Music lives within each of us and all around us, from the rhythm of our breath to our beating hearts, from singing birds to wind rustling through leaves. Dan Connolly, Saint Thomas Academy’s first-year band director and instrumental music teacher, brings that mentality to his work.
He and his scores of students ensure that music pervades the metaphorical pillars of Saint Thomas Academy, including academic rigor. “All academic areas are tied together,” Connolly said. “Band is no exception to that. Whether it’s playing at Mass along with the choir or at military events or going over the physics of sound and how sound waves work.
“We talk about the history of music and how music is related to our culture. It’s important to know where music comes from and how it can express things from our history. There are lots of wonderful pieces of music for concert band that tell stories, for example, of the trail of tears for Native Americans or the slave trade. Music is a good way to explore the emotion of what those events were like.”
Clearly, Connolly’s approach to music education and music’s role in campus culture is not all fun and games. Though, of course, his band plays at plenty of sports events.
The roughly 80 members across all grades at the Academy also comprise their own military company, perform three formal concerts per school year, and compete in solo or ensemble contests. There is also a jazz band that meets at 7 a.m., meaning some students occasionally put in 12-hour days, including classes and performances at after-school events.
That kind of workload leaves no room for a taskmaster approach, such as the one used by the drum teacher in the film Whiplash. Although Connolly primarily plays percussion, he laughs at the mere possibility of teaching that way. “I’m a little bit on the more relaxed side,” he said. “I like to just state my expectations and hold students to those. I trust them to be leaders in the classroom and hold themselves to the expectations, such as working alone at home on their parts so that when we’re together in class the parts can come together.”
Connolly’s ideas about structure also inform his day-to-day classroom approach. “I think of things in terms of scaffolding,” he said. “We start with the basics, basic technique, basic posture. That’s what everything is built on. I tell my older students to build up those fundamentals, so that once they’ve mastered them, they can then forget about them and feel comfortable and free enough to focus on expressing themselves through the art of music.”
Connolly has honed his teaching style in the 12 years since he earned his degree in instrumental music education at the University of Minnesota-Morris. His career stops have included Ogilvie Public School, Caledonia Area Public Schools, the 212th Regiment Marching Band, and Renville County West Schools, all in Minnesota, plus three schools in the Virginia/Maryland area before returning to ISD #728 in Elk River, MN, and Minneapolis’ Carondelet Catholic School.
Viewing structure as important in educating individual students, Connolly also sees himself building the overall band program at the Academy. “They have a pretty strong program here already,” he said. “It hasn’t been in the spotlight like some of the athletics programs, but going through the interview process I felt that the school, the parents, and the students want the band program to grow. There’s a good basis for it here. We’re going to work on recruitment and retention. The students have a ton of potential, and we’re going to challenge them to rise to that potential.”
Students will have input into what the bands perform, Connolly said, though don’t be surprised to hear his favorite classical composers, Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Holst, and John Philip Sousa. On the jazz side, he said, “Max Roach is a hero of mine,” and lists his other influences as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Elvin Jones, and John Coltrane.
Exposure to all those musicians should inspire students, though Connolly takes a realistic view of his students’ futures. “I don’t expect them to pursue music as a career, though it’s wonderful if they do,” he said. “I expect they will leave with a deeper appreciation for music and how they can involve music in their daily lives, whether by participating in community ensembles, going to the opera some evenings, or just enjoying a good concert at First Avenue.”