Empty hallways are filled with the sounds of an upbeat tune as music drifts through an open door.
It was the spring of 1979 when Doug Wille first stepped into the schools of Grand Forks to instruct young students about the magic of music.
Over 30 years later, Wille has become the longest serving teacher in School District 51 and continues to share his passion of music with aspiring students.
“I didn’t really plan on becoming a teacher and I didn’t go to school to become one,” he explained. “I just played lots of music and it seemed like a good idea to try to make money. I did apply for a job in Cranbrook before I came to Grand Forks and I ended up really liking it so I kept going.”
Prior to coming to Grand Forks, Wille was then working as a music teacher in Castlegar and was assisted by a student teacher.
“The superintendent here asked to make my student assistant, who was only a year younger than me, a full-time teacher so I could come here to save the music program,” Wille recalled. “I thought I was just going to be here for three months and I came here in April 1979.”
After arriving, he acted as an internment teacher and taught multiple classes at all the schools. At Christina Lake Elementary School he focused on Grades 4 to 7, while at each Dr. D. A. Perley and J. A. Hutton elementary schools, he taught Grades 6 to 7.
“The rest of the classes were at the high school until I built up the program enough that they wanted me there full-time,” he added. “The biggest change since then was when I used to teach band, it used to be in the little hut on the Perley grounds until they built the school extension for me.”
He also pointed out there has been a big drop in the school population. When he first started in 1979, there were around 650 students.
“Now it’s around 325,” he said. “The music program is a lot smaller even if the interest is still there. Things haven’t changed too much over the years as far as the kids go. In a lot of respects I think they’re mellower than they used to be and there aren’t any more fights at the school. But it would be nice if the school population were bigger with more kids.”
At the moment, Wille conducts a 70-piece concert band and a smaller 25-piece jazz band that focuses on pop rock. Now solely teaching at Grand Forks Secondary School (GFSS), music classes begin with basic theory for a day or two, where Wille teaches students the difference between a four beat and a two beat.
“Then they get a little quiz on what it looks like before I demonstrate all the instruments,” he explained. “I usually have a couple of Grade 12 students as tutors for some instruments before stations are created. All the kids get to try out all the instruments and get the feel of each instrument.”
Wille noted it all depends on the student and whether or not the instrument makes a noise, sounds good and how comfortable they are with their chosen instrument.
“You might have it in your head that you want to become a trumpet or sax player, but you might pick something up and you get a beautiful sound and it feels natural, they’ll switch,” he added. “Usually once they get over the next couple of weeks, they settle in.”
Wille noted by letting the older students tutor, it gives the students a different experience.
“I taught private lessons when I was 18 at my home in Vancouver,” he said. “It’s a great way for the students to figure out if they want to teach.”
His first taste of music was when he was in Grade 6 with a city band.
Standing in line with his parents to join the North Vancouver City Youth Band, Wille recalled the instructor looking at him and saying, “We need more trumpets.”
“So my dad gave over $40 and the instructor told us he’d see us on Tuesday night for our lessons,” he noted. “My parents don’t play any instruments so they were looking at it wondering what to do.”
Lessons at that time were $2 a night and from the beginning, it was incredibly strict, explained Wille.
“He would have 13 trumpet players come for a lesson and he’d number the chairs one to 13,” Wille said of his instructor, who also performed with the Vancouver symphony. “He’d give us some drills to practice and tell us when we came back next week saying, ‘I’ll know if you practiced because if you’re the best you’ll be in chair number one, or if you’re the worst you’ll be in chair 13, or, if you’re really bad, if you don’t practice at all, I’ll send you home.”
Despite the rigorous training, Wille enjoyed the competitiveness and the opportunity to play at various events and arenas. As he rose up the ranks in the band from junior, to intermediate, to senior, the band would travel across the country and the world to perform and compete.
“The better you got, the more places you could play,” he said. “(Our instructor) took us to the Canadian championships, we went to Montreal for Expo 1967 when I was 14 years old, and to the Japan 1971 Expo. We did lots of real performances and competitions.”
Wille was also able to perform during Grey Cup games and march across football fields.
Although he now prefers producing sweet tunes from the flute, he does continue to enjoy other instruments.
“I play them all but some of them I play better than others,” he laughed. “Lately it’s been a lot of flute but I’d like to spend more time with the guitar and piano.”
It has been several years since his band has performed, but many will recall the wild days of Dr. Fun and the Night Crawlers, a big rhythm and blues band created over 20 years ago.
“Half of us were from here and the other half from Rossland, but we played at the Nakusp Music Festival and played in Spokane,” said Wille, adding they even put together a CD. “We’ve been apart for five or six years, but we had a three piece horn section and a four piece guitar section.”
The band performed at various local gatherings and venues, but also travelled to neighbouring communities and cities for big events.
“We might make a comeback one day and we’re all thinking of playing together again just to see how it will be,” he chuckled. “We all had a lot of fun.”
Not only is Wille a music teacher but he also teaches gym classes and is a regular athlete, having completed several marathons and triathlons, including the Canadian Iron Man.
“It’s healthy to be interested in more than one thing. Some of my best students are well-rounded in academics and athletics,” he said. “It’s all about a balanced life and not to just stick to one thing.”
The most important point to Wille is that music is a universal language all over the world.
“I could probably teach a kid in China to play the trumpet and it wouldn’t matter if he couldn’t speak English or me Chinese,” he chuckled. “We wouldn’t even have to talk.”
As Christmas draws near and the semester for students is set to break for the year, Wille is preparing for the annual GFSS Christmas Concert, set for the last day of school on Thursday, Dec. 19.