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Watauga Community Band Seeks to Help Young Musicians in Watauga Schools Get Instruments

Watauga Community Band board and donated instruments. Picture by the WCB.

The song, “How Do You Keep the Music Playing,” is a Michel Legrand composition that asks a question for which a local group of musicians would like to provide at least a local answer.

The High Country and Foothills have long been the cradle of great music, with many notable musicians and bands born and nurtured in the area. Musicians of all genres, from flat picking guitar Grammy winner Doc Watson to Lenoir High School’s Cpt. Harper, the late Michael Houser, guitar player from rock group “Widespread Panic” from Boone, to Granite Falls native and ASU grad Eric Church with many country music hits. And the Hayes School of Music at ASU has, for decades, fielded many outstanding professional musicians and teachers.

School systems are seeing more pressure for academic courses, sometimes squeezing arts and music, so the danger seen by the Watauga Community Band is that some talented student musician may miss a lifelong opportunity.

Watauga Community Band president Steve Frank inadvertently discovered a potential area of need when asked about a horn for a high school student. After loaning out one of his own horns, Frank asked long-time friend and local band director Beaver Robinette about his experience for students needing horns. Robinette, son of two band directors, described a variety of circumstances he and other area band directors encounter when trying to match especially new students with a playable instrument. Robinette said that, while most new students arrive with a good instrument, others who want to play have families who juggle priorities of school supplies for the new school year versus the cost of an instrument—new or used. Robinette said that band directors are quite creative in how they meet most of these needs, but his worst fear is to fall short for a student who really wants to play.

Hearing that, Frank, who also directs choir and plays various instruments for Mountainside Lutheran Church in Linville, told his choir to be on the lookout for instruments, and was soon told of an alto sax at a local thrift store. Frank looked over the horn, found it to be playable and bought it, then went next door to find another thrift store had a serviceable trombone, which he also bought. He then went to the community band board with the idea of trying to help out students who can’t afford instruments. The board agreed, and Frank announced the idea to the band at rehearsal, and a number of players soon came in with trumpets, clarinets, and other instruments, donating them for the program.

What the band needed next was a mechanism for getting these instruments into the hands of students, so Frank contacted the Watauga County Schools and received the blessing of the school system for the program—and some guidance from the school system’s band directors about operating the program.

Beaver Roy Robinette and Steve Frank. Picture by the WCB.

Robinette’s advice to the Watauga Community Band was about the psychology of instrument ownership. He said that a student takes much more pride in an instrument they can take ownership of with some sort of payment, no matter how small. But he also suggested that, when the family just can’t afford payments, the Community Band contract with the student and parents. He suggested that the instrument is theirs as long as they are taking band, but if they leave the band program, the instrument is returned to the Community Band to find a new owner. And Frank said such a student can ‘earn’ ownership by staying in the band program into their high school years. Such an ‘arrangement’ comes with a contract between the student and the band, endorsed by a parent or guardian.

What was also communicated from the band directors is that they struggle more in providing larger and often more expensive instruments; larger saxes, baritone horns, tubas, bassoons, bass clarinets, percussion and the like.

With the announcement of the program to the Community Band and other bands Frank is associated with, a number of musicians with instrument repair skills stepped forward, offering to do adjustments and minor repairs. Frank said several of these instruments have been looked over, adjusted and repaired, and are in excellent shape and ready for playing. Frank said, “The Community Band has a number of retired and current band directors, and many of these folks are trained and have experience in repair.”

The band is looking to recoup only the cost they have in an instrument—the purchase cost plus any repairs—and that payments can be set up to meet whatever the family or student can afford. Frank said, “That wouldn’t be the case with a student who can’t afford to make payments. We would recoup the cost in the pleasure of watching their growth and joy in music.”

The program will operate by having area band directors as the initial point of contact, with that director then contacting the community band about the need of a particular student. WCB will also keep in touch with area band directors to inform them of any instruments that come to them, available to students.

