Bone to pick: While retiring from the West Genesee School District, Steve Frank plans to resume his trombone-playing career. “Playing is part of who I am.”
Among the accolades: He carried home the Outstanding Music Educator award in the field of Instrumental Band Music from the musicians of the
Syracuse Symphony Orchestra in 2002, was recognized by the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) in 2006 and most recently was inducted into the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Music Awards Hall of Fame in 2010. On Friday, June 24, he will retire after 16 years as band director at Stonehedge and East Hill elementary schools and jazz band director at the high school in the West Genesee School District.
In addition to his personal awards, the district has also been voted one of the top 100 music communities by the National Association of Music Merchants six times. Frank is proud to have been a part of it.
“We have a culture over at West Genesee,” he says. “We all work hard, we all have a focus, we all have our eyes set on the standards that we’ve set for ourselves, for our students and for our program. We have great people, great staff, great administration, great community—it all just comes together.”
But not without hard work, long days and serious dedication, all of which Frank knows a great deal about. Frank, 56, studied music education at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, received his master’s in music performance at Youngstown State University in Ohio and began his doctorate at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester for trombone performance, but didn’t complete his degree.
At the time, Frank was auditioning for various symphonic groups, attempting to make a career as a trombone player, when he was told about a music teacher position in the Liverpool Central School District. He and his wife, Sandy, had just had their first child, had little money and thought it was best to take the yearlong position. One year turned into 14 and following those at Liverpool, he moved to West Genesee, where he would remain for the next 16.
“I always loved teaching, but what turned me on was knowing that I could work with a lot of younger kids, show them about music, try to get them interested in music, give them a sense of what music means to me and what it can mean to them,” he says. “It just maximized my exposure, I guess you could say. I’d have many more kids, I’d be able to do much more work, I’d be able to create things for a lot more people and make bigger differences in a lot of lives. How can you say no to that?” In both districts, Frank headed the elementary school band program, teaching beginner students who start in fourth grade. He’s also worked with marching, street and jazz bands throughout the years, but touts the West Genesee High School jazz band as exceptional.
“We’ve always had a really good band at West Genesee,” he says. “There are a lot of good players, a lot of hard workers and we take a lot of pride in what we’re able to accomplish. We do try to do the best literature we can get our hands on and try to do it right. We try to be as authentic as we can.”
Although there are hundreds of students in the various band and orchestra programs, Frank’s jazz ensemble combines standard instrumentation: five saxes, four trombones, five trumpets and a rhythm section, totaling 18 to 22 at any given time. Admission into the group is by audition only, a competitive process and one that ensures quality.
About 10 years ago, Frank’s love of jazz took him beyond West Genesee when he stepped up to the OCC jazz director position, which he saw as an opportunity to expand his teaching and reach a new group of students. In 2003, he was given another chance to reach even more students when Frank Malfitano, producer of the Syracuse M&T Jazz Fest, invited him to become the educational program director of the festival, allowing Frank to plan clinics and workshops during which high school students could meet and work with jazz professionals.
“I’d long been aware of Steve for many years as one of Central New York’s top jazz educators,” Malfitano says. “What he has contributed to West Genesee is both immeasurable and unfathomable. Since he’s worked with the festival, he’s taken its education program to unprecedented levels and heights, earning it international recognition on four separate occasions. In short, he’s simply an astounding educator and administrator. And as a collaborator, he’s second to none.”
Frank helped place students in direct contact with musicians including jazz guitarist Mike Stern and sax player James Carter, who he notes as one of his favorites. “He got together with a Hammond B3 guy and they just jammed after their sessions,” Frank says. “People trickled in and it was some of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard and everybody in that entire place was just mesmerized.”
With eight to 12 clinicians any given Jazz Fest, there have been too many great moments and memories for Frank to name; still each clinic had a dual purpose. Not only did he get to share in the magic with those present, but he got to take the experience back to his students at West Genesee.
“For me it’s incredibly rejuvenating to see and hear music live in person, get to see the artist working, get to hear them talk,” he says. “It’s things that I know, but I’ve forgotten about or things that I’ve always known, but didn’t realize that I wasn’t emphasizing. They’re reminders. It refreshes me so I’m ready to come back and elevate my groups and my teaching to a new level.”
Frank leaves West Genesee
with mixed emotions, but overall excitement for future opportunities,
namely more time to spend playing his trombone. While during peak season
as band director, he would teach 10 lessons five days a week, with
additional rehearsals two mornings each week and
various ensemble rehearsals at OCC and West Genesee at night. Freedom from the many 12hour days will be appreciated.
“Playing is part of who I am,” he says. “I have to get back to that. I was born a musician and to not have that is like not having an arm or a leg. I’ve got to get that back.”
Although Frank has no gigs or groups lined up for audition, he hopes to start playing around town as soon as he’s prepared his chops. He also plans to continue working at OCC and for Jazz Fest, which Malfitano confirmed. “He has a job for life,” Malfitano says. “I’m richer for knowing him and so is every kid he’s ever taught.”