Arkansas City High School band director Chris VanGilder does more than teach the youth of Ark City — he also conducts the summer community band.
Because of the way the local school district has organized its music department, VanGilder is able to watch his students grow up.
“I get to see middle school through high school,” he said.
“The most rewarding thing is that I get to see them grow up. (Middle school band director) Hans (Judd) and I are the only ones that get to watch them.”
VanGilder has had the opportunity to see some of his students go on to become professional musicians and music teachers.
“I’d have to stop and count the number of kids who have gone into music education,” he said.
He said their continuation in music is rewarding in a couple of ways, the first being that musical education will continue as a profession.
“I feel like if they’ve gone into it, at least I had some kind of contribution in their continuation in music,” he said.
Musical VanGilder family
VanGilder was raised in Carthage, Missouri, a small town that had about the same population that Ark City currently boasts.
The town has grown some since he left, though.
“I grew up around music,” he said. “My father had been a professional musician.” Others in his family were musically inclined, as well.
As a child, VanGilder was in concert band and jazz band, and he also sang in the choir at his church.
He received his bachelor’s degree in music education from Missouri Southern State University and, later, a master’s degree in conducting from Kansas State University.
“I went in as a music education major,” he said. “I didn’t know for some time that (teaching music) was what I wanted to do until I was in college.”
Ark City wasn’t the first place VanGilder taught. “I’d had another job and had been teaching in Cherryvale for five years,” he said.
A position came open in western Kansas that he strongly considered, but ultimately, that job was not a good fit for the VanGilder family.
It was around this time that the position in Ark City came open, though.
“I never expected to be here this long. At first, it was to see my kids through school,” VanGilder said.
But there have been perks to working within the USD 470 school district, he added.
“I’ve had the support of the school district, Dr. (Ron) Ballard and Jeri Crumbliss. … The school board has been very supportive, too,” VanGilder said.
In addition, he said he has had great students through his 20 years in the district.
One of hismost memorable experiences was the trip the marching band took to Chicago several years ago.
“The kids all came together and supported each other. They were huddled together for warmth before the parade, dancing and (attempting) to stay warm,” he said. “It was a family atmosphere.”
Ark City Community Band
In addition to his school job, VanGilder also conducts the Ark City Community Band in the summer seasons.
“I knew it existed before I got here. I was very excited to be a part of it,” he said.
The first several years of his time in Ark City, he was able to play in the band because Gary Gackstatter, former Cowley College director of bands, handled conducting duties.
VanGilder’s primary instrument is the euphonium, but he has played the tuba, as well.
When Gackstatter moved away, VanGilder took over conducting duties. He has been in charge of the band for more than a decade.
The Ark City Community Band kicked off its 147th consecutive season Thursday night in downtown Ark City. It is thought to be the oldest continuously playing band of its kind in the state.
Marching, guests and future
School bands have two seasons — the fall marching season, in which students march in parades and at football games, and the spring concert season, when they play in a more traditional setting.
“There are so many benefits to what we do,” VanGilder said. “Marching band is more exciting to me — if I had to choose one.”
The school bands have had guest conductors more frequently, too, thanks to the V.J. Wilkins Memorial Foundation.
Having guest conductors allows for students to learn from professionals in the field of music.
“With the Wilkins Foundation supporting us, we’ve been able to bring in more of these professionals,” VanGilder said.
Conductors can become overly focused on one aspect of what they are teaching and sometimes miss things that might be apparent to other trained ears, he said.
“Guest conductors can listen with a fresh set of ears,” VanGilder said.
The band instructor said he doesn’t foresee leaving Ark City any time in the near future.
“I don’t see myself retiring soon,” he said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”