Expect American classics from new Julian band director

Taking over for Holleman won't mean doing it her way

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There are smaller shoes to fill in the world than those left by Ellen Holleman.

The Percy Julian Middle School band director taught 39 years?#34;16 of which were at District 97?#34;before retiring this spring.

Before leaving, she won numerous awards and accolades, local and national, including a $10,000 award in 2003 from the Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation?#34;one of four music educators selected nationwide for the award that year.

So is new Julian instrumental music teacher Tom Kanwischer worried about filling Holleman's big shoes?

"Not hers," he said. "She had small feet."

Kanwischer, who started his third year of teaching Monday morning after having graduated from the University of Illinois in 2002, said Holleman made it clear from the start that he was to run the program he wanted?#34;and not try to serve as her heir.

That said, he doesn't think much will change under his leadership, citing "ain't broke, don't fix it" wisdom.

The most apparent changes ahead for Julian musicians (and their parents) will be in music selections. Whereas Holleman played flute and saxophone, Kanwischer is a trombonist and bassist, and likes tunes that feature brass instruments. His hailing from the U. of I. will mean a steady diet of American masters?#34;Percy Grainger, J.P. Sousa, Henry Fillmore and Aaron Copland.

But as a musician, Kanwischer, 25, is more comfortable playing jazz, as he does with big bands in Chicago and Evanston.

A resident of the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, he also plays electric bass with Fires Over Phoenix, a rock band he and friends from college formed. Kanwischer names as the band's influences Elvis Costello, and Death Cab for Cutie, but they write all of their own songs.

You can find Fires Over Phoenix at Chicago bars such as Hoghead McDunna's and the Elbo Room.

The son of a school district nurse and ComEd exec who retired to carpentry, Kanwischer's career in music began at age 3, tinkering away at a piano while hounding his mother to pay for lessons. She relented at age 5, and in fifth grade he joined the school band playing trombone.

"Right from day one that was it. It was the coolest thing ever," said the Batavia native.

In junior high, his band director, Mike Stiers, was a fellow trombonist, a patriot, and a teacher who outlined the connections between music and bringing people together or helping people through tough times.

"He made sure we understood how music related to everything else in the world," Kanwischer said.

But he owes his motivation for going into teaching to Batavia High School conductor John Heath.

"He was totally dedicated to us," Kanwischer said. "He was the craziest and most energetic teacher I ever had."

Music selections that seemed too hard at first gave way under the weight of hard work, he said.

At the U. of I., playing in the Marching Illini provided a good way to meet many new people, including professors when he arrived as a freshman. The football team's success in 2002 meant Kanwischer and his bandmates got to travel to New Orleans for the Nokia Sugar Bowl (LSU beat the Illini 47-34).

One-year stints at River Grove and Lyons District 103 gave him the opportunity to try out a few things he'd like to bring to Oak Park, including traveling with the bands more.

"It's such a wonderful thing that goes on here, I'd like to get [the students] out of this bubble," he said.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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