COLUMBUS — In the 91 years that the All-Ohio State Fair Band has marched midways and performed for thousands of fairgoers, only five men have taken on the role of fine-tuning 200 young musicians into a cohesive band in a matter of four days. Donald F. Santa-Emma took his final bow as director of the band at the conclusion of the 2015 Ohio State Fair, and Brian Dodd will take the reins at this year’s Ohio State Fair as the band’s sixth director.
“At times, it’s overwhelming to realize that I am a part of that legacy,” said Dodd, currently the West Holmes High School band director, in Millersburg. “Those guys have really set the bar high. I am excited and very nervous,” he said.
“The kids really enjoy working with (Dodd) and that’s very important,” said Santa-Emma, who said Dodd’s enthusiasm and energy is a good match for the position. Teaching music and educating children is Dodd’s passion and why he has stayed in the music industry for more than 30 years.
Dodd graduated from Philo High School in Muskingum County where he said, up until his senior year of high school, he thought he would pursue a career in the medical field. “Finally, something just clicked before my senior year and I decided I really wanted to do music,” he said. He received his bachelor’s in music education from Ohio State University in 1985 and has been teaching ever since.
For 14 years, he served as the band and choir director for East Knox High School, in Knox County, Ohio, and has been serving as the band director for West Holmes High School for 17 years. “I just haven’t been able to think about retiring yet,” said Dodd. “I just finished my 31st year (of teaching music education), and I still enjoy it.”
Dodd is very familiar with the State Fair Band, having sent students to participate in the band and choir every year since he began teaching in 1985. “I have only missed (attending) two fairs in 31 years,” he said. And each year he goes, he also makes a point to visit the students who take livestock projects from his home school.
Joining the staff
Ten years ago, Dodd received a call from Santa-Emma asking him to serve as the percussion instructor. Dodd would serve as an assistant director working with the percussion section for the next nine years before becoming director. “(Brian) enjoys working with students,” said Santa-Emma. “I told him, it’s important that he enjoy it. You end up learning quite a bit from the kids.”
Especially when those kids come from all across the state and all walks of life. From urban schools to small rural schools, the State Fair Band invites 200 of Ohio’s best musicians to be a part of the band. “Ohio has some of the best (music programs) in the country,” said Dodd. “Really, the state fair band exists because of those programs.”
In fact, the All-Ohio State Fair Band is the longest running program of its kind in the country, said both Santa-Emma and Dodd. “That in itself makes it such a big deal,” said Dodd. Santa-Emma said the goal has always been to try and have one student from each of the 88 counties in Ohio. While the band hasn’t met this goal yet, more than 60 Ohio counties have been represented at a time.
Four days prior to opening day, band members gather — some returning from previous years, some meeting for the first time — and immediately begin rehearsing. From 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. those students will learn 50-60 pieces of music and practice marching the grounds until opening day. “You have four days to take 200 kids from all over the state and turn them into a cohesive unit,” said Dodd. “And we always do.” “By the time the fair opens, you think they have been together all their lives and by the time the fair ends they don’t want to leave each other,” he said.
Dodd said the State Fair Band is rooted in its traditions, which he plans to continue, but also add some new ones of his own. For example, at the end of every performance since 1925, the band has always played John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever and each “sit-down” performance starts with Beautiful Ohio, another Sousa classic.
As far as his own traditions go, Dodd says he plans to “tread lightly” his first couple years, wanting to incorporate newer music favorites in a mix of marching classics. Through his work with the percussion section, he has been able to develop some creative drum features and STOMP style pieces. Dodd hopes with his new position he can continue to highlight different sections of the band with their own musical features. “You don’t set out to start traditions, they just kind of happen,” said Dodd. “When the time comes, we will know the things we want to continue to do.”
There is a Mark Twain quote Dodd likes to share that sums up his life: “The secret to success is to make your vocation your vacation.”
“I love that quote because that really is what it is for me,” he said. “I believe quite strongly that music is for everybody.”
Creating the Ohio State Fair Band
As the newest director of the All-Ohio State Fair Band, Brian Dodd got his first opportunity in selecting around 200 of Ohio’s best young musicians to perform at the 2016 Ohio State Fair. This year, Dodd said the application process moved to an online platform. A packet of information describing how to apply was sent out to all Ohio schools.
“Students can only be in the band if they are nominated by their high school band director,” said Dodd. Once a student is nominated, they can fill out the online application and their band director fills out a portion with a recommendation. “The application is not just about playing ability, but can if they can handle the workload in the short amount of time” — four days to learn 50-60 pieces of music, said Dodd.
The application also takes into account a student’s physical abilities. “We average six to eight performances a day and we march everywhere we go, sometimes carrying chairs from place to place,” said Dodd, explaining students march with an instrument in one hand and a chair slung over their shoulder in the other.
He added, it’s rather impressive how the group can march somewhere and, in a matter of minutes, be set up for a concert. Directors also try to get musicians from as many different parts of the state as they can.
Once selections are made, students start arriving Saturday morning, four days before opening day. The students do a quick sight reading performance for the parents and brief demonstration of what they will be doing during fair week. Following the demonstration, auditions begin for section chairs and part assignments. By the evening meal, students know who got the chair positions, what parts they will play and will receive their packet of music. For the next three days, it’s rehearsal time from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.
A cohesive unit
Dodd said one of the biggest challenges is taking 200 students who just met and creating one cohesive unit that can make music together. “These kids come in and maybe they don’t know each other, but they can make music together and that’s something they have in common,” he said. “Their musical skills improve and their leadership skills improve and then they go back to their home high schools just better players and better leaders,” said Dodd.
“I think the state fair is a melting pot — it’s featuring the best of Ohio,” he said. “I think the state fair band and choir are just another way of showcasing what our young people do, just like the sale of champions.”
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