I just got an email forward from Lou Driever, band director emeritus at Northeastern High School, where I used to teach. Lou is a fantastic human being and was a mentor to me when it was my turn to get raked over the coals at Northeastern.
The message was from Francis Laws, who just retired from teaching low brass at Wright State University. I got to know Lou and Francis (“Buddy”) when we all played together in the Ohio Valley British Brass Band under the baton of Mr. Ed Nickol, a fixture in the world of school bands in western Ohio. The message said that Ed left band rehearsal early and died in the hospital last night.
People who know me know that I am a proponent of community musical ensembles. The idea of people just getting together to play and make music is one that brings me joy. When I played with the OVBBB, from 2000 to 2002, our musical product was of a high quality, and Ed got it out of us the old-fashioned way–by cracking the whip, and sometimes by hurting our feelings. I imagine rehearsals with Fritz Reiner to have been slightly less intense than our Thursday night sessions at Wright State used to be. Ed was hard to work with (or work for). People with thinner skins and less devotion to music than he had sometimes quit the band–often in mid-rehearsal. But even if he didn’t always remember that we were supposedly doing this for fun, Ed was someone whose band I wanted to play in. Ed was a yeller and a screamer and an all-around passionate person of a type that doesn’t make it as a music educator these days. People a little older than me and younger won’t sit still for the kind of martinet tactics that were a weekly feature of OVBBB rehearsals. As much as I try to be the musician that Ed was, I almost never want to be the type of person he was on the podium.
On the other hand, he was uncompromising, relentless and authentic. If it wasn’t worth doing right, it wasn’t worth doing for Ed. I have a CD of some recordings–of dubious technical quality, since they are of live performances–but they capture what it was like to play in the OVBBB: polished, taut, unashamed, and unafraid of difficult music, but always, always, music that was worthwhile. Even some of the garbage that we played became worthwhile because Ed would seek out the good in a well-arranged version of a bad piece of music. If it could be played well, it could be good music.
This is exactly the reason I encourage non-students to play in the band at OPSU. Between Ed’s group on Thursday nights and another group, the Sinclair Community College Wind Symphony, on Wednesdays, the practice of community music-making brought me out of my shell, gave me someplace to go, someplace to play, and sometimes, a reason to keep going through the rest of the week during my time in Springfield. Without those places to just make music, I might have drifted off into some other career entirely.
I also learned how to “do” marches from Ed–how to hose them out and make them into musical entities that are exciting and fun to play instead of the drudgery many think them to be. I don’t see how someone can be a band director in America without knowing how to rehearse and conduct a march, and I didn’t learn that in college–I learned it from Ed.
Ed also encouraged me in composition, a little bit, and certainly without knowing where it would lead. I showed him a piece called See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and he was all set to read it one Thursday night, but had mislaid the parts. Someday, I hope that piece will get played, but the fact that he was willing to look at it gave me hope that I could write music for groups other than the ones I directed.
When I left the OVBBB to move out of town, I didn’t do a good job of keeping in touch. A year later, when I asked Ed for a reference for graduate school, he turned me down, saying that he didn’t know me and my work well enough. I never really made any effort after that, but I wish I had.
Somewhere–I hope in heaven, but I’m not completely sure–Ed is cracking the whip for the best band you ever heard and getting them to play better than they think they need to. It might be “The Melody Shop” or just Mike Gallehue’s “ragged” arrangement of “Salvation is Created.” It sounds glorious. Play the snot out of it, Ed.