Making the music happen. Kristy Tillman is leading two PRMS bands to compete in Toronto in May. (Keili Bartlett / The Northern View)

Heart of Our City: Kristy Tillman is with the band

The band director for School District 52 is in more than five bands

Kristy Tillman was in Grade 5 when she joined her first school band.

By Grade 8, she’d written band director down on a class assignment about what she wanted to be when she grew up. In university, they asked her what she was minoring in and she said, “Minor? I don’t want to do anything else.”

Her answer has been the same ever since. Now, sitting in the band room at Prince Rupert Middle School, Tillman can play every instrument.

“I never thought I would leave Saskatchewan,” School District 52’s band director said at the school nestled between Rupert’s mountains and coastline.

It was the many school band trips that ignited her love of travel, taking her far from the Canadian Prairies where she grew up.

“It’s what I liked the most about being in band,” Tillman said.

As a student, her own school bands took her from Saskatchewan to Disney World in Florida, to Minneapolis, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver. In university, the South Saskatchewan Orchestra Tillman played the bassoon and was invited to the Aberdeen Music Festival in Scotland.

“I think the travel that I did through band really opened my eyes. It made me want to travel more. It’s something that I really enjoy, to not always be in the same place but to go see other things,” she said.

“Some of the kids haven’t been outside the province.”

Thanks in part to Tillman’s efforts, that will soon change. In May, the Grade 7/8 concert band and jazz band are scheduled to play at MusicFest Canada in Toronto for four days.

READ MORE: Concert band MusicFest-bound

Tillman’s next few trips will be with her bands in tow. The first stop is in Terrace on April 13 for the Pacific Northwest Music Festival, where her players won the invitation to Toronto last year. A month later they’ll be playing in one of Canada’s biggest cities.

“They’re very excited,” she said with a smile. “We’ve been practising since after the Christmas break.”

The real magic of a band trip, Tillman said, are the bonds made.

“You usually come back with more friendships than when you started,” she said, adding that she still has close friends from her trips, some living as far away as Europe.

It’s that kind of long-lasting connection Tillman helps foster. Between the extended travel time — whether it’s on a bus to Terrace or a plane to Toronto — the dedicated practice time, and the jitters before a much-anticipated performance, it’s only natural that a band becomes its own kind of family. Music is just the introduction.

Everything that happens outside of the band’s headquarters in PRMS is extracurricular, even for Tillman. During the 12 years she’s been in Prince Rupert, her work doesn’t end when the school bell rings.

“I just want to give them the opportunity that I had when I was in school,” she said.

“What I tell the kids quite a bit is everyone is important. Everyone has an important part — we can’t do this alone. You may be playing third clarinet, but it doesn’t sound as good if we only have first clarinet. We need all of those parts. Everyone’s role is equally as important.”

READ MORE: Community musical looks on the bright side of life

It’s not just kids that Tillman creates music with. In the latest community musical, Tillman became the director for her first stage production. She was originally slated to play the bassoon in the orchestra pit when Peter Witherly passed away.

“When they needed someone new, I said, ‘I can try it. I’ve never done it, but I’ll do it.’”

And the show went on.

Once the final curtain fell, Tillman had less than a week before the middle school band’s performance in Terrace. The day after their show, she directed the community band in Terrace.

Last spring, she still had enough time to start a beginner band for adults in the community.

“My little bandies were very eager and it was a lot of fun. It was different teaching beginning adults compared to 10 year olds,” she said with a chuckle. This year she doesn’t expect to catch enough of a beat between performances to start it up again.

These days she hasn’t had much time to pick up her bassoon.

“I find that if I sit down and play my bassoon for a while, it sort of calms me down. It’s relaxing and it’s enjoyable,” she said.

For the kids, she hopes they keep picking up their own instruments.

“I hope they would continue with music. Not necessarily as a profession, but be in a community band and keep it in their lives.

“I think if I can help make lasting memories and a love for making music, I’ve done my job.”

Read more Heart of Our City profiles here.

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