn Moore Outstanding Employee of the Year, which he received from the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union in 2018.
Witness to history
In 2009, Rice brought the BUHS Band to Washington to play for Barack Obama's first presidential inauguration.
The scope of it still stands out, he says: first, the application process, and then, “once we were invited, the logistics of raising $60,000 over the span of six weeks.”
“Then, preparing the band for that performance,” he continues. “I remember many, many rehearsals outdoors on days where it was 0 degrees or 10 degrees and brass players' valves were getting stuck. But the students remained so enthusiastic and didn't resist the need to be outside and doing that work.”
Once in Washington, the band was on its bus and found NBC's Today Show and its weather reporter/host Al Roker needing to catch a ride to the staging area for the inaugural parade.
“I remember Al was in one of the front seats and I was on the other side in the front seat, and we were listening on the radio as Obama is being sworn in,” he says, recalling that he and Roker were “tearing up with the emotion of that moment.”
“And then going over the Potomac and by the Mall and seeing the throngs of people - it was so overwhelming, like nothing we had ever seen before.
“And the joy you could sense in the city that day. The parade itself was amazing. It was cold and windy and the students were really suffering. Marching by the new president, we got a wink and a point from Joe Biden, and President Obama gave us a wave, so that was very memorable.”
A musical life
He met his wife, Jen, at UMass; she was also a music education major, and both are percussionists.
“We have family band nights at home with me playing keys and bass. Jen plays drums, my soon to be son-in-law Rob plays guitar, and daughters Kayla and Molly are on vocals,” Rice says.
Jen Rice taught music for many years in Wilmington before switching careers to early childhood education. She will also be retiring this year.
Steve Rice has performed with the Vermont Jazz Center Big Band and the VJC Sextet; the Windham, Vermont Symphony and Keene Chamber orchestras; the Brattleboro Concert Choir, and many other groups.
How did he keep such an active performance schedule while teaching full time and raising two kids?
“I felt like I had to keep playing - it's such an important part of who I am,” he says. “I feel like, especially as a teacher at the secondary level, if I didn't continue to experience music at high levels and do challenging things musically that I would have less to offer my students.”
Rice acknowledges that “it did create a significant deficiency of time, and that was stressful. Too often, it required me to sacrifice time with my family. I'm not sure I ever did find a healthy balance of work, music performance and family.”
After he retires, “Travel will be a big priority,” says Rice as he anticipates three travel experiences, including a trip to Ireland in September.
“I will continue to do private teaching, and am joining the illustrious faculty at Brattleboro Music Center, where they have a room specifically designed for brass and percussion,” he says. “I anticipate having more time to practice and being able to play more gigs.”
“It's my last school concert, and I'm really excited about it - and excited about the music the band and jazz band are playing,” Rice says.
He invited 38 former students and colleagues to sit in with the Band and Jazz Band, including alumni who are pursuing a career in music. “About 26 of them are able to attend and participate,” he says.
The last two songs in the Pops program are the most meaningful to him.
“Amazing Grace,” setting by Frank Ticheli, is my expression of gratitude for the many acts of human grace that brought me to Brattleboro and that have benefited me so much while I've been teaching here,” notes Rice.
And he calls the last song, an arrangement of Paul Simon's Late in the Evening, “my expression of joy and celebration about my time here working with students, my joy in anticipation of retirement, and my joy in anticipation of the great things that await the band with the new director.”