News Column

His resonating epiphany

October 14, 2013


Music was always in Mark Duker's blood, but he remembers the moment it entered his heart and mind, too.

He was sitting in the audience of a band concert at the University of Illinois, a trumpet-playing kid waiting to see his brother perform at a camp for high school musicians and eager for a band camp experience of his own.

He remembers where he was sitting. All eight songs the band played. The sound. The name of the director. Everything.

Duker was 13 when he went to the concert he calls an "epiphany"; he's now 42. The concert is still fresh in his mind and relevant in his life as he directs the top band and leads the fine arts department at Waubonsie Valley High School; Subpage.aspx?id=524 in Aurora.

"It was like a bolt of lightning," Duker said about his brother's band camp concert, a performance he has immortalized via cassette tape. "I was sitting in this concert and the band was so good and the music was amazing to me. ... That was my first moment where I felt like, 'OK, I totally get why people love this so much.'"

Fueled by the magic of that momentous concert, Duker pursued the profession in his bloodline, following his grandfather, uncle and father to a music degree from the University of Illinois and into a job as a band director.

His work for nearly 20 years in the field has led to a nomination for the first Grammy Award for music educators;http://, recognition for which Duker is a semifinalist.

He almost shied away from the self-promotion of submitting his part of the application after he was nominated last spring, but then he thought about his students. Specifically, the two who nominated him for the award against a pool that originally included more than 30,000 others across the country.

"I decided I owed it to them to at least try and go for it," Duker said about the Grammy, which would come with $10,000 and a trip to Los Angeles to accept the award. "So I did, and suddenly, here we are."

"Here" is the band room at Waubonsie Valley High School in Indian Prairie Unit District 204;, where Duker conducts the Wind Ensemble, but it's not where the students who began his Grammy nomination attend. That's because Duker is in his first year at Waubonsie after two years directing bands at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville and about a decade at Scullen and Still middle schools, all in District 204.

Sarah Scharfenberg and Michelle Swenson, friends who each nominated Duker without the other's knowledge, are in their sophomore year at Neuqua playing French horn.

"He really changed the way that I looked at music in such a positive way," Sarah said. "I always loved band class -- it was the highlight of my day, every day."

Both students say Duker made band an enjoyable challenge that has shaped their career plans.

"I wasn't really sure if I wanted to keep playing, but Mr. Duker gave me the opportunity to be in the wind ensemble in seventh grade and it really sparked my interest in playing horn," Michelle said. "That helped me get into a lot of those things that I love now."

Duker said he pushes students to identify the changes they need to make musically, instead of always telling them of errors he hears.

"Top-down teaching doesn't really work, but when you invest the students in the process and encourage them to take ownership of it, that's when the real results come," said Jeff Haeger, who taught choir alongside Duker for years at Scullen Middle School in Naperville. "It's natural for him."

The band Duker now conducts tackles complex musical literature, works on understanding terms like shotgun tone and rifle tone, warms up with "power breathing" exercises and practices pitch by singing. Within all the flats and sharps and technical details and tests, Duker finds time for lighthearted lines ("Open up like you're trying to swallow a golf ball and play me that B flat. Please don't ever swallow a golf ball.") and instills an appreciation for the simple skill of making music.

"Because it's school, music sometimes gets very clinical -- it has grades attached and it has deadlines and those inherent school pressures," Duker said. "At all levels, sometimes we get so caught up in the academic part of it that we just lose sight of how awesome it is that you can play this instrument."

Duker's first instrument was his voice, and he started using it to sing at age 3 in Quincy, Ill. Then he took up piano and trumpet, playing in elementary and middle school bands conducted by his father.

He told students he played oboe for an entire semester in college and he can eek out simple songs on string instruments, but insists it's nothing anyone wants to hear. Jazz and vocals have been among his specialties, although he is not teaching a jazz band this year for this first time since starting his career in 1993 at Glenbard East High School in Lombard.

Haeger said Duker's high level of musical talent contributes to his strength as an educator and allows him to intersperse stories from his own musical journey to create teaching moments.

The "epiphany" concert is something he occasionally refers to and often revisits through teaching his bands to play the songs he remembers so well. This year, Waubonsie's Wind Ensemble is performing one such song called "Danzon" by Leonard Bernstein. The piece will be ready when the band is confident its performance will inspire the eighth-graders who will play before them at the first concert of the school year.

"I want us to give them the same experience I had when I was going into eighth grade because it was transformational for me," Duker said. "It took me from a kid who liked to play to a kid who just loved band and thought it was just the greatest. I try to instill that desire in them."

Grammy finalists will be announced in December, and Duker said his continued inclusion on the shortlist would highlight the accomplishments of students, the school and the district as much as his own. But the glitz of the nation's first Grammy for music educators isn't Duker's focus. He said he's more intent on understanding the culture of his new school and continuing the tradition of musical excellence its students exhibit.

That, and reminding each crop of talented high schoolers, who often are overburdened with advanced placement classes, sports, clubs and family obligations, to truly enjoy their ability to make music.

"I just try to remind our kids all the time that yes, there's some pressure, and yes, there's expectations and things that come along with it because it's school, but we're making music. This should be fun," Duker said. "If this isn't fun, we're missing the point."

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