Saturday, July 12, 2008

Ernie Northway

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.


Barry Morgan said...

Ah, Ernie Northway. What a terrific musician and a great guy. I always wondered why he left the bright lights and took up teaching. I always felt he should have been famous. He taught me as much about life as he did about music. I have had the honor of playing with Steve Bones, one of the UK's finest saxophone players, but I think Northway could take him on a good day. It's good to see he is still kicking and still involved in music and in helping people be better musicians. He was/is a legend in my book and always will be.

Mark Haddock said...

Ernie Northway had the rare ability of being able to imbue in his students the ability to think, act, and even play like professionals, and he expected nothing less than your best. Being a member of an Ernie Northway stage band was a special experience, and when you took the stage it wasn't at all like high school, it was "SHOWTIME – baby”, and the audiences loved it. I was lucky enough to play drums in that stage band, as well as in the Ernie Northway Trio, Ernie on sax, his wife Susan on piano, and me on drums, during my junior and senior years in high school. I have very fond memories of those days. It is due largely to Ernie's encouragement and support that I became a professional musician. Thanks Ernie!!

A. R. Sellers said...

Wow, hard to believe that old man is still around. Here I sit on New Years day thinking about the wonderful Tuba Christmas concert I heard this year, Northway came to mind. What a joy it was to play in his band. I remember one note from the concert band, where I was able to fill the whole room with the entrance. Very strong stuff. Northway stops the whole band to let me do it again. I think that one note gave be more understanding of the joy of playing music than any of the hundreds of songs before or since. Thanks Ernie, Keep making the mouthpieces.
A.R. Sellers
Avionics Instructor
Del Mar College