Saturday, March 19, 2011

Rex Mitchell

I first encountered Dr. Mitchell when I was in seventh grade at Junior High District Band. He was the guest conductor, and while our home directors regularly made their peace with the motley assortment of musical abilities they faced, he was not so interested in compromise.
Most of us had never encountered someone who was so serious about music who wasn’t our regular teacher. It wasn’t that he treated making music as grim or joyless, but he treated it like it was something important. We played one of his newer compositions in that concert. It was “Song for the Young,” and like many of his pieces it became a popular standard of programming in the band world. For the next fifteen years I think I played “Song for the Young,” somewhere, every year.
Rex was not afraid of a tough crowd. He did guest conducting gigs, which have to be the toughest in the band director world. You walk into a building and for a few days take over a group of teenagers, many of whom are fiercely loyal to their regular director and his way of doing things, and who spend much of their rehearsal time thinking about lunch, homework, and that cute member of the opposite gender sitting over there.
Rex had to know all that—he had teenagers of his own—but he didn’t approach young musicians with the faintest hint of “Well, you’re only high school kids.”
Instead it was the students who asked (quietly, indirectly), “What do you want from us? We’re just kids!”
Rex’s reply (quietly, indirectly) was, “I want you to play as well as you possibly can, because it matters.”
Dr. Mitchell’s musical fingerprints are all over this region. For many years you couldn’t swing a western Pennsylvanian cat without hitting a band or choir director that he had trained. They were not only strong and talented educators, but also a network, like a group of people who had belonged to a select fraternity, a kind of Mitchell mafia. For years many of the players who had first worked together in his seminal Lab Jazz Band at Clarion continued to work together as a grown up dance band.
He was a talented performer in a small town setting, which meant that he could find himself working with other musicians well below his ability. He once hired three of us who were core members of a local Dixie band to work with him for a party at Rockmere. He told us to just use our usual arrangements and he would try to fit in, and then proceeded to play rings around us. He could have been a diva, and he could have shamed us by musically upstaging us, but he was gracious and classy. What could have been scary or intimidating for us ended up being a great deal of fun.
He was a solid composer of works for band—not an easy field to make a mark in. In 1971 he composed “The Silver Cornets” march for the Franklin town band. We still play it at our concerts every summer, and so do many other bands across the country.
And if none of that had been true, he still would have been the man who put together the Venango Chorus and the jazz band concerts in Justus Park. The chorus has given a great outlet to so many area singers. And very few people could put together a band of that caliber; very few performing groups could fill that park with so many appreciative audience members.
Venangoland is not always a nurturing environment for the arts. Some folks would rather take a football to the gut than sit through a concert or walk through an art exhibit. And even some of the same people who will sit and applaud a concert will go home and call the arts an unnecessary frill.
But men like Rex Mitchell (and Bruno Woloszyn and Ed Frye and Carl Brozeski and Bob English) single handedly improve the quality of life here for all of us. Rex gave us the beauty and energy and joy of his own music, and his energy and passion in energized others. His gift helped elevate the gifts of others, both musicians and listeners. We are poorer for his passing, but richer for his time here. He has left his community a legacy of music and musicians, and we will all reap the benefits for years to come.

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