Hard Work Among Students Earned Leone the Honor
When the Rose Parade steps off on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, California next year on New Year’s Day, Gardner-South Wilmington’s Band Director Michael Leone will be part of it. Leone was recognized as one of 200 outstanding band directors from across the U.S. by the Michael D. Sewell Memorial Foundation. The foundation is saluting these winners by inviting them to Pasadena to be part of a spectacular $300,000 animated float in the Tournament of Roses 2021 Rose Parade. The foundation was created to recognize and carry on the work of the late Mike Sewell, who dedicated his life to the school and community music programs in Pickerington and the Central Ohio area for more than 38 years. In addition to participating in the Rose Parade, participants will receive three nights lodging, local transportation to all events, an evening banquet, a ticket to Bandfest, a tour of the float building factory, and a commemorative parade blazer. Award recipients are being given the choice to ride on the float or march behind it, playing an arrangement by Bob Thurston, a published composer, former high school band director and retired Air Force staff arranger. Band directors were chosen nationally based on their dedication to music education by working long hours to not only teach and direct music, but to teach life itself. “Obviously I was excited,” Leone said. But he kept it a secret until today, sharing his story with The Paper. “I wanted the kids to bask in the glory of going down to Nashville and performing,” Leone said, referring to the Gardner Area Band’s December performances at the Nashville Christmas Parade and the Country Music Hall of Fame. He talks more about the kids than he does himself. He will tell you he grew up in Spring Valley; and that he has been involved in music since fifth grade, where he first started playing the trumpet. He will tell you he can play just about every instrument, and that he graduated from Millikin University in Decatur in 1992 with a music degree. But when it comes to music students, he opens up. It took some years of teaching after college for him to figure out his place in the world of music education. Eventually, he wanted to do more than just lead spring concerts. It was at V.I.T. in Table Grove that he wanted the kids to experience the excitement of performing at some of the top places in the nation. They played at Magic Kingdom in Orlando, and students began to really understand the power of music. He’s been teaching at GSW for six years. He still lives in Spring Valley, commuting two hours each day. Practice is first thing in the morning, so he’s up and out of the house by quarter after 6. When he came to the district, there were only a dozen kids in band. Now between 130 and 140 in the GSW Area Band, which is comprised of sixth-graders through high school seniors from Gardner South Wilmington High School, Gardner Grade School, Braceville Elementary School, and South Wilmington Grade School. They compete about half a dozen times a year, and they have won every competition in the last 2 ½ years. The last time they were beaten they lost to Lasalle’s Trinity Catholic Academy by .75 of a point. Leone said the GSW Area Band brings together so many grade levels because it gives students an incentive to be part of something bigger. “It gives them something to work toward. They are working to get into that group,” he said.
It’s a teaching philosophy that doesn’t restrict students to their grades, rather encourages hard work and talent. “I don’t say, ‘You’re in sixth grade. You shouldn’t know how to play this,” he explained. “If they look into your eyes and they see they can do it, and they can get there … they only know they can get there,” he said. In fact, he once got called into the principal’s office. “Uh-oh,” he thought. But the principal, having seen the program explode, had just one question: “How do you get your kids to play so well?” “My kids have no fear, and that’s the thing I like about these guys,” Leone said. “They’re going to play hard and they’re going to win.” The program is not only revered by the faculty, staff and district board, but by the community as a whole. “The community loves these kids,” he said. With every competition they have an entourage of several hundred people that follow them. They cheer them on, encourage the best and help with fundraising. “That’s what motivates me,” Leone said. GSW Area Band has achieved many accomplishments — well beyond all those competition awards. They played at the University of Illinois’ Band Day, for the Joliet Slammers, at the Peoria Rivermen hockey game and live on radio and television. Former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner chose them as one of three bands to represent Illinois at the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington, D.C. Ask Leone again what it means to him to have been recognized by the Michael D. Sewell Memorial Foundation, or what it will be like to participate in the Rose Parade, and he pauses. He brings it right back to the students. “[I wouldn’t be able] to accomplish this if it wasn’t for the kids and how hard they work,” Leone said. “It’s not about me. Me going to the Rose Parade is because of them.”