FRASER — By the time Lance Vechinski was in the eighth grade, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life: become a band director.
“I had a band director I would have done anything for,” Vechinski said. “The band room, for me, was my second home. It was easy to be creative. What I did today didn’t have to be the same tomorrow. I could play the notes one way today and one way tomorrow.”
Vechinski, who grew up in a small Wisconsin town, achieved his childhood ambition and has been directing school bands since 1976. Thirty-one of those years have been spent influencing Fraser Public Schools students musically, and the seasoned musician was recently named Michigan School Band & Orchestra Association District XVI Band Teacher of the Year.
“I was shocked and I was humbled because it’s quite an honor,” Vechinski said, adding the district represents Macomb County, St. Clair County, and parts of Wayne and Oakland counties. The Richards Middle School band director received a plaque and an invitation to conduct the district’s Honors Band concert during the next school year.
“Our district selects the top musicians in all the schools in our area,” the band director said. “I will conduct one piece of the concert. I don’t feel I’m any more worthy than anyone else. Of all the good work done by every band director throughout the state, I’m just fortunate to get the plaque.”
He also credits his wife, Kathy, a retired Fraser High School teacher, and children Lauren, 26, and Andrew, 24, for their support.
“He definitely deserves it,” said eighth-grader Ian LoPiccolo, a tenor sax player. “He’s a wonderful teacher. He’s always there for the students. He’ll do anything for them, as long as they ask.”
“He’s always there, like Ian said,” eighth-grader and alto saxophonist Alex Radwick said. “He’s like the dad of our school.”
This year, Vechinski has taught 104 eighth-grade students in two classes and 126 seventh-graders in three classes. The students recently gathered for a school spring concert.
“We try to follow the state curriculum for performing arts. It exposes kids to different styles of music and goal-setting,” Vechinski said. “They have to reach farther than they think they can reach.”
The RMS students study traditional band music.
“By giving them the traditional band music, they’re exposed to different cultures and composers,” Vechinski said. “They have to learn to read music notes.”
After so many years in the classroom, people often ask him when he’s going to retire. But he doesn’t consider directing a band work at all.
“Since the age of 5, I’ve been going to school,” Vechinski said. “I found my passion. This isn’t work; it’s what I do. When it feels like work instead of school, I know it’s time to retire.”
The first instrument Vechinski tried out as a kid didn’t play beautiful music.
“I started out on cornet. I was awful,” he said. But when he switched to clarinet — which his parents picked up for $50 — the music did the talking. His mom was a fan of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and Vechinski often practiced clarinet when the news was on.
Vechinski has impacted his students the way his band director Cliff Morell and choir director Carmen Sigvardt did. Each year, students within the program vote on four eighth-grade band students of the year. LoPiccolo, Radwick, Alexis Ventimiglia and Lydia Moenssen were this year’s recipients of the title. All say they have learned so much under Vechinski’s guidance and also had fun. They can’t imagine their school years without band and will miss Vechinski.
“He’s very funny,” said trombone player Ventimiglia.
“I learned it’s OK to make mistakes,” flutist Moenssen said. “We learned dynamics.”
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