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Innerviews: Percussionist taps his passion

Lawrence Pierce
In the music room of the new West Side Elementary School, music instructor and percussionist Brandon Willard finds himself in "a perfect world" for teaching. "I would put my resources up against anybody in West Virginia," he said.
Lawrence Pierce "I constantly got in trouble with a pencil in school ...
Lawrence Pierce ... because I was always ...
Lawrence Pierce ... doing some sort of rhythm."
Courtesy photo Photographed with his Snoopy doll at the age of 16 months, Brandon Willard exhibited the animation he later would bring to the classroom as a music teacher.
Courtesy photo As a boy growing up in Shinnston, Brandon Willard displayed an early inclination for music by duplicating cartoon songs on the piano.
Courtesy photo Concentrating on the notes in front of him, Brandon Willard tickled the ivories in one of his first piano recitals.
Courtesy photo In 1998, Brandon Willard was a proud member of the WVU Mountaineer Marching Band.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He doesn't know the meaning of humdrum. The upbeat rhythm of Brandon Willard's life is nonstop rat-a-tat-tat.

A passionate percussionist, he teaches music at the new West Side Elementary School and directs the countywide Magnet Music Program based there. That's his day job.

He's also a part-time band director at UC. He teaches the percussion ensemble at GW, teaches a steel drum group at St. Mark's, plays steel drums with VooDoo Katz and plays with the Lipzz Big Band, the full orchestra that accompanied Landau Murphy on his December tour.

A 34-year-old Shinnston native, he graduated from WVU where he drummed in the Mountaineer Marching Band, the Pride of West Virginia.

He spent five years as band director at Logan High School. Want busy? Try handling all the duties of a high school band director and commuting between Logan and Charleston.

He talks fast, of course, in a voice that booms like a big bass drum. A dynamic, cheerful demeanor reflects the vigor he brings to every obligation.

 

"I grew up in Shinnston. Music was a big part of my life. My dad sang in the church choir. Mom got me piano lessons early on. I would pick out melodies from cartoons and go figure them out on the piano.

"I didn't like piano lessons at all. I should be a better pianist considering the number of years I took lessons.

"Drums happened more naturally than piano. I would play on anything. I constantly got in trouble with a pencil in school because I was always doing some sort of rhythm.

"I didn't really start drumming until fourth grade. I was getting ready for band. Mom loved the saxophone. I told her I would try the saxophone but wanted to do drums. We took a little music test in school. They said I could play either one. I said I wanted to play drums. I was the only drummer in the fourth and fifth grade group.

"I think it was a natural thing. MTV was just coming out, and I got to see a lot of music on TV. Drummers were cool. I took to that.

"I cut grass in the summers all through middle school and high school and saved the money to buy this drum set I saw in the paper.

"I never once thought of drumming or music as my career because I also loved science and space. NASA was in its heyday, and I loved everything about it. In middle school, I went to space camp in Alabama.

"Aerospace engineering was what I wanted to do, but I was drumming the whole time. I never realized until I was a junior in high school that music was more natural. I finally said I wanted to teach music.

"I studied drums for years privately. My private drum instructor was married to my middle school band director. They lived in Clarksburg. I called them my second parents because I was with them almost as much as my own parents.

"I majored in music education and percussion at WVU. When I was a senior in band in high school, we were at the Buckwheat Festival in Preston County. My dad was the chaperone. I was the drum major. We were waiting on some side street. I heard this drum line playing. They were up on the football field. We walked up the bank to look, and it was the WVU drum line. I looked at him and said, 'I really want to do that.' Later that spring, I auditioned and made the drum line.

"Once I made the drum line at WVU, there was no doubt about what I wanted to do. My time in Morgantown I wouldn't trade for anything. My ideas on how to teach and write things and do things culminated in Morgantown.

"After I graduated, I taught for six months at St. Mary's Elementary and Notre Dame High School in Clarksburg. They were in need of a music teacher really bad. I told them I was getting married in June and moving to Charleston. They said they wanted me anyway.

"It was a great experience for me. When you come out of college as teacher, you think you can conquer the world. Then you get in a classroom and have no clue what you are doing. It's trial by fire. I called on a lot of old friends and directors for help.

"That December, I moved to Charleston without a job. They had let the band director go at Logan High School. It was in the paper. I called the board of education in Logan County and shipped my information down there.

"Waiting to hear, I was getting nervous. I got up one Monday morning and got on the four-lane going to Logan and called the board of education said I was on my way.

"The personnel woman walked me into the superintendent's office. He called the school principal and we drove to the high school. They told me I could start on the 22nd.

"I commuted just under five years. The commute was cool because I drank my coffee and had an hour drive and was planning my day.

"Then we had our first child. In high school band, you have band booster meetings, the concession stand, football and basketball games, graduation prep, all that stuff. I was never home. Many nights, if I had a football game on Friday and the band was going to a competition on Saturday, I'd sleep on a pullout couch in my office, shower in the locker room, get on a bus on Saturday morning and go to the competition.

"I started having trouble staying awake on the drive. I would go a week or week and a half and never see my son awake.

"I loved my job. Small-town band is a rich tradition. There's a great fan base. Anything I wanted, they were behind me 100 percent. But I started to actively look. I had to get closer to home.

"I got on in Kanawha County at Piedmont and Glenwood. I had that half-and-half position until I moved to the West Side. We have two music positions in this building, one splits between here and Piedmont, my old position.

"We are a year-round school, so I started in July. This is the perfect world situation for a music room. I would put my resources up against anybody in West Virginia.

"Kids come here from other schools with the Magnet Program. Carolyn Prine started the magnet music school, the only one in the state. It's an audition process for kindergarten through fifth grade.

"I teach West Side kids until lunchtime. Then Capitol District kids are bused in. I have parents who will drive kids in from any school in the county. The classes are an hour and 45 minutes long. Then they go back to regular school.

"This is my day job. Tuesday and Thursday I teach part time at UC. They brought the football program back and wanted a band program to go with it. I started a pep band there. We play at all the home games. We did a large drum line for the football games this year. We're playing now for the basketball games. I started steel band there also.

"I teach percussion ensemble at GW on Monday nights, and I work with the drum line during football season. I teach once a week at St. Marks. I started a steel band there also. The congregation loves it.

"I play steel drums with VooDoo Katz. And I play with a big band, Lipzz, Jeff Flanagan's group. They do a lot of weddings and corporate functions. As much as I love teaching, I love the chance to perform.

"That's how the Landau thing came up. Jeff called and said they were doing this tour in December and needed me to play vibes, congas, accessory percussion, stuff I've done since college.

"We played 16 shows. Landau and I crossed paths in Logan but didn't know each other. His attorney, Bob Noone, has a band and I played with him.

"Landau won a talent thing at an arts and crafts fair every year in the gym right next to my room. I did sound for it. He had his head shaved then. He killed it every year. Finally, they gave him an obnoxiously big trophy and told him he couldn't compete anymore.

"I think I have grown up. I've learned to take whatever comes. I remember bidding on jobs and thinking, 'If I don't get this, I don't know what I'm going to do.' Then I'd look back and think, 'I'm so glad I didn't get that job.'

"Will I teach my entire career? I don't know. But I always want to do music in some fashion. I would love to go off and entertain if I were a single guy just doing my thing. But I have two boys, 6 and 3. As much as I love performing, I love coming home.

"I love politics and I love business. I've thought about running for office. Who knows what will happen? I can't complain so far. Things have gone well."Reach Sandy Wells at sandyw@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.


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