Interview: National Honor Orchestra Director, Part 1

Auditions are open for the first annual MENC National Honor Ensembles (deadline February 1). Colonel Dennis M. Layendecker, Director of Orchestral Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, will conduct the National Honor Orchestra in June 2010.

What experience in school do you most remember as influencing your decision to pursue a career in music?

I enjoyed a number of very positive influences concerning my decision to pursue music as a career. My parents were both terrific career musicians and teachers. They provided my twin sister and me many opportunities growing up with their passion for music. Their love for music stuck with both of us! For example, the environment at home was full of recorded music, piano lessons, singing, and later on instruments for school bands. We sang in Dad’s Cathedral Choir beginning around age 10.

So my musical “soil” was ready when in my senior year at Griffin High School in Springfield, Illinois, our band director, Mr. Joe Kohlrus … to this day, one of the best conductors in education that I have ever known … offered a class in music appreciation. It proved to more of a combination of substantial music theory married with music history. Along with my performance experiences as a pianist, low brass and contrabass player in his groups, I became completely hooked for music as my future. Some of our close relatives questioned me if my decision to pursue serious studies in music was being driven by my parents. Nothing could have been further from the truth. My parents realized what a serious career in music takes! They were appropriately concerned. Still, once I had made the decision they supported me completely!

However, Joe Kohlrus’ superb musical competence, contagious enthusiasm and strong encouragement lit my musical spark. That passionate fire for music has burned brightly in me for almost 40 years. I suppose a great teacher just never knows who they might just end up reaching. I am deeply grateful to Joe Kohlrus to this day. Thank you Joe!

How are the MENC National Honor Ensembles different from the state and divisional levels?

It has been my experience conducting honor ensembles at the state and divisional levels that these kinds of events are always wonderful experiences, both musically and socially. Still, at the national level there is the extra special social experience of meeting, interacting with, and making music with young people from across our nation. This was my unique experience leading music in the Air Force … working with magnificently talented people from across our land, and some of them even foreign born originally.

This MENC opportunity offers them a similar culturally rich environment by adding … through the grand musical conversation one enjoys playing great repertoire … a moment of truly national unification and communication. It is an extraordinary opportunity when one considers it in this light.

What makes you the right person for the orchestra honor ensemble?

Oh, I have no pretensions to being the “Mr. Right.” And, I have no doubt that “right” will prove to be so only in the eyes and ears of the beholders … in this case our participants … and my fellow parents, teachers and conductors! Frankly, there are so many gifted musicians who conduct today … I am convinced that quite many of them could prove the “right” person to lead such a wonderful ensemble. And, who among us in right thinking would not be honored to do this? Certainly I feel honored to have been asked and to step into the “Mr. Right” role for this turn at it. I hope and trust the MENC National Honors Orchestra will be continued on an annual basis, providing not only the opportunity for all participants to enjoy other conductors’ approaches to leading such a promising assembly, but also for other conductors to have the singular privilege of sharing their own musicianship with such a distinguished group of young people.

Coming Soon: Interview with National Honors Orchestra Director, Part 2

— Nicole Springer, January 12, 2010. © National Association for Music Education