By Jack Hoban
For Dr. Gerald Thompson, newly named manager of the Milford Community Band replacing MCB Founder Joe Lear, it is always been about listening. As a child he developed an ear for music, able to play back music from memory.
“I enjoy listening to music,” said Thompson. “I follow a melody line much like riding a roller-coaster with harmonic progressions acting as the curves and finally the percussive sounds the movement of the car makes. I’m always listening and learning.”
In high school, he played clarinet in the school band and later drums in a rock band. He was playing music and having a good time when Viet Nam called. He was influenced by the Barry Sandler song “The Ballad of the Green Berets’” and by President Kennedy’s challenge to “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country”. “I didn’t know where Viet Nam was I was so naïve,” he said.
Once discharged, he was returning to Philadelphia by plane when he struck up a conversation with a pretty United Airlines flight attendant named Colleen Ann Connell. She was the first American girl he had talked to in 2 years and he was smitten. They made plans to go on a date. Six months later they married. They celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary this year. They have two daughters, Gretchen, and Shannon.
A day after arriving home from the war, Thompson was standing in line to register for school at Wesley College in Dover. I got my degree in music education.” He would later get his Masters in Percussion and his Ed.D in Education. He landed the job as band director at Milford High School in 1972. Milford had about 15 kids in their band at that time.
“We went from 15 kids to 30 to 55 and kept building. On the field we played rock music instead of the traditional marches which the kids liked. And people in the stands also wanted more contemporary music, like Blood Sweat and Tears and Chicago,” he said.
“The kids thought I was insane,” he continued. “I used humor a lot and many didn’t know how to take me. I noticed high school kids didn’t laugh a lot for whatever reasons so I tried to loosen them up with humor. Band class was usually the seventh period so by the time they came in they had already been through six other classes and they had a lot of stress. So when they came into my class I wanted to change that environment.”
Dr. Thompson was band director for 30 years at Milford and another 5 at North Caroline High School in Denton, MD. “I was always close to the drummers,” he said. “And they hated me because I was so demanding,” he said with a laugh.
His bands performed at football games, parades and festivals up and down the East Coast and his duties as director included more than music. He also had to be part `MacGyver’. “You developed all types of gadgets to make players better,” he said. “You would bend coat hangers to keep a kid’s fingers rising too high off of the keys. You always had duct tape to repair instruments. I carried bubblegum and rubber bands–whatever you needed to fix the equipment.”
Thompson also believes that music offers kids some lessons they wouldn’t normally be getting in this age of social media and personal computers. “Music gives kids discipline. It gives them organization. It gives them coordination and exercise. It gives them esthetics or exposure and appreciation of the arts and life–instead of just learning about core subjects.”
Dr. Thompson and Joe Lear have a long history. Back in 1990, Lear was helping Thompson with the high school band when he complained that he did not have anywhere to play his horn. Thompson suggested he start his own band. In 2015, the Milford Community Band will celebrate its 25-year anniversary.
“Joe Lear wrote the book on organizational techniques,” said Thompson of his friend and mentor. “There’s always a paper trail with Joe. It’s all on paper and followed to the `t’. He is a great role model and shows me a better way to handle situations.”