Saturday, July 12, 2008
These days, if you are a serious saxaphone or clarinet player, an Ernie Northway mouthpiece is a prized possession.
Back in the day, Ernie Northway was my high school instrumental music teacher.
Ernest Vernon Northway.
I remember the first day of my freshman year of high school in 1968, when we learned that several new teachers had been hired, among them a husband and wife straight from Drake University in Iowa by way of Las Vegas to teach instrumental and vocal music, respectively. After getting their degrees from Drake they headed to Vegas, where Ernie was a studio musician for headliner shows in the more prominent casinos, something that gave him a unique ability to lead a band in a small town of 500 people in southwestern Wyoming and take its stageband to a position of Intermountain prominence in its class. Apparently Vegas also lended itself to some choreography skills which Ernie was able to use during his time as faculty advisor to the Puncherettes, our high school drill team.
Ernie did me more than one great favor during my years in high school. The summer before my sophomore year, he took a mediocre flute player who'd been unenthusiastically plugging along with the instrument since fifth grade and waved a bassoon in front of her, a beautiful, big, double-reed instrument, and gave her the confidence to learn something new. He introduced that same girl to the works of Hermann Hesse, starting with Steppenwolf and Siddhartha. He taught her how to play tympani when wind instruments no longer held her interest, and how to change the pitch of the individual drums by ear. He had the confidence in her to make her president of the band and have her schedule travel arrangements for out of town trips, including the famous two week school trip to compete in the Reno Jazz Festival in Reno, Nevada. And before she ever went on to play keyboards or electric bass in the stageband, he entrusted her to run the choreographed lights for the spring stageband concert.
Somewhere out there is an audio tape of the stageband concert in the spring of her senior year, which she emceed. "Ham," I recall, were his exact words to describe that unfortunate combining of 16-year-old and microphone. "Primadonna" was another word I won't soon forget escaping his lips during a long and tedious Puncherette rehearsal. Ernie pulled no punches. He encouraged, sometimes he challenged, but in the end, he raised the bar. He changed many lives during his time in Big Piney. I learned a lot about Wheat Thins, Type A personalities and your heart, Bill Chase, Bobby Shew, hotel rooms in Reno, what worked, what didn't, and above all, listening listening listening during that time. "Northway" was what most of us affectionately called him. That he went on to start a business of handcrafting exclusive woodwind mouthpieces that bear his name is most fitting.
He played many instruments, but I remember him best as a trumpet and saxaphone player, in addition to clarinet and flute. Standing in the back of the room with the trumpet section during stageband rehearsals won't soon be forgotten.
Southwest School District #9 brought a number of people to Big Piney for a few years only to move on again later, as the Northways did. The riches of the local petroleum industry allowed for salaries in our school district, and amenities, that would have been unheard of elsewhere. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be students there abundantly benefitted.