The moment Leon Slater stopped conducting and removed his red-framed glasses, the Hellgate High band went silent and gave him their full attention.
Hellgate’s band program – which has gained a reputation as being one of the best in the state – has been chosen to perform in the Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade in Honolulu in December, the 75th anniversary of the attacks.
“The Hellgate bands have a longstanding tradition of excellence,” said Slater, Hellgate's director of bands.
In the past, the band has marched in the Tournament of Roses Parade, Fiesta Bowl Parade and Holiday Bowl Parade.
“Between that and our performance last year in Carnegie Hall, the organizers of this parade kind of had us in their crosshairs to invite a school from Montana,” Slater said.
The band rehearsed “A Movement for Rosa” on Tuesday, a powerful piece composed by Mark Camphouse, honoring Rosa Parks.
Slater talked to the band about a show on PBS the night before about Jackie Robinson. When Robinson was in the military in 1944, he was told to sit in the back of the bus by a lower-ranking officer. Robinson refused and was court-martialed. He was eventually found not guilty.
That parallels what happened to Parks in 1955, Slater said, giving the students perspective during the rehearsal for Wednesday night’s concert.
“Honestly, I decided to pick this one just because of how nasty the presidential campaign has been going,” Slater said.
In Parks' 1992 book, “Rosa Parks: My Story,” she wrote that while laws and policies had changed, hearts hadn’t. That stuck with Slater, and he said it’s still true today.
“Today, it’s so obvious that the heart of our country, some of our folks do not get it,” he said.
He sang the previous measure, gave directions, the students scribbled notes on their sheet music and the rehearsal pushed forward.
“Fortissimo!” “Nice crescendo!” “Like there’s life inside of the half note!”
French horn player and senior Rory Anderson came in at measure 186, giving a powerful solo. You'll recognize it as the hymn, "We Shall Overcome."
“I can imagine Rosa reflecting right now,” Slater said.
He hasn’t settled on what the band will play in Hawaii, but he has a few ideas.
Students have also started fundraising for the trip, and Slater has received about $15,000 in scholarship requests for which he’s going to fundraise in the community.
There are 140 students in Hellgate’s band program, though only 80 eligible sophomores, juniors and seniors will go to Hawaii.
Once there, they’ll be busy playing all week, at the USS Missouri ceremony and with the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific Band – somewhat of a flashback for Slater, who was planning to play trumpet in the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Band before breaking his arm during basic training. On the day of the anniversary, they’ll march in the parade in downtown Honolulu.
“I think this being the ... 75th anniversary, being there and being a part of it is such an honor and will be such an incredible memory for these kids,” he said. “It will really help connect us to our past and help us remember our history.”
Slater attributes the band program’s success to longtime director John Combs. Combs is now the district’s fine arts coordinator.
“When he started, it was a really tiny, not a very good or big program,” Slater said. “He is just a charismatic, driven guy, and loves music.”
In the late 1980s, the program took off and by the 1990s was recognized as one of the top band programs in the state. Missoula County Public Schools and Great Falls Public Schools were the only two school districts in Montana to be named in the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation’s 2016 Best Communities for Music Education list.
“My job the last seven years has been to just carry on his tradition and keep it alive,” he said. “We work hard every day. I have amazing kids.”