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MUSICIAN SPOTLIGHT

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Dusty Molyneaux

On playing trumpet, his Top Gun dreams, and getting kids excited about music.

Billings native Dusty Molyneaux first played with the Great Falls Symphony in 1993 when he was student teaching. He joined the Great Falls Public Schools (GFPS) in 1997 as Great Falls High’s band director. Since 2012, he’s been the GFPS Music and Art Supervisor, a position unique in Montana to Great Falls.

 

Executive Director Hillary Shepherd sat down with Dusty to talk about his passion for music, music education, and the role of the Great Falls Symphony as the “education symphony” of Montana.

Tell us about your childhood and why you chose to play the trumpet.

Well, I didn’t start with trumpet. As a kid I was musical. My mom played a little piano, and my dad played the radio. Music was always playing in our house. I was listening to the record collection all the time. My love for music really took off in church. My brother and I sang in the choir. There was the thrill of performing for people and hearing all the notes combining and washing over you. 



In fourth grade you could start playing in the string program. I wanted to play cello, but when the string teacher called to talk to my dad, my family couldn’t afford it, so I didn’t join the orchestra. The next year I wanted to play tenor sax in band. It was another expensive instrument, so when I told my dad I really wanted to be in band, he told me that our neighbor would loan us a trumpet ... so if I wanted to be in band, that was what I was going to play. Even though it wasn’t my choice, it’s what we could afford … and after a year, I loved it! At the end of the school year, we went down to the pawn shop and bought my first trumpet.

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Dusty fell in love with music performance in church choir.

Dusty and John Gemberling played from the balcony for the April 2022 performance of Handel’s Messiah.

PAM LEMELIN

Dusty, since you are connected across the region, how’s the health of the Great Falls music program  compared to others in the state?

Everybody’s struggling right now. Education took a huge hit because of the pandemic. That being said, our district is ahead of other schools. In a few years, I think it will be really apparent because we were lucky enough to have a position like mine to weigh in on leadership discussions. When we offered remote or in-person options, we still started groups in the fifth grade and figured out a way to do it safely. Billings, Missoula, and Bozeman didn’t do that. Huge holes. Was it easy teaching during the pandemic with masks and all the protocols? No, but it was better than not teaching anybody at all or having kids sit there and talk about rhythm and things like that. People would call me and ask ‘how are you doing this?’ We had all the CDC guidelines on social distancing, air volume, and HVAC refresh rates. I checked all the aerosol studies. We took all that information and we did the math to make it happen.

 

I’ve searched high and low across the United States for an orchestra that looks like ours, and I’ve yet to find one. Years ago, the decision to hire professionals to both elevate the orchestra and teach in the community—together that was crucial to growing the next generation.

This is unique to Great Falls and to the Symphony’s founding fathers. We don’t have a big university program music department to depend upon [for musicians]. We had to figure out how to grow our own. The Symphony grew out of music teachers who wanted to keep playing and expose the community to great music. That evolved into this organization with an executive director and a conductor, and hiring a string quartet and a wind quintet. We’ve grown and cultivated it ourselves, and sometimes we have to replant if the crop doesn’t work, but we’ve always had the spirit of figuring out how to make it work. We don’t rely on someone to bring it to us. We do that in all kinds of things—that’s the Great Falls way. And 25 years ago, the Youth Orchestra was established and it’s still thriving today.

We pride the Great Falls Symphony as being the “education symphony.” Why do you think other groups aren’t set up like we are?

For the Great Falls Symphony, the Youth Orchestra is really important. We want to keep funding and nurturing it. Look at all the other orchestras that don’t have the infrastructure to support a youth orchestra. They may have seen it as a liability. It would be harder for them to establish because they don’t have a go-to person to be the bridge, to figure out how to make it all work. There’s a quote that says, ‘If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’ I try to be at as many tables as I can, even though it’s exhausting some days. That’s just the nature of keeping programs for kids alive and the music can’t be the only thing.

I don’t know what our relationship with the public schools would be like without a position like yours.

