Miles Marches The Lions Toward Musical Championship

Liberty Band Leader Even Cultivates A Taste For Classics

December 01, 1991|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff writer

ELDERSBURG — The sounds of music blare in through the closed door, but noise never bothers him.

"The kids are trying to learn their music," said the leader of the band. "They want to practice."

Stephen L. Miles, the 33-year-old band director at Liberty High, sits in an office full of music memorabilia, awards and family pictures. The file cabinet is decorated with photos of his players.

"I have two kids of my own and 60 more for whom I am a stand-in parent," he said. "Making music with kids is what makes life fun."

He callshimself a hands-on teacher. He rarely wears a coat and tie to school; they're too "constricting."

"I can't stand back and let somebodyelse do my directing job," he said. "I have to be able to conduct and to move freely around the class."

Even at home in Westminster with his wife, Barbara, he surrounds himself with music. For Miles, music is a language all can share without an interpreter. He says he's fortunate to be a teacher of that language.

"People sometimes trivialize the value of music," he said. "It's a bond that crosses oceans.Through it, students learn a discipline that becomes a vital part oflife."

A 1980 graduate of the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., with a bachelor's degree in music education and a certificate in trumpet-playing, Miles completed his master's degree at the University of South Carolina. He recently began work on his doctorate in music education with a minor in conducting at Catholic University in Washington.

Miles came here in 1986 from a small school in Hopewell, Va., where he had turned a faltering program into a ringing success. Under his encouragement and direction, the band grew from nine members -- mostly drummers -- to 55 in two years.

"I knew I was on the right track when the principal said he could recognize the music for the first time in years," he said.

The right track involved recruiting middle school students for the high school music program, promising he would give them a "real band."

"It was a wonderful first teaching job and a trial-by-fire experience," he said. "I got a chance to experiment. I could do no wrong because the old program was disastrous. There was no model to compare me to."

After four years in Virginia, Miles, who grew up in Washington County, wanted to come home to Maryland. The job at Liberty provided the opportunity.

"There's such a positive atmosphere here for teachers," he said. "The musicprograms are well developed and supported. The supervisor really promotes our work."

Even so, Miles' first year here brought problems,mostly stemming from changes he instituted.

He believes in starting at "ground zero" every year, which begins with summer practice sessions. At his insistence, the staff stresses basics and develops an "attitude of pride."

His idea of discipline is to show students that he cares, and because he cares, they shouldn't disappoint him.

"At first, I met a lot of skeptics among students and parents who thought "different" must be wrong," he said. "I just put any criticism behind me and kept working on my own thing."

His "thing" has led themarching Lions to several championship seasons, including a sixth-place finish among 25 bands in Group III in the Atlantic Coast Championships in Scranton, Pa., last month. The band scored 94.75, the highest any county band has ever earned.

Liberty's brass section took second place, and the woodwinds came in first. The Lions also placed third in music analysis, based on the difficulty of the music they played. Miles selected several classical pieces for this year's competition.

"We played unique, intriguing music with emotional impact and vitality," he said. "I had to twist a few arms at first, but the kidsreally got into it. They should be exposed to and learn to appreciate the classics."

Considering the amount of time involved in the band program, Miles says he would have felt guilty teaching his students music they heard all the time on the radio.

Taking a difficult piece apart and memorizing it offers more of a challenge, and gives students a better understanding of how all the technical parts fit intothe whole, he says.

"They have a new outlook on the nature of classical music," Miles said. "It's not a drudge that puts people to sleep. It's exciting and vital."

The pieces caught on and even filtered down to upcoming marchers. Miles' daughters, Anastasia, 6, and Stephanie, 3, who frequently attend band competitions, often can be heard humming the sounds of "Savannah River Holiday," a piece from this year's program.

While Liberty has had more than its share of wins, the director says effort is just as important as the result.

"The process of getting there is more important than the performance," he said. "That process is education. No matter what place you come in, you can be a winner every time if you give your best."

Membership in a successful organization gives the students a positive self-concept and builds confidence, he says. He also encourages students to participate in other activities, saying that gives them a well-rounded outlook. He counts about 10 varsity athletes in the Lions band.

"These kids are too young to decide what their life is going to be," he said. "I don't place any restrictions on the ones who want to plays sports and march, too."

He also credits his staff and the support from parents as major factors in the band's success.

"I have a talented, dedicated staff and parents who always go above and beyond what I ask," he said.

He calls sharing young lives a tremendous responsibility.

"As a teacher, I see major growth," he said. "I want to turn them on to music as part of that growth."

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