Story by Jerome Tharaud
Few senior classes go through as much together as the Havre High School Class of 2003.
"This senior class has probably been hit the hardest of any group of kids I've ever been around," said HHS band director Ron Coons, who has taught for 25 years.
In April of 2000, their freshman year, Kyle Boschee was killed in a car accident south of Big Sandy. Then in March of 2001, Christina Culbertson died of appendicitis. Less than four months later, in June, Tyler Hockett killed himself on his family's farm.
"These were our friends and our classmates," said senior Gina Williams, a band officer. "It's hard to lose that many people of your class and still stay as close as we have been."
But next Tuesday the class will in a sense have their three lost classmates back among them, when the Havre High School symphonic band performs for the first time a new piece written to capture the spirit of each of the three students.
The three-movement piece was composed last summer by Jim Colonna, director of instrumental studies at Laramie County Community College.
It was not the first time the Havre High School band has commissioned a piece. In 1998, the band performed a piece by former Bozeman High School band director Russ Newberry in memory of Carly Matter, a Havre High student who died in 1995, and two years later Barry Kopetz composed a piece as a tribute to Natalie Patrick, a junior who died in 1998.
Members of the band originally told Coons they wanted to have their own piece commissioned after Kyle's death. Coons contacted the composer for the class last spring, but the project, he says, is entirely theirs.
"It was their idea; they did the work; they promoted it with each other. I just contacted the composer," he said.
The band selected Colonna because they had enjoyed one of his earlier compositions. Band members sent the composer letters, pictures and biographical sketches about Kyle, Tyler and Christina. They contacted friends and family of the students for their input too.
The effect, Colonna says, was overwhelming. "When I heard about the students, I couldn't believe how absolutely fantastic these students were."
After originally being hired to write a seven-minute piece for $2,500, Colonna wrote 15 minutes for the same price.
"I didn't feel like I could memorialize or pay tribute to those students with a little bit of music," he said. "I wanted to leave something for the community."
Colonna said that when the students feel like they can't remember what their lost friends were like, he wants them to be able to "go back and say, 'Yeah, that's right, that's Tyler.'
"He was really touched and inspired by what these kids had been through. So we got more song than we bargained for," Coons said.
Of course, Coons isn't complaining. "It's an awesome, awesome piece of music," he said.
Colonna recorded a video of himself explaining the piece movement by movement, and sent it to the class. He is even coming to Havre on Monday and Tuesday to help the band prepare the piece.
"He's set a lot of stuff aside for our benefit," said senior Sarah Benson, one of the band officers. "It was his idea to come up to visit us."
"He's been amazing," agreed senior Angela Adams, also a band officer. "After he found out how they died and how it affected the community, he just put his heart into it."
The class received the piece in September. To pay for it, they have sold boxes of fruit and coupon books, used funds raised at other concerts during the year, and drew from the memorial funds established after the students' deaths. To date they have raised about $1,500, Coons said.
Finally, of course, the students learned the music. That, Coons said, has been the hardest part of all.
"It's probably the hardest piece we've ever played," Williams said.
Coons calls the piece "probably the biggest challenge we've ever faced in the band." All three movements, he said, are "bears." Most difficult, Coons said, is keeping all 68 band members focused on a piece of music for that long.
Coons says Colonna "wrote it on the side of being hard because he knew about the reputation of our band."
The first movement, "Calls and Echoes," is an example of Minimalism, Coons said. It showcases the trumpet, the instrument Tyler played.
The New Age-sounding movement consists of a lot of repetition, Coons said, but without a chord progression and without peaks and valleys of emotion.
"The movement of the chords isn't what's important about it," Coons said. "It's the textures."
The piece, he said, "has no beginning and no end. That was the way he felt about Tyler's situation."
"At first I didn't like it," admits Williams, "but the more we listen to it, the more we can't imagine it being anything else. It was like he knew him."
The first movement is "sporadic," said Benson, but she said it should be that way.
"It was fitting," she said. "Toward the end of Tyler's life it became very sporadic - his emotions ..."
