Before we get to sit down to chat at a coffee shop in Charlottetown, a former student from the music program at Bluefield High School pegs his high-school band teacher, Chrissy Blanchard, who has led the band and music program there for a quarter-century. They catch up on his music career and check out the Bluefield band newsletter she has started that includes features on musicians who graduated from the program.
“It’s wonderful to be able to meet former students who talk to me about what music meant for them in their lives,” Chrissy says. “That’s very rewarding.” She adds, “One thing that has kept me energized, was seeing students who at first say ‘I can’t,’ who, with persistence and resilience and my direction, get there.” She loves to “see the smile on their face and their sense of accomplishment.”
Hearing a high school band was her own inspiration. “I just loved the sound of the Charlottetown Rural band playing,” she laughs, “a big, gorgeous blend of instruments — the crash of the cymbal!… I knew in Grade 8 I wanted to be a high school band teacher. The sound of that music made me want to follow that passion.”
In recent years, Chrissy has added to her band-conducting schedule by leading the Holland College Welshmen Community Band, which on the evening we met had just finished a successful pops concert. Chrissy is in love with the community band. “Oh my heavens,” Chrissy says, “I love knowing my high school students have a place to go to continue to play.”
That’s only a part of the reason she does what she does with the Welshmen. “The community band draws on such diverse people of different backgrounds,” Chrissy says, “It pairs high school students with older musicians, over sixty, who have been playing their whole lives.” The oldest member of the Welshmen band is over eighty. “Can you imagine in a sport, a 17-year-old hockey player on a team with an 85-year-old hockey player?” Chrissy asks.
The life of a high school band teacher already includes conducting at least three extracurricular bands, on top of teaching, and many other tasks. Why add a community band to the list?
“I think the reason I am doing this became more apparent the more I worked with the [HC Welshmen Community] band,” Chrissy says.
“It’s incredible music-making with people who are really passionate about making music.” To that she adds “close friendships,” plus, she says, “I get to lead a group to discover the part of music that gives us goosebumps — that connects to our heart.”
As co-director of the Maritime Community Ensemble band with Ron Murphy, Chrissy also got to travel last year to the International Festival of Bands in Pamplona, Spain. “Take everything I described as the Welshmen band, but include people from across the Maritimes, then take that group to a whole new environment,” she says.
“In Spain,” Chrissy says, “they treat community musicians like rock stars, or athletes.” For the closing concert of the Festival and the 100th anniversary of Pamplona’s community band, the famous bull ring in Pamplona was filled with 10,000 people. “There was cheering and screaming,” Chrissy says. “When they heard we were from the Maritimes, they did the wave. There were fireworks!” She recalls, “For that final evening, all the bands paraded into the ring, and the city streets were packed with cheering spectators who couldn’t get into the bull ring.”
Musicians may not get fireworks here, but Chrissy says, “In my experience of receiving the Music PEI Music Educator of the Year Award last year, I got to see the support for local musicians and local bands,” she says. Then, she adds, “There are five community wind bands in Charlottetown.” There are opportunities for every skill level and training.
As the mother of three sons, and as a long-time music teacher, Chrissy knows, “not a lot of students are going to be professional musicians. It’s going to be a small percentage.” For her own children, she says, “I’m hoping they’ll be community musicians — that they’ll continue playing, and they’ll have somewhere to play.”