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More than just music: Schuyler band always striving for excellence

April 2, 2019 GMT

Before Schuyler Band Director Troy Ehmke raised his baton and any of his students played a single note Monday morning, he had a simple message of encouragement for them all. No matter how hard it got, they only had three words to remember.

“We got this,” he said, as the room lit up with smiles.

Before long, Ehmke was leading the various sections, including brass and drums, through that morning’s warmup. There was then some time for questions before they broke off to work on their parts individually.

“They want to sound good and represent Schuyler in a positive way,” Ehmke said. “They have pride. They know and want to meet the expectations I have for them.”

Ehmke is in the midst of his first year as band director for Schuyler Community Schools, where he teaches fifth-eighth grade students, as well as those at Fisher’s and Richland. He stays busy, however, doesn’t seem to mind. In a way, he was destined for the role.

Ehmke grew up in a family in which his father and uncle were band directors, giving him quick access to music and a great appreciation for band music. As a result, he learned and continues to play the saxophone, among other instruments, to this day.

He ended up going on to study music business at the University of Nebraska Kearney, but realized before long he didn’t know what he was going to do with it. Inspired by his relatives before him, he said transitioning into the educational aspect of music just made sense.

Ehmke had been teaching in a similar role in Hastings but jumped at the opportunity to come to Schuyler and be part of its rich tradition when it comes to the band.

“The music program here has a tradition – a huge tradition in music,” the 30-year-old band director said. “I was excited to come here and help build it back up.”

The Schuyler band program has had quite the year thus far. After its Christmas concert, it submitted an application for a chance to perform at the Rotunda at the State Capitol in Lincoln and was selected. Ehmke took 34 students – 31 SMS students and three from Fisher’s – to perform in early March for a massive audience in Lincoln, where they wowed the crowd.

“It was exciting, but also nerve-racking,” said eighth-grade student Max Moran.

State Sen. Bruce Bostelman, who represents Colfax County, previously said the Schuyler students’ performance was excellent.

“This was a special opportunity for these students. They did a fantastic job and their music was enjoyed by many,” he said.

Ehmke didn’t hold back when talking about how proud he is of his Schuyler musicians.

“This was the best of the best of the best. It was nice that we were there, it was really cool,” he said, noting people of all ages performed as part of the festivities. “This was eye-opening for students because for a lot of them it was their first chance to go to the State Capitol. They were so professional when they went in. They knew they were representing Schuyler and they did so well.”

The band followed that up by earning some prestigious hardware at the Platteview Central Jr. High Invitational Music Contest recently. The seventh-grade unit won an ‘Excellent’ honor, while eighth graders took home a ‘Superior’ ranking.

SMS Principal Michelle Burton praised her music students for all of their accomplishments and hard work, adding her appreciation to Ehmke for his commitment to them and having a high standard for his musicians. She said he has taken the program to the next level.

“He just demands respect, but in a kind and engaging way. He builds rapport with students by listening to them, by caring about them, by working through solutions with them,” she said. “He’s also such a great teacher amongst his peers … We’re really glad to have him -- he’s wonderful.”

Students seem to agree. There were plenty of smiles among those in class as they took breaths between takes. They’re well-versed in a variety of genres, and on Monday were working on their own version of “Everything Is Awesome” – made famous from “The Lego Movie.”

“Mr. Ehmke is awesome,” eighth-grade student Piper Lefdal said. “Playing as a group, it’s a lot of fun. Being able to play together, get better and then seeing the finished product is amazing.”

Classmate Jenny Valora shared a similar perspective, noting their director takes the time to work with them and help them improve their abilities.

“It has been really fun,” she said. “We play a bunch of different types of music … We got a new band instructor, too. … He takes time to work with us and make sure we can nail certain parts and rhythms …”

The Schuyler musicians are now gearing up for Band Fest, set to take place in the school gym on May 7. Sixth, seventh and eighth graders will all play during the event, including one piece as a collective unit.

“We’re working hard,” Ehmke said.

Ehmke also is a member of the Nebraska National Guard (he has been doing it for six years and recently upped for six more). As part of it, he plays the sax in its 43rd Army Band. He said he enjoys playing professionally and taking what he has learned back to his kids in Colfax County. Sharing his passion for music with young people and watching them cultivate their own is undoubtedly what drives him.

“I had a colleague say one time and it’s totally true, it’s why I enjoy working with middle school students, you get to see more light bulb experiences because they don’t get it for so long but then all of a sudden the light bulb comes on and they‘re just rocking, they’re playing very well because they understand,” he said. “So yeah, it might take them a little bit of time but you get to see these light bulbs go off and it gets brighter and brighter, and they see that, they understand and say ‘yes, I can do this.’”

Matt Lindberg is the managing editor of the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at matt.lindberg@lee.net.