This is Music Education: Joliet Central High School

Don Stinson - Joliet Central High School, Joliet

What prompted you to pursue a career in music education?

My high school band director, Mr. Ted Lega - He was encouraging and inspiring to us and he treated us like artists. He made us love who were and I wanted to be like him when I grew up. I would be remiss if I did not credit every teacher I had. Life was a little bit difficult growing up, but the Joliet schools took care of me and, dare I say, saved me by providing me with musical and artistic outlets and a sense of discipline and responsibility to my community.

Don Stinson leading the band in rehearsal at Joliet Central High School.

What is the most satisfying part of your job?

Since I was 14 years old, my dream job was to someday come back to my Alma mater and be the band director at Joliet Central. This came true for me in 2016 and it has exceeded every expectation. I’m very thankful for how lucky I am to be here, but I’m also a little nervous about it each day. I’ve committed to making this band my professional life’s work and I want to do the best that I can with it. Seeing the students each day calms my nerves, as they inspire me to work harder. We have a fantastic group of 14-18 year olds that are committed to bettering themselves and their community. Some of our kids have some very tough situations, but they don’t let those situations hold them back from achieving success. I’m very glad that they are involved and are representing our school.

Female student rehearsing on the piccolo

What makes the music program at your school unique?

Joliet Central has one of the oldest high school band programs in the nation. Our band was started in 1912 and in our 107 year history, I’m only the fifth director. We still have most of the files from the previous directors and the podium and desk I have were used by the founding director, A.R. McAllister. It’s daunting to think of all of that, but our students respect our unique band history and work hard to uphold our positive traditions. Our students, school and community hold the music program in high regard as a significant part of education.

What do students get from the music program that they do not get anywhere else in school?

My students have told me how much they enjoy being in a fairly unique activity that just so happens to be a curricular class. They enjoy having a regular part of their day dedicated to working as a group towards a common goal and feeding their passion for performing.

What are the top five reasons students are involved in music at your school?

In my students’ own words:

  1. “My mom made me and I’m glad she did” (kudos to those parents!)

  2. “I feel like I belong when I’m here”

  3. “I can’t stop playing and think it’s awesome that I can somehow get an A in a class just for hitting these drums”

  4. “We sign up for the director”

  5. “We feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

Students at Joliet Central High School rehearse on saxophones and trumpets.

How has ILMEA involvement benefited you and your students?

Our students are always excited about the opportunities that ILMEA offers through district and state level performances. ILMEA has also benefited them in a behind the scenes setting as a constant support system for me. Members, chairs, district presidents and even state level professionals are always a phone call or email away and have all been extremely helpful in everything from teaching techniques, financial resources and even state and local policy. ILMEA’s resources have been invaluable - both through tangible things as well as the support and knowledge.

What is one of your most memorable musical moments in your time at Joliet Central High School?

A tradition at Joliet Central is that our seniors participate fully with the band during graduation, including the processional and the recessional. They choose to perform with us instead of walking in and out of the ceremony with the other graduates and they consider it an honor to be involved. It always ends up being an emotional event. Four years ago, they were attending summer band camp as nervous freshmen and now they are moving on to college and careers. They come in with the band and leave with the band. Following the recessional, we perform our own march, March of the Steelmen. I hold the last note in that piece a little longer than usual on that day.

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in music education?

I think that some music teachers can put competitive and personal goals ahead of school and community performances - I have certainly been guilty of this. More importantly, I believe the new teacher should evaluate how a group or class can work to be involved in the school and community. Performing for school or community events is an easy and effective way for us to both support our community as well as gain support for our programs. Music festivals, competitions and invitationals are certainly educational and fun, but an ensemble can be an integral part of meeting the school’s vision by helping to develop positive local cultures. Performances, big or small, are how we provide community service. 

African-American student tuba player watches director during rehearsal at Joliet Central High School.

What surprised you about being a music teacher? What is something you didn’t anticipate moving from getting your degree to being in the classroom?

Administrative tasks can easily eclipse our primary goal, which is teaching the students. It becomes very easy to succumb to prioritizing paperwork, bus requests and email over consistent lesson planning. Ideally, you have to do it all, but I definitely needed to categorize and prioritize my tasks in those first few years. Email can be accessed at any time, but the students are only with you for a limited portion of their day. 

What are your goals for your music program over the school year?

We want even more kids in music! Joliet Central is over 75% low income, so things like band can be viewed as a luxury; that being said, we have a supportive district and parent organization that works to secure funding to supply instruments, reeds and accessories. Band is just... expensive. But worth it. We’re always working to secure more funding and donations to help serve as many students as possible.

I also hope my students keep playing. A concern of mine is that many of my students that graduate no longer have access to an instrument since so many are using school-owned instruments. I hope that their elementary, junior high and high school experience encourages them to find some way to make music a regular part of their lives after high school and college.

Don Stinson, Director of Bands at Joliet Central High School

Don Stinson is Director of Bands and teaches AP Music Theory at Joliet Central High School in Joliet, Illinois. He is a 2002 graduate of JCHS and went on to earn degrees from Joliet Junior College, VanderCook College of Music and a Master of Music Education from Northern Illinois University. Before Joliet Central, Stinson taught at Morris Community High School and Naperville North High School.