By Crystal Hayduk
As Alison Roberts conducted the Chelsea High School (CHS) Marching Band at Ford Field on Nov. 26, she felt a rush of pride in her students.
“We’ve been on a journey to establish norms,” said Roberts, band director at CHS since the summer of 2020. Because high school students weren’t able to return to full-time in-person learning until the end of April, they are still experiencing many “firsts” together. She was gratified to witness their growth, not only in music performance, but also in other skills they learn in music, such as responsibility, focus, flexibility, organization, and awareness of others.
Roberts pursued her current position when Rick Catherman, admired by former students for his passion and enthusiasm, retired after 20 years with the district. As if stepping into the void left by a much-loved teacher wasn’t challenging enough, she did so only a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, rife with unknowns.
A trombonist who also plays guitar and sings, Roberts previously taught all grade levels of instrumental music in Ann Arbor Public Schools and was the assistant director of bands at Huron High School for five years. She earned both her undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Michigan.
Roberts considers teaching music to be her life’s calling. “I love working with students of many different ability levels,” she said. “Bringing music into children’s lives is important because it gives us opportunities to teach them how to express themselves, how to be empathetic, how to communicate in ways other than just speaking to one another. Music has been a place to turn to for all of my highs and lows, and I want to make sure the next generation has that.”
In her fifth year with CSD as band director for grades five through eight, Katy Steklac is the other half of the band leadership duo. She came to the district after teaching music for three years at South Canton Scholars Charter Academy. A bassoonist, Steklac earned her bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University, and her master’s degree from American Band College.
An alumna of CHS, Steklac considers Catherman as her role model. “I really like working with middle schoolers, so having the opportunity to be mentored by Mr. Catherman was a big motivating factor in applying for this position when Jim Otto retired in 2017, as well as being able to give back to the community I grew up in,” she said.
Roberts and Steklac interact with nearly 300 students on average each day, for up to eight years. “My favorite part is watching the progress students make over the years—witnessing their a-ha moments and building deep connections with them,” said Roberts.
Music education plays an important role in a young person’s life. Steklac said, “Learning to play an instrument is stimulating and challenging—mentally, emotionally, and physically. Being part of an ensemble helps children to build community and be with other students who enjoy doing the same thing. It also develops persistence because results take time, unlike many activities with instant gratification.”
“Music students learn that what they do individually matters, but for the good of the group,” added Roberts. “They are part of something greater than themselves.”
Looking ahead, Steklac’s goal is to “… rebuild the band program to where it was before COVID-19—not only the musical quality, but also the culture.”
Thanks to the return of in-person events, including the rousing success of the Marching Band Exhibition in September, Roberts has made progress on getting to know her students and the community better. Now she’s continuing her goal of making sure that every person in the band room feels a sense of belonging.
Fiona Stoker, a flutist in eleventh grade, recalled her experience as a student representative during the band director interviews in 2020. During the sample lesson, Roberts connected with students to alleviate their jitters. “I was very astonished that Mrs. Roberts asked me to go to the most challenging part of the song,” she said. “She helped me go over … the more difficult tempo and rhythm, and guided me on parts I didn’t fully understand.”
It is clear to Stoker that the teaching philosophies of the women align. “They are amazing teachers who work really well with each other, get the job done, and make sure all students feel welcome,” said Stoker. “They are both amazing role models for the band and I hope they will teach at Chelsea for years to come. Even throughout [the pandemic], they’ve made this band grow in many ways—from having close connections to students to helping out with broken instruments.”
CHS Principal Nick Angel recognizes the benefit students receive from great music educators like Roberts and Steklac.
He said, “From the moment they introduce band instruments to elementary students to the culmination of their years at their senior concert, students grow not just in their artistic and musical efficacy, but in becoming better people. Students in the band program learn teamwork, the importance of putting others before oneself, the importance of seeing things through, and challenging oneself and others to be better.”
Because men have historically dominated the field of band directing, especially at the high school level and above, Steklac and Roberts defy the odds as an all-female team. Thankfully for their students, neither woman could imagine altering their career path.
Roberts likes being different. “It’s always appealed to me that I would be the underdog as a female band director,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s always been worth it.”