This season, BYSO alumni spotlights will feature alumni who are doing essential work during this time of crisis. Dr. Philip Simon was the former Director of Music Education and Instrumental Studies and Director of Bands at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania for 17 years. He taught high school band for 29 years, sixteen of them as Director of Bands at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia.
Much of Dr. Simon’s 50 years of experience has been not just in teaching music, but building music education programs from the ground up. “During my first year at Thomas Jefferson High School, I started with a group of 43 students. “Five years later, we had 3 concert bands, 2 jazz ensembles, and a 175-piece, volunteer marching band. The total school music program involved 500 students, in a school of 1,560 kids. One-third of the entire school was involved in the music program!”
“Developing a music program is more than just teaching music and building a curriculum – you have to build a relationship with the community. With students, you need to work closely with them and help them build their musical skills. With parents, you have to build a good rapport with them, and show that you are the right person to be leading their kids. And with the school (such as the principal, faculty members, other administrative staff), you have to show them the value that you and your program are bringing to the table, and highlight the impact that it can have on the entire school and community, not necessarily just the kids who are interested in music.”
This season was Dr. Simon’s first real encounter with virtual teaching and online learning. “I’ll be honest, at first I detested it. It was difficult to keep students motivated, especially when I wasn’t able to have one-on-one conversations with them like you normally can in an in-person setting. Now [in April 2021], we have moved to a hybrid model, so I am teaching mostly live, and I can tell that the students are really happy about this, particularly the freshmen who are experiencing their college classes in-person for the first time.”
Though Dr. Simon has been upfront about the many challenges that come with remote learning, he does note that there are some positive takeaways from the experience. “Students can do more learning on their own time, and at their own pace, particularly with having more consistent access to resources. In an in-person class, I might play a video or a soundbite one time, but now that I’m sending them these resources they can refer to them indefinitely, and it makes it easier for them to re-visit anything that they need to, and then pick up details or make note of things they didn’t catch the first time around.”
Dr. Simon partially credits both his decision to go into teaching, as well as much of his career success, to his time at BYSO. “When I joined the orchestra, I was given access to a high-quality instrument, which had a massive impact on my musical development and growth and what I was able to achieve. I was able to use it for all of my musical needs, including district and all-state auditions, so I am extremely thankful for that experience. I also learned that it was possible to be a very effective conductor and a very kind person all at once. When I auditioned for the senior orchestra, there was another tuba player who was quite similar to me in skill, but they only needed one tuba player. Rather than choosing one or the other, they had us switch off for different pieces. Dr. Arslanian realized that it would mean more to us and our future as musicians to allow both of us to have access to that opportunity.”
Though Dr. Simon has many fond memories of his time as a student, he recalls one very special experience in particular. “I had the opportunity to play under Howard Hanson – American composer and conductor, and Director at the Eastman School of Music. We performed a piece that he had composed – Symphony No. 2 in D♭ major Op.30 (“Romantic”), at Symphony Hall. It has always stayed with me as one of the peak performances and musical moments of my life.”
Dr. Simon’s time at BYSO is why he chooses to stay involved – both as an annual donor, and as a recent addition to the Alumni Ambassador program. “BYSO is a very important part of the cultural landscape of Boston. It’s not just parents and families of the students that attend concerts, but members of the community at-large who come to support the organization, and I remember Symphony Hall being so full during our performances. It’s no secret that orchestras and classical music are not as popular as they once were, and access to that style of high-quality music is harder to find outside of the cities, so it’s on organizations like BYSO to help preserve this.”
“BYSO is a beacon of light for these kids. The caliber of music is so high, and they perform difficult but rewarding pieces of classical, orchestral music under a very fine orchestral conductor. To have the experience of being part of that is so important and meaningful.”
Dr. Simon’s advice for current students and graduating seniors is to always keep playing. “You can play a sport for many years, but eventually it becomes much harder and demanding on your body; whereas you can play music for a lifetime. One of the bassists [Jane Little] in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, played with them for 71 years. In fact, I’m 73 years old now, and I’m still playing! I’ve never wanted to stop, and I encourage you to keep at it, too.”
Are you, or someone you know, a BYSO alumni with a cool or interesting story or life update to share? Contact Jessica Chen, Development & Alumni Relations Associate!