Svec's 'incalculable' impact on BHM music
Not all academic subjects can be tested and measured in the same way. Math results are clear cut; the merits of a quality essay have more subjective elements. But a musical experience, while potentially the most fulfilling, might also be the most difficult to quantify.
So in summing up Buffalo Community Middle School Band director Terri Svec’s impact on the district over her 32-year local career, Buffalo High School band director Scott Rabehl’s choice of words was fitting.
“Terri’s contributions to BHM Schools are nearly incalculable,” he said.
Perhaps, but her upcoming retirement in June provides as good an opportunity as any to reflect on what she has accomplished across her decades of work. Her colleagues in the music department consider her a mentor, a master teacher who laid the groundwork for the sustained success of a standout music program, and a friend whose humor kept the pursuit of their craft an enjoyable daily endeavor.
More than one used the word “profound” in describing her influence in their professional growth, and BHS band director Michael Knutson, who will replace Svec at BCMS next fall, has perhaps the best perspective of all. Twenty years ago Knutson was hired to teach alongside Svec at BCMS, and said she “expertly balanced being a mentor and treating me as an equal.”
“She fostered an environment that helped me grow quickly and immeasurably as an educator, for which I will be forever grateful,” Knutson added. “In 2009 I started teaching music at BHS and was fortunate to experience another side of Ms. Svec’s teaching. The students Terri sends to the high school are fine musicians who are well grounded in fundamental skills and have a firm grasp of basic musical knowledge. We are so blessed to have this strong base to build upon. There is no way the BHS bands would sound the way they do if it weren’t for the strong foundation that Ms. Svec has provided them.”
Band from the beginning
As near as is possible, a career in music seemed preordained for Svec, who grew up as the oldest of seven siblings and the daughter of a prominent band director in the state of Virginia.
“My dad was a band director. So was his brother,” she said. “So from the womb – he was in grad school when I was a baby – I’ve always been around instruments. I’ve never not known how to play them, so it just seemed a natural fit.”
She grew up on a variety of woodwind instruments, gravitating most impressively to oboe, but also played in an orchestra and was an all-state choir student.
Her talents earned her scholarships to East Carolina University, and then the University of Illinois for graduate school. Along the way she changed her focus from music performance to music education, for one simple reason.
“I didn’t want to spend eight hours a day in a practice room,” she said with a laugh.
She took her first teaching job in the northern Chicago suburb of Lake Bluff, spending 4.5 years there before moving to Minnetonka, Minnesota, when her husband took a new job.
Coming to Buffalo
The timing was difficult, as Minnesota was experiencing a surplus of teachers.
“They were telling all the graduates not to even look for jobs in Minnesota,” Svec recalled. “So I was really happy to find a 3/10ths job, not even half time, in Buffalo.”
She joined the BHM School District in 1991 as a seventh- and eighth-grade band director. The following year she moved up to half time, and the year after that she became the music teacher at Hanover Elementary. A short time later high school band director Rolf Mohwinkel retired, then-junior high director Lee Kjesbo moved to the high school to replace him, and Svec shifted back to the middle school position for good.
Though she originally intended to teach at the high school level and explored some possibilities in that arena, Svec also embraced the quirky nature of middle school students.
“You get to be silly with the kids, and that’s fun. I don’t begrudge the fact that I didn’t get to teach high school. It’s just how things worked out,” she said. “I think we do a really good job of finding people who want to teach middle school. Most of the teachers are not here for one or two years and then move up to the high school. Most of them are here because they really like this age group and all of the craziness that goes along with it. It’s never boring.”
Valuing the arts
Another reason Svec made Buffalo her professional home was the value placed upon the arts, both inside and outside the schools.
“The community is very supportive of music, and I’ve been really fortunate to have administration that has been very supportive of music. That’s a huge thing, because it’s not true everywhere,” Svec said. “We’re really fortunate here. It’s made it easy to stay put and keep working here.”
BCMS Principal Matt Lubben credited the music teachers for their effectiveness, and has continued the tradition of administrative support.
“The BHM music program has a strong history of excellence,” he said. “With directors like Mohwinkel, Kjesbo, Rabehl and Knutsen, Terri Svec has been an integral part of this amazing band program in the district. She has always been focused on developing a passion for music in middle school students, and giving them multiple opportunities to try any instrument they can to find their success. She is also one of the best oboe players around and has been a great resource for top-end woodwind players in the district.”
Rabehl said Svec has more than made her mark, both locally and at the statewide.
“She is a master teacher on every instrument and has helped an incredible 50-plus students to develop into all-state musicians,” he said. “Her pedagogical skills are legendary and make her in demand throughout the state as a resource for individuals and committees.”
More than any particular moment or event, Svec said it is the cycle of development and growth in students that has highlighted her years on the director’s podium.
“I really love the process of starting something that sounds absolutely horrible the first time we read a new piece of music, and watching it and the kids get better, and the kids realizing that they’re getting better,” she said. “And then being able to show them off to the public – that’s a unique thing that not every teacher gets to do. We are definitely project-based learning. We are product-oriented.”
And yet Svec knows that the true value of the musical experience goes well beyond a performance.
“I think we give kids some really good memories and feelings about a time in their life that sometimes isn’t so great,” she said. “Your nose and ears are this long and your feet are too big, but you met this challenge and you gave a good performance, and you remember how that piece of music made you feel. That’s a journey I really enjoy taking with the kids.”
The fruits of that progression have long been evident at the high school level, where Knutson has appreciated the way incoming musicians have been shaped during their middle school years.
“This has been the bedrock of the BHM band program for years,” Knutson said. “I am aware that I have big shoes to fill as I step into her position next year. I look forward to using what I’ve learned from her to continue her amazing legacy.”
While plenty of uncertainties lie ahead in retirement, one sure bet is that change is coming.
“I’m not from Minnesota, so I’m looking forward to moving back to the east coast and getting out of the Minnesota weather,” Svec said with a laugh.
The objective is to wind up somewhere close to the shoreline, perhaps back in the Carolinas, where she will be closer to family.
“As teachers we’re lucky that we get to mini retire in the summer, so I’ve been practicing retirement and I have long lists of stuff to do,” Svec said. “I’d like to learn how to throw clay pots on a wheel. I’d like to go back and take some college classes that I didn’t really understand. I like to bike and golf and do yoga. I just got a kayak, so I’d like to do a Vermont bike tour and kayak the San Juan Islands in Washington state. There are a lot of places in the world I’d like to see.”
Depending on what is available wherever it is that she ends up, she also wants to plug into new musical opportunities, just as she did outside of school during her teaching years. While she intends on taking a break from teaching, music substitutes and oboe players are always in high demand, regardless of location.
“I’m happy to have had the chance to do something I really like most of the time, for most of my life,” Svec said. “That’s more than a lot of people can say. So I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to do this for a long time.”
- This is the second in a series of feature articles highlighting BHM staff members who are retiring this spring after serving the district for 30 or more years.