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Drumming up business for the Band

Pacific University's Michael Burch-Pesses is the quintessential leader of the band
by: Chase Allgood, Michael Burch-Pesses has held the baton at Pacific University for more than a decade.

When he wakes in the morning, he tunes his radio to a jazz or classical station. When he walks down the street, he's often going over musical scores in his head.

At night - at least several evenings during the academic year - he's standing at a podium, conducting one of several bands at Pacific University.

He puts the jazz and symphonic bands through their paces, encouraging the instrumentalists to produce the best possible sound they can. For him, it's all about giving the students a reason to play.

'I love seeing the light come on in their eyes,' he said of his tutorial efforts. 'I can't imagine why everyone in this world isn't involved in music.'

As director of bands, Burch-Pesses wears a number of hats, none of which is tall with a large feather plume. He's more likely to cruise around campus in a mock turtleneck and slacks or, for performances, show up in a snappy tuxedo.

But Burch-Pesses, 61, whose personal road has included a long stint in the U.S. Navy, where he eventually directed the Naval Academy Band in Annapolis, Md., is comfortable in all his roles.

'I just finished my 11th year here at Pacific,' he said last week, relaxing in his office during a six-month sabbatical that will come to an end in January. 'This is the job of a lifetime, really.'

His first week on campus in 1995, Burch-Pesses sat with a group of students at lunch 'who convinced me that my decision to come to Pacific was the right one.

'They peppered me with questions that honestly were better than the ones posed by the search committee,' Burch-Pesses noted. 'One young man, who knew I'd been in the Navy, asked me if I ran my rehearsals boot-camp style.'

He doesn't - not exactly. It's no-nonsense time when Burch-Pesses picks up his fiberglass baton, but he doesn't expect more than the players can deliver. 'You can't beat good music out of your students,' he said. 'You have to elicit it.'

Rehearsals are a time to polish and perfect the music - everything from Mozart and Bach to Duke Ellington and Paul McCartney.

'The purpose of rehearsal is for students to take what they've learned in private practice and put it in context,' Burch-Pesses said. 'They get to see how their part fits into the organic whole.'

Most of Burch-Pesses' students are not music majors. Of the approximately 1,500 undergraduates on campus, about 20 percent wind up in one of his bands or sign up for one of his classes.

Burch-Pesses teaches conducting, music methods and 'a really fun class' - his words - called History of Jazz and Rock.

'Every Pacific student has to take three credits in the arts, no matter what their major is,' he said. 'They love that class because it's not a talking head kind of situation where I get up there and pearls of wisdom fall out of my mouth.

'They get completely immersed in learning about musical history, and they're amazed at all there is to absorb.'

He's justifiably proud of the bands he leads, which begin a busy schedule of concerts and special events in the coming weeks.

While Burch-Pesses has been on sabbatical, Darrel Meisenheimer - a trusted colleague and friend - has stepped in as his conducting substitute.

'Darrel has done a fantastic job,' he said. 'I really think we have the best small college music program in the state.'

After a 10-year hiatus, Burch-Pesses revived the Pacific orchestra in 2005 and looks forward to directing that group when he returns. He also directs the jazz choir on campus.

Pacific became his home away from his Hillsboro home soon after he retired from the Navy.

Burch-Pesses started scouting around for civilian jobs and quickly got a call from Pacific.

He and his wife, Jane, an acupuncturist who practices in Forest Grove, moved from Washington D.C. to Washington County and had barely started to unpack when the phone rang.

'It was a woman from Theatre in the Grove,' Burch-Pesses recalled. 'She had heard I was coming and explained they were doing 'Man of La Mancha.' They were without anyone to conduct from the pit and wondered if I was interested.'

Burch-Pesses signed on for the duration of the musical - and fate stepped in. 'A man playing the oboe turned out to be the chairman of the board for the Oregon Symphonic Band,' he recalled.

The rest is history, as. Burch-Pesses musical talent quickly spread beyond Forest Grove.

For three years he co-conducted the 65-member, community-based adult band in his off-hours with David Becker, his counterpart at Lewis and Clark College.

Since 2002, he's been the group's musical director and primary conductor. The band will kick off a series of free, public concerts Nov. 5 at Clatskanie High School.

Several more in Milwaukie and Vancouver, Wash., will follow, serving as potent warm-ups for a Dec. 22 performance in Chicago at the Midwest Clinic, a prestigious conference devoted to music education.

Musician-educators will attend the event from as far away as Japan and England. The Oregon band will play 12 pieces, each one hand-picked by Burch-Pesses himself.

'There are no show tunes and no Broadway stuff,' he said. 'I listened to hundreds of songs and chose the best of the best.'

From the opening fanfare to a New Zealand lullaby, Burch-Pesses hopes the band will knock the musical socks off the audience. 'It's an incredible honor to play there,' said Burch-Pesses. It's the highest level of competition for a band.'

To get in, the band endured a rigorous application process that included making a CD. Burch-Pesses found out April 3 that the band had been accepted.

'It was fantastic,' he said. 'Everybody came to our recording session with the attitude, 'let's do this bad boy,'' he said.

'Going to the Midwest Conference is like reaching the peak of Mt. Everest for a band.'

After Chicago, it'll be back to business at Pacific for Burch-Pesses, whose office is sprinkled with framed concert programs from years past.

One prominently placed photo shows him with the Commodores, the Navy's official jazz ensemble.

While on sabbatical, he focused on researching Canadian composers and the music they wrote for bands to perform.

He spent 10 days at the end of July in Toronto and Vancouver, B.C., soaking in every piece of information he could.

'I brought back enough material for a book of program notes and biographical information on these composers,' he said. In fact, Burch-Pesses just sent off a first draft of his manuscript to four Canadian college band directors for review.

If they're properly impressed, he'll consider turning it into a bonafide book.

'I'd love to make it into a really useful piece - kind of a guide to Canadian band music,' he said.

Burch-Pesses is keenly aware of his good fortune in falling into a career he's loved for more than 40 years. 'When I entered the Navy I thought I'd probably do only one enlistment,' he said. 'My plan was to use the GI bill to get through college and then teach English somewhere.

'I wound up teaching, but it was music and it was at a college.'

Burch-Pesses' father was an elementary school band director. He encouraged him to pick up his first instrument, a trumpet, at age 6, and had an early influence on his love of rhythm and sound.

Fine music, Burch-Pesses insists, opens the mind and inspires the spirit.

'You experience something new in a quality musical piece every time you hear it,' he said.

It's a gift he intends give Pacific students - and the community - for as long as he can.

'I'm raring to go,' he said last week. 'Emotionally, physically and in terms of energy, I feel like I'm in my 30s.

'The music keeps me young.'