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From oblivion to 300-strong
The Basalt band program takes to the stage for a winter concert.
Basalt High School Band
The Basalt High School band, which has grown to include 65 students, will perform its annual Winter Concert Thursday, Dec. 13, at the Basalt Middle School Auditorium. Photo by Allison Johnson. - photo by Allison Johnson

Three times a year, the families of more than 300 Basalt students gather at Basalt Middle School to watch a progression of musical dexterity that ranges from first-year fifth-grade musicians up through seasoned high school veterans. Although the auditorium was recently expanded to 534 seats, tonight the community will once again pack the space to capacity for Basalt's annual Winter Band Concert.

Basalt's band program is a far cry from where it was two decades ago. 

“As I understand it, band had basically gone away in Basalt,” says Aspen Music Festival’s Director of Education and Community Programming Katie Hone Wiltgen, who attributes director Joan Knab with its resurrection. “She’s the one who started many of the traditions that carry on today.”

It was no small feat to revive the program.

“It was a very small program with an empty band room and only a few old and battered instruments,” recalls Knab, who began in 2002. “I thought I must be crazy, but it seemed as if Basalt was ripe to develop into a top-notch program.” 

Her goal the first year was to rally the community around the fledgling program, and they eagerly obliged. By the time she left in 2006, the program served 165 students and the band room was no longer empty of equipment. Even so, when Hone Wiltgen was hired in 2006 to run both the choir and band programs simultaneously, the high school band consisted of five students. Under Hone Wiltgen, both programs slowly expanded and, by 2011, the decision was made to hire a dedicated band director. A nationwide search led to Nick Lenio, a dynamic young band director from Pennsylvania. 

“Many hours were spent on the phone trying to convince him that moving here from Pennsylvania was a good idea,” Hone Wiltgen says.

The move has paid off both for the program and for Lenio, who, in 2017, was nominated by the Basalt community for a Grammy Teacher of the Year award. The band program has nearly doubled in size, and, on average, 85 percent of incoming fifth-grade students now pick up an instrument. The high school band has grown to 65 students with a level of proficiency that has enabled them to break out of the traditional concert-for-parents mold to form the Basalt StreetHorns. This genre-crossing social music group plays at events ranging from First Fridays in Carbondale to Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival. The 19 sixth-grade students he began with are now seniors.

“It’s a beautiful thing,” Lenio says. "What other teacher has contact with a student for that long? They drove me crazy when they were in sixth grade, and now they’re responsible young adults who serve as leaders for younger students. That's really cool to see.”

Teaching grades five through 12 is a daunting task, however. On a given day, Lenio will teach fifth grade at the middle school and then run up to the high school and back. The experience allows him to hold higher expectations for the younger grades but also to appreciate the maturity of the older students. Lenio’s largest class has more than 60 students, and there might be 12 different instruments plus percussion all trying to play a version of the same note.

Luckily, Lenio has some help. Jazz Aspen Snowmass pays for local musicians to assist in teaching smaller breakout groups. For the past two years, ArtistYear, a three-year collaboration between Americorps and the Aspen Music Festival (which funds the bulk of the program), has provided an additional classroom assistant. The Band Boosters, a parent-run group begun by Knab, takes care of administrative tasks and fundraising, which allows Lenio to focus on the music. Without such community support, the band program could not exist at the level and breadth that it does. 

In addition to band concerts, students perform in small ensembles in the midwinter Joy of Music evening, another Knab program that serves as a critical fundraiser. Students also can audition for regional honor bands, “play it forward” by performing with the grade above, and are regular recipients of visits by professional musicians courtesy of the Aspen Music Festival and School and Jazz Aspen Snowmass. Every three years, the entire band heads off to national music destinations such as last year’s trip to New Orleans. 

Equally important as playing an instrument are the soft skills students learn as they take ownership for their instrument and their role in a band. 

“Everyone performs,” Lenio says. “Everyone’s voice is equally important. At the winter concert, 50 kids are going to get on stage at one time and all 50 have to play. And they have to play together. The person to their left and right is depending on them. You take away a lot from that personal responsibility.”

Former Band Boosters president Katie Custodio, who has children in both the middle and high school bands, agrees.

“They hold onto the pride they feel as they progress musically,” she says. “They walk around with their heads higher because they are part of a special group and have learned that their peers rely on them and vice versa.” 

In the end, Lenio hopes students who stick with the band program not only continue to play their instrument after graduating but also better appreciate music in general and what goes into a performance. Between the band program and the equally successful choir program run by award-winning director Brittany von Stein, Lenio feels that “the two Basalt programs combined are pretty astounding. We have a lot of kids making music in these schools.”

The Winter Band Concert at Basalt Middle School will include music ranging from catchy holiday favorites to winter-themed music such as With Every Winter’s Breath by Randall Standridge. The concert is free, but seating is limited and first-come, first-sit. Doors open at 6:20 p.m. for a 6:30 p.m. start. Families are encouraged to come early for a potluck dinner fundraiser at 5:30 p.m.