Story by: Ellen Thompson
For decades, two Havre music teachers have set a beat, set high standards and watched a generation of Havre students step to it. Choir teacher Frank Payn and band teacher Ron Coons will both retire this year, leaving as their legacies the students they taught.
The secret to both teachers' success, students say, is in the sauce.
"Mr. Payn and Mr. Coons have shown that it takes a little bit of fire to do it," said John Harrison, a former student. "If you don't have that, the kids don't care and the music doesn't sound good."
Harrison just finished his freshman year at the University of Puget Sound, where he will major in music and minor in business. He participated in both band and choir at Havre High School. Instrumental and vocal auditions won Harrison a scholarship to the college, which he attributes to help he had from his teachers in preparing.
Harrison is one among many students who say they've gotten personal attention and a little extra push from Payn or Coons.
School district employee Jackie Rygg recalls that her daughter, Jenny, had help from Coons in obtaining her first teaching job. For the past three years she has taught music in Great Falls.
"He started a lot of kids," Rygg said.
Payn began teaching at Havre Public Schools in 1981. When he arrived, there were two high school choirs and an ensemble group, the Hi-Liters, he said. Since that time, Payn has added two more choirs and a guitar class. The number of extracurricular ensembles has also grown. Recently, Payn has led Expressions, a girls choir; Treble, a select girls choir; Concert Choir, a mixed-gender select choir; as well as an a capella group. The Hi-Liters have continued a tradition of jazz performance and the group Belle Voix has set a tradition of singing challenging music well, Payn said.
High points, Payn said, included taking the a capella group to Spokane, Wash., two years ago to participate in a choir competition. In that competition, Havre was one of three schools to receive the highest rating among perhaps 100 that competed, he said. The Hi-Liters received regional and state and even out-of-state accolades in 1984 and again in 1993, Payn recalled.
"My best kids do things I did in college," he said. "They're young enough to not know how hard it is, and they go after it and they get it."
Payn said he prefers working with the older students because of their high skill level and because he's able to relate to them.
"You can actually talk to them like people," Payn joked.
"Some of them," one student interjected, correcting him. She spoke up from a small cadre of students spending the beginning of their lunch period trading quips with their teacher.
"They've made me young and old," he said.
While Payn prefers the older students, Coons said he prefers working with younger students, especially sixthgraders.
"You can make so much progress. Everything they learn is new," Coons said. "If you don't have a good beginning band, it's nothing later on."
Coons said some of his proudest moments have come when he's heard from parents after the sixth-graders' first concert. Most years, the middle school band has been team taught by Dave Carlson and Coons, with Carlson leading the wood section and Coons with the brass. Coons is also happy about the amount the band program has grown since he arrived in Havre 17 years ago. At that time there were about 60 students in band. Now, Coons said, there are twice as many.
Outside of class, Coons has directed the high school jazz and marching bands as well as ensembles that form in order to compete at the District 7 Music Festival and at the annual state competition. Thirty-one of his students have earned seats in the all-state band.
This year, Coons said, he had to cut back on working with those extracurricular groups because of illness, saying that it took five teachers to fill in for him in his extracurricular roles.
Coons' most rewarding moment as a teacher came this year, he said, when he presented the music achievement award to senior Mike Sutherland. Sutherland had struggled in band class, and Coons said teacher and student clashed at times.
"I was almost ready to give him the boot, and every time he came back and I forgave him and we started over and he didn't hold any grudges," Coons said.
Persistence on both sides improved the teacher-student relationship as well as Sutherland's learning curve, he said.
"By the time he got done with school, he was telling me, 'I really like this music. Where can I get a recording of this?'
"That's probably the most effective teaching you can do. It's when they love great music," Coons said. "I know he's not going to go on and be a performer, but I know music will always be a part of his life and that he's enjoyed what he's doing."
Coons remembers directing the band while Sutherland was on the mat as a wrestler. After Sutherland made his pin, he gave a thumbs up, not to his coach, but to his music teacher.
The two teachers complemented each other well, said Joel Benson, a former student who has just finished his freshman year of college studying youth ministry and music.
"Mr. Coons really helped give me a love for jazz music," Benson said. Coons instilled in him the basics, Benson said. From Payn he learned how to finish it off with stylistic touches and an emphasis on interpretation.
"How well I've done at college, I can attribute to them," he said.
The students who haven't stayed with music have still learned from their experience, Coons said. One former student who just received a doctorate in nuclear physics recently wrote to Coons saying he learned from Coons about the value of hard work.
"I was not the most talented child to start band," Coons said. "So it was very much a struggle for me to overcome. My dad was lucky to tune a radio and my mother sang in the church choir with a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through. We taught our classes with the outlook that" everyone can do it if they work for it.
Payn said he looks forward to participating more actively in Montana Actors' Theatre and leading a church choir. Coons said he is considering finding a position at a small college or even going back to school, either for instrument repair or curriculum development.
Both men said it is time to leave. Each said he had put in all he could.
"I will miss the kids, but I know I don't have the energy it takes anymore to do this," Payn said.
Belle Voix members Katie and Tara Borst said they understand. Katie, a freshman, said she cried when she heard Payn was leaving, but her older sister Tara, a senior, said it was the best thing because she has seen that the job is hard on him.
Coons and Payn said a new teacher who loves the music and the kids will succeed.
Meanwhile, Payn said his students learned one more lesson with him. At the end of this week's choral concert, there were a lot of tears.
"The ending of anything is sad," he said. "It's hard for young people to take. They have to learn to deal with it."