Anyone who knows of an instrument that might be a fit for the Community Band program could email the band at wataugacommunityband@gmail.com or through the contact portal on their website, wataugacommunity.band. And donations to the project are welcome, with checks to: Watauga Community Band, mailed to 454 Grand Blvd., Boone NC, 28607. The band phone number is 828-372-2030 and connects to another landline, so, if no answer, leave a message regarding the program there.

The Watauga Community Band is a 501 (c)(3) not for profit organization, and such donations may be tax deductable.

Horns donated for students program. Picture by the WCB.

Robinette Family and Steve Frank Share 50+ Year Musical History

Steve Frank recounts how he nearly missed out on what has turned into a secondary career: being a ‘bandsman.’ While growing up in Charlotte, Frank changed schools from Park Road to Selwyn Elementary in the 1960’s. Students from Park Road were not offered instrumental music as early as students at Selwyn, and in changing schools, Steve missed that start date with the Selwyn band already formed.

But, as fate would have it, the Frank family moved to Salisbury in 1964, and as a part of the preparation for a move into junior high, Beaver Roy Robinette’s Knox band made its rounds to all the elementary schools in Salisbury. Steve heard the band at Wiley School and told his parents of his desire to join the band in the 7th grade.

Beaver Roy Robinette, father of local band director Beaver Ross Robinette, set Steve up to play clarinet, telling him that he could move to saxophone in a year or two. Keeping his word, Robinette took Steve aside going into his 8th grade year, and offered him the school’s bari sax to make the transition. Frank says today the transition was the equivalent of “strapping a reed to a sewer pipe and trying to make it sound like music.” And, he explained, the second year of band at Knox involved giving concerts, so Frank had to make the transition much on his own, equipped only with a saxophone fingering chart. “And the first piece on our first concert started with a bari sax solo on “Windy,” a pop song by “The Association.” “Baptism by fire,” he says.

Although Steve Frank did not end up majoring in music when he enrolled at UNC Chapel Hill, music would soon change his life in a number of ways. He joined the Marching Tarheel Band, and there, in his sophomore year, met freshman Susan Adams from China Grove, only minutes from his hometown of Salisbury. They will celebrate 42 years of marriage in January of 2019.

And Frank ponders, “How many fraternities from any school—especially in the 1970’s—had a Dixieland Band?” “Ours (Pi Lambda Phi) did,” and he explained “When Carowinds opened in 1973, the band was hired to play on the riverboat there. We played six hours a day six days a week, and by the end of that summer, we had really become jazz musicians.”

In the late 1980’s, Frank was part of the start-up of a big band in Lenoir, and needing a sax player, someone suggested a retired band director from Marion. That turned out to be Beaver Roy Robinette, Steve’s first band director. “I was working for Channel 9 in those days,” Frank said, “and was also building an FM radio station in Lenoir, so I could get called out of ANY activity at any time to cover a story. So it was great to have a real band director there to carry on whenever that happened.”

Penny Robinette Taylor, Daisy Robinette, Beaver Roy Robinette, Beaver Ross Robinette. Picture by the WCB.

Frank noted the irony of his first band director playing under his direction, and said the irony continued as he moved his family to Boone to build what became “Highway 106,” the High Country’s most powerful radio station. Frank said, “I joined the Watauga Community Band in 2000, and later became the summer director with both Beaver and his wife Daisy Robinette—and their daughter Penny— in that band.”

“Looking back,” he said, “I remembered seeing Beaver and Daisy’s very young children, Penny and ‘Little Beav,’ Beaver Ross Robinette, at Knox while their dad was working with the band.” Decades later, ‘Little Beav’ took the job with the Watauga Schools, and it was Beaver Ross Robinette whom Frank approached with his idea of helping with instruments for students.

“So,” Frank recounted, “with music, my life ‘turned on a dime,’ as they say. Had I not moved to Salisbury, I would not have joined Beaver’s band program, would not have joined the Marching Tarheels and met my future wife. And we would not have embarked on the path that now has led us—Susan and I—to the Watauga Community Band and our other bands, ‘Swing Set’ and ‘High Standards.’” The Franks also serve at Mountainside Lutheran in Linville, Susan as organist, Steve as choir director.

“Notable notes,” Frank said, of a 50+ year history involving the Robinettes and Franks, with new chapters yet to be written.