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'Doing all the things': Farmington band director named first female MMEA jazz chair

Holmes pauses for a second to let the room settle after a quick appearance from associate director Brad Mariska. John R. Russett / Rivertown Multimedia1 / 5
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Holmes directs one of her concert bands during the school day. John R. Russett / Rivertown Multimedia3 / 5
Erin Holmes sits at the front of her top jazz band during rehearsal Jan. 10. John R. Russett / Rivertown Multimedia4 / 5
Always an important step, Holmes makes sure the band is in tune before getting too far into rehearsal. John R. Russett / Rivertown Multimedia5 / 5

Nearing the end of her collegiate career, seeking a student teacher position, Erin Holmes knew what she needed: marching band experience. She also knew where she needed to go to get it: Waseca.

What she didn't know was nearly two decades later she would be named the first female jazz chair of the Minnesota Music Educators Association and one of School Band and Orchestra Magazine's 2017 "50 Directors Who Make a Difference" within the span of a couple weeks.

Now, the woman in charge of Farmington's band program knows all of those things.

There was just one problem — at the time, the director in Waseca, who had not responded to the eager young college student interested in his tutelage, didn't know any of those things.

Holmes said it wasn’t until college that she gained an appreciation for concert bands. John R. Russett / Rivertown Multimedia

Holmes explained his philosophy on the matter: "'Student teachers can wreck a program, I'm not letting anyone else come in here.'"

Pretentious? It sounds that way, Holmes conceded, but he had a great program and wanted to keep it protected.

So, she did the only thing left to do.

"When I went into his office and said, 'I'm student teaching for you,' and he was like, 'Uhhhhh ...' — I don't know what I said to convince him that this was going to be an OK thing. But I did."

As for student teachers, she was his first and last. He left for another career shortly after.

Holmes said she learned a lot that year, that they both did, but one of the biggest lessons was how to stay balanced.

Arrive at school at 5 a.m. every day for marching band until school starts, teach all day, go home for a quick meal before returning to school for more practice in the evening, each week capped off with a Friday night football game.

Weekends: At school by 4 a.m. Saturday to travel and compete, return home.

Sunday: rinse and repeat.

And she had to convince someone to let her do this. But that year of student teaching continues to play a prominent role in Holmes' approach to educating.

She noticed the way he pushed his students to push themselves.

"And that was one of the things that really influenced me as an educator, like, yes, I can still be myself and care about them in terms of — I'm going to challenge you, I'm not going to just let you sit on your loins and coast by here, we're going to push and make you smarter and better," Holmes said.

Friend and colleague Sarah Minette, who nominated her for the "50 Directors Who Make a Difference," couldn't help but notice Holmes' dedication.

"She's doing all the things," Minette said. "She's a high school band teacher, doing all the things, and she's got kids and she's still doing all the things. Her work ethic is just amazing. I'm so, so impressed with her work ethic."

One of Holmes' sayings is 'Beat Farmington,' a reminder to get better every day. John R. Russett / Rivertown Multimedia

While Holmes — a wife and mother of three — now runs a program with more than 300 students, who comprise four concert bands, of whom 85 get to school by 7:15 a.m. for zero hour each morning to rehearse in three different jazz bands, her own musical beginnings were slightly more humble.

A saxophone player at a private school with a small program, she had the same band director from fifth grade through her senior year.

"I was always inspired by him because I saw how hard he worked — start to finish and doing everything he could to give us as many experiences as he possibly could," she said.

He also directed the choir, where she sang as well.

Looking back, she realized those years illustrated what it took to get kids to love music. It's also where she fell in love with music. But not just music — jazz.

While in seventh and eighth grade jazz bands, she got to solo.

Those who have fallen for jazz will say, when you fall, you fall hard. And she did.

The great trumpeter, vocalist and jazz ambassador to the world Louis Armstrong is attributed as saying, "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know."

Holmes never was compelled to ask, as she went through a phase when all she wanted to play was jazz, but she couldn't help but wonder about the other women — mostly, where were they?

"We're lacking in the female jazz world and I think that's part of the reason the state wants to see that changing," she said.

In her own top jazz band, 20 of Holmes' 22 students are male.

Minette, who teaches band at South High School in Minneapolis, stressed how important it was to see Holmes named the next MMEA jazz chair.

"I think it's important for young ladies and young men, boys and girls, to see that women have a place behind the podium and it's not because of what we wear, it's not because of how we look, it's because we are very capable ..." Minette said, citing the lack of female presence in the jazz world as one of the primary reasons she co-founded the Swing Sisterhood Big Band with University of St. Thomas music professor Sarah Schmalenberger.

Holmes said she will never forget the first time she played with the all-female group.

Over the years of playing in bands with mostly guys, she had fallen away from one of her first loves — soloing. This rehearsal and this solo were different.

"It was a life-changing moment for me, again — and this was just a couple three, four years ago — on the level of encouragement I got," Holmes said. "And the big bands that I've played in I'm very good friends with the people in that group. But I've never been encouraged like I was with (the Swing Sisterhood). So even as an educator, I wanted to make sure that I was being encouraging in that way."

Her dedication to, along with her focus on the students has taken her to where she is now.

"I'm humbled and grateful that my colleagues trust me to pursue jazz education," Holmes said. "I'm so grateful that people see me more than just teaching a band, they see that I can do good for the program and for the state, and for girls, too. I think we're looking a lot at what is out there and who we have to look up to in the state of Minnesota. There are so many amazing musicians that we have in this state."

John R. Russett / RiverTown Multimedia

The jazz chair is a two-year appointment, chosen by the previous chair. She is just the 20th director from Minnesota to be recognized as one of the "50 Directors Who Make a Difference."

As for the accolades: "All of this has been absolutely phenomenal, but I'm just doing what I love. And I love what I do, so I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."

Farmington Associate Director of Bands Brad Mariska had a slightly different take on the MMEA announcement.

"It's a huge deal, because you're in charge of the most elite jazz ensembles in the state and it's a two-year appointment," he said. "And she's also the first woman to ever hold this position. Literally, a woman has never had this job. Band directors, the world of band directors is male-dominated to begin with, but jazz especially is just like all guys."

True to form, Mariska was the one to tell her bands of the honor.

"She does give a lot of credit to a lot of people, but I hope she realizes that she can give herself some credit, too," Minette said. "I mean, she's the one that's doing it."

For Holmes, however, regardless of what else is going on, it's always about the power of music. The day after the school shooting in Florida, Holmes addressed the issue with her students.

"We had a long conversation with every single ensemble that we saw today about now's the time, we gotta make music, because we're going to make it louder and stronger and make a connection with people," she recalled. "We gotta keep doing that, we gotta keep showing the love and be human and reach out."

John R. Russett

John Russett is a regional reporter for RiverTown Multimedia, covering a variety of issues facing RiverTown communities. Previously, he worked at the Red Wing Republican Eagle, where he reported on education as well as crime and courts. 

You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnRyanRussett


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