The school district believes in this position because the community expects it. That’s another thing that
is awesome about Great Falls. I’m the only music supervisor in the state with full administrative power right now. Again, that’s Great Falls thinking. It’s the position, it’s infrastructure. Gordon Johnson built a relationship with the community and it’s still there six years later after retiring as the symphony’s music director. Now he’s running the school board. That's how much we believe in education in this community.

Why do you still perform with the Symphony?

It’s the experience you remember. The Symphony is really good at giving the community a great experience. I can’t remember everything I’ve played in the Symphony or who all the guest artists were, but I remember that it was fantastic. You remember the moments. That’s why I still get on the stage for every concert. I know I’m making experiences for myself and hopefully, for my family and for the community. The teachers you see on stage are doing that too, and hopefully there’s some trickle down from that.

You’ve set the bar high!

Somebody’s got to be out there to set the bar, but it isn’t why I’m doing it. I’m looking for creative, exciting experiences for myself personally. You practice your parts and go to rehearsal though you’re dog tired … it might be the last thing you want to do, but then you are glad you did it. When we get a crowd like we had at the John Williams concert, I can’t wait for the next venture. Rehearsals may be tedious, but there’s always something cool about them. If you look back in the brass section during rehearsals, we’re having fun … because if we’re not having fun, we’re not making memories. The music is important, but sometimes the destinations really don’t matter, it’s the journey that’s fun.

How did you decide to pursue music in college?

My senior year, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought about a career in the forest service and I was also of the age when Top Gun came out, so I thought I could be a military pilot. I was hoping to get into the Air Force Academy and the space program. While I was applying to the military academies, I had a really great All State Music experience that inspired me.

 

Though I was accepted to the Naval Academy, I decided to pursue music instead. I applied to St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN) at the request of my choral teacher, and was accepted, but I decided to go to the University of Montana for economic reasons. I became a music education major because I had no delusions about being the next great performer.

When you were my band director at Great Falls High, I remember your authentic enthusiasm when you would listen to and study music with us. It was inspiring to see how much you genuinely love what you do.

You can’t just be a conductor in the classroom. If all the magic is happening because I’m waving my arms—instead of getting kids involved and having them help make musical decisions—that can wreck the next generation because they won’t know how to think critically about music. They won’t know how to be successful unless someone is telling tell them what to do. I never liked the idea of the conductor having all of the answers in high school and middle school settings.
It goes back to being open to learning. I want my teachers to know that it’s important to share their passion for music with the kids. ‘You need to find what gets you excited as an educator, as a musician, and explain why it excites you, to help the kids. Why did that chord sound awesome? Well it had nothing to do with my conducting. It had everything to do with the way the band was listening and how we cut off as a group and how we align. I didn’t do it. I helped facilitate it, but you did it.’

What philosophically has really improved in the public schools to keep more doors open? 

In Great Falls, we keep the door wide open. Anybody who wants to come through, we’ll figure out a way to help you. I’m very proud that we offer a robust local program and we help families in financial need. The school bridges a gap to give those kids access. 

Great Falls does this really well and the Symphony’s Youth Orchestra has also taken this on through music lesson fee scholarships and tuition waivers. The school system can get kids in the door and started, and then the ones who accelerate or need a little more challenge can join Sinfonia or the Youth Orchestra. But you have to want to do it. You can’t just hand an instrument to a kid and say, ‘you’re magic.’ They have to work and work hard. You can teach them about music and the innate stuff, but to be successful with their instrument, kids have to have some buy-in to the learning process. 

 

There’s been a lot of research over the decades saying music is its own intelligence and we have to treat it as such. Some say music makes you smarter and improves this and that, which is true to some extent, but a lot of sources say music is a way of thinking and communicating. The real reason we teach music is because it’s an innate skill and the more skills you get kids curious about, the more they are willing to be curious about other things. I learn musically, that’s the lens I walk through, and there are a lot of people who think that way. 

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PAM LEMELIN

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Dusty loved jazz band in 7th grade and was awarded Outstanding Senior in Music at the University of Montana.

PAM LEMELIN

Fall Colors Youth Orchestra concert, November 13, 2022

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