The second movement, "Prayer," draws on Gregorian chant.
Colonna said he began to compose the second movement when he was still feeling the effects of Sept. 11, 2001, and that the attacks helped contribute to his emotional response to Christina's life. "Hearing about her life, I put myself in her perspective and I let myself be moved. I have my own 2-year-old daughter," he said.
Colonna opened the second movement with the euphonium, which Christina played, so that it sounds "as if we're hearing her playing the euphonium and saying, 'It's OK, I'm here.'"
Coons said the movement is the softest of the three, but is "really emotional and has peaks to it," and is the most dramatic.
The third movement is a dance-like piece that highlights the saxophone, the instrument Kyle played.
Saxophone players, Colonna said, are often outgoing and exuberant, as was Kyle. He recalls thinking "Let's write something that's more like a scherzo. It's a run through life, and it's got a lot of energy."
"He was our social butterfly," Coons said, and the "lighthearted" piece indeed resembles "a freshman boy skittering around."
It's mixed meter, he said. "If you were tapping your foot, it wouldn't stay steady."
Even after months of hard work and hundreds of dollars raised, a week ago the fate of the concert was still in doubt, the band officers said. After a scheduling snafu, the concert and the eighth-grade registration were scheduled for the auditorium in the same night. And the set of a high school production of "The Tempest" was set up on the stage.
In the crucible of good intentions, spent effort and emotional strain, tempers boiled over as parents and administrators fought over where to have the concert. Only after a music parents' meeting Sunday was it decided that the registration would be moved to the gym, and the concert would go on in the auditorium regardless of the stage set.
But to the students, the place, in the end, was not the important thing.
"It was a big mess," said Williams. "But like I said, I would play in a trash can if I had to."
But she doesn't resent the efforts Coons and the parents made. "It was all good intentions," she said. "They wanted it to be perfect."
Despite the help from people outside of their class, among members of the senior class the recent uproar is in sharp contrast with their sense that the preparation of this piece has been an intensely private experience - a kind of mourning perhaps - that the adults involved cannot share, and have in some cases forgotten.
"To me they lost sight of what the piece was for," said Benson. "It wasn't about how good our band was. It was for our friends."
"I hope that when our administration and our community hear it, they realize that this is more than just a program - more than just a song. It's not for us. It's for our classmates and their families," she said.
Stage props or not, the families and friends of the lost members of the senior class will be in the high school auditorium on Tuesday for remembrance and, some say, a sense of closure.
"I think it'll be closure for me," said Adams. "Even if we just played it for the parents, that would be enough."
Williams echoed a sense of closure. "It'll be nice for everyone to finally see what everyone went through - to hear what they've done."
Family members, too, are eager to hear the fruits of so much effort.
"I thought it was really cool because all three kids were in band and I thought it was a really nice way to keep the memory of them for the senior class," said Tyler's younger sister, Michele Hockett, 14, who is now in her first year at Havre High School and part of the band.
The composition seems a fitting culmination of a senior class that has, Hockett said, embraced her family since Tyler's death. After it happened, "Lots of my brother's friends came up" to visit the family, she said. Now, she says, "We have a big get- together every once in a while," to talk about what happened.
Hockett, who has not yet heard the new piece, said she and her family will be attending the concert on Tuesday. "I just hope that it's a reflection of how my brother's personality was. I hope that people who didn't know him will get an understanding of what he was like and that people who did know him will get a reflection of his personality. "
And if the opinions of the musicians are any indication, the piece will do just that.
"When they get out there it's going to sound awesome," Williams said.
Coons agreed. "They're very excited about doing it, and they've put a lot of work in."
"It may not be note perfect," he said, "but the heart and soul behind it is going to be as genuine and meaningful as anything we've done."
Even after the concert, Colonna said, the piece will continue to be played. Colonna said he has already signed a publication contract with C.Allen Publications.
Colonna said he has ensured that the top of every score will retain a note indicating who commissioned the piece, and the students it memorializes.
"It will be in every printed score that goes out throughout the world," he said.