Paul Melby is known for his structured approach to teaching. Yet the band director has one of the messiest offices at Brainerd High School.
"One year I said, 'I'm gonna clean this thing,' and I threw out stuff like crazy," said Mary Hubert, who formerly worked with Melby as a music department volunteer. "But no matter how messy that place was, if you asked for something he could always find it. He knows where everything is and he knows exactly what he wants, But, boy, nobody else can find anything in there."
In an interview Thursday in his office (Melby cleared off a chair for a visiting reporter), the band director looked back on his 34-year career at BHS with a measured enthusiasm that suggested he'd be game for another 34.
Instead, he'll bow out by directing the BHS bands in their spring concert Friday at Tornstrom Auditorium.
Brainerd High School Band director Paul Melby led his students in a rehearsal Thursday at the school. Melby, who is retiring after 34 years at BHS, will conduct the spring concert Friday. Brainerd Dispatch/Nels Norquist » Purchase reprints of this photo.
"I've had a ball," Melby, 57, said of the only professional job he's ever had. "I love going to work every day. The students are great and there can be something different every day. The kids really get turned on to the music and it's a blast."
Students have had a blast soaking up Melby's obvious love of music.
"He's one of the reasons I'm going to major in music, actually," said senior flutist Krystle Radtke. "He made me realize how important it is."
"He pushes us really hard and strives for us to be the best we can," said senior Josh Ellens, a music theory student. "I've never had a teacher push me that hard, and I'm thankful for that because I'm a much better student now than I was at the beginning of the year."
Melby grew up in the southern Minnesota towns of Wells and Albert Lea, the son of math teacher Elaine and late choir and orchestra teacher Winton. He first picked up a trumpet in third grade. After graduating from Albert Lea High School in 1967, he earned music degrees from St. Olaf College, Mankato State University and the University of Minnesota.
If you go
What: Brainerd High School Symphonic and Concert Bands.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday.
Where: Tornstrom Auditorium, Washington Educational Services Building, Brainerd.
Admission: $5 (adults), $3 (students).
What: Retirement open house for Paul and Becky Melby.
When: 1-4 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa.
On the Web
Paul Melby interview audio
» Dedicated students
» Likes his job
» It's what you do with the notes"
Originally, he figured he'd earn a living as a musician or teacher. He didn't plan on conducting full bands and acquiring a working knowledge of dozens of instruments.
"I had graduated from St. Olaf (in 1971) and at first I thought I was going to get drafted (into the Army), and I didn't," Melby said. "And then I thought I'll go back to school and pick up an education and teach for a while. I was never planning to go anywhere close to this long."
Melby, who started at BHS in the fall of 1973, believes in the importance of music theory, the study of the art form's elements.
"I always tell students that if they know theory they can perform at least 100 percent better, just because you know how it all fits together," he said. "I feel like I would be at a severe disadvantage if I didn't have the knowledge of theory that I do."
Melby is retiring while he still loves his job. The start of every fall semester marked a fresh challenge: He wanted to make that year's band the best BHS had ever seen - or heard.
"I've been on a continual thing to each year try to have a better group, and I've felt like that's kind of happened," he said. "It might not be a particular player, but each year, there are more better players."
Hubert was impressed by Melby's ability to blend energetic directing with structured teaching, and to overcome his quiet nature to get through to his individual charges.
"I think he's very strict and he knows what he wants, but he really likes the kids - that's his No. 1 thing," she said. "He's very concerned that the kids have a good time and that they learn as much as he can teach them. He's very much pro-student. He has a very quiet sense of humor, but the kids have to get to know him before that comes out."
Melby said the school district eased the job's natural stresses by allowing him to shape the program as he saw fit.
"The administration lets us do our thing, and that's really nice," said Melby, who also cited BHS' strong orchestra and choir programs. "There's a lot of people that like to keep their thumb on you and keep track of what you're doing, but this district has been really good about letting people run their programs."
When the school bell tolls on his career, Melby - whose wife, Rebecca, is also retiring this month from her nursing career - plans to spend more time with his three adult sons and two grandchildren. He recently earned his pilot's license, and he might combine his love of flying with his love of downhill skiing and make more trips to Colorado, where his oldest son lives.
Of course, he won't leave music behind.
"I used to do some composing, and when you're working here, you don't always get time for that," Melby said. "So I want to do some of that. And I've cut back on clinic work and judging contests, so I'll do some more of that now."
And once he retires, he might finally have time to clean out his office.
JOHN HANSEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5863.
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