Dempster leading expanded music program

1 month ago

On the last day of his kindergarten year, Dr. Thomas Dempster did something he had never done before — he sat down at a piano at school and started playing it.

The school’s principal walked by him as he sat banging a wide range of notes on the keyboard. He asked Dempster if he played the piano.

“I said, ‘Clearly I do,’ and went back to playing,” Dempster said. The principal called his mother to let her know. She asked him why he told the principal that he played the piano when he obviously didn’t. He said it was because he wanted to learn to play. He began taking lessons a couple of days later.

For Dempster to sit down and begin trying to play the piano was out of character for him. Until he was around age 4, he couldn’t deal well with loud sounds or music. He would place his hands over his ears and cry. A doctor told his parents he would grow out of it.

“Like a switch in kindergarten, I like sound and noise. I like what I’m doing. I could do something kinda of mechanical and physical and create something that didn’t exist before,” he said.

That’s one of the guiding principles Dempster tries to instill in his students now. He is in the midst of his first semester as music instructor at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts. It’s also the first semester that the school has had a full-time dedicated staff member to teach music courses.

In class and during band rehearsals, Dempster emphasizes that each performance is unique. Once that performance takes place, it will never exist again. You may attempt to replicate the experience by performing various selections again, but they will never be exactly the same. People will also see them doing something with their body that they can’t do but wish they could, he said.

Dempster was a music major at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, but not before almost taking a completely different path. He was taking music courses at the same time as math courses. He was very good at math.

“I was going down the path of not pure mathematics but more the applied mathematics track,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘I really don’t want to be an actuary. I can’t see myself in a cubicle eight hours a day running figures for an insurance company.’”

He knew he wanted to become a musician and composer. He began composing pieces in high school. His band director let him hand out one of his pieces to the band to read and to let him direct it in a rehearsal. He attended Governor’s School in North Carolina in 1997, and two faculty members who were professional composers took him aside to give him advice on how to follow his passion.

So eventually his desire to create musical pieces never heard before and be a performer won out. He earned his bachelor’s degree in performance and composition from UNC-Greensboro in 2002 and master’s and doctoral degrees in music composition from the University of Texas at Austin in 2004 and 2010 respectively.

He has taught at UNC-Greensboro and the Governor’s School of North Carolina as well as South Carolina State University and Claflin University, both in Orangeburg, S.C. At each stop, he has been responsible for developing or revitalizing the music programs at those schools.

His experience developing programs combined with working with talented students at summer sessions of North Carolina’s Governor’s School drew him to ASMSA. Developing a program from scratch is exciting, he said.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to see something grow and flourish,” Dempster said. “I think it’s exciting to have a chance to do stuff, figuring out which way to do it. It’s most exciting to have a blank slate. I’d like to create a program that I would have wanted to see in high school.”

To achieve his goals, he is creating smaller performance ensembles that may not have existed before. There is a dedicated jazz band and several other smaller ensembles. While there will be a larger group that will provide students the opportunity to play in a traditional large ensemble and compete in contests, the smaller ensembles will allow them to be more creative and improvisational.

The first chamber ensemble concert featured smaller groups such as trios as well as the jazz band. Two more concerts are set for the fall semester, including a wind ensemble performance on Nov. 13 and a holiday pops concert featuring wind ensembles and chamber groups on Dec. 6.

Dempster performed with his students at the first chamber group concert. His instrument of choice is bassoon. He began playing it in high school after finding one of the instruments in a case while helping his director clean up the band’s storage space.

When Dempster walked into his first band rehearsal, the junior high band director placed him with the percussion group because the only instrument he knew how to play was the piano. After some dicussions between his parents and the director, Dempster began learning to play clarinet.

The next year in ninth grade as he helped his high school director clean the storage space, he discovered a “weird white case.” He asked what it was for and was told it held a bassoon. No one was playing it, so the director told Dempster to take it. He went on to earn all-district and all-state honors playing the bassoon.

“I stopped participating in cross country and wrestling. It was all bassoon all the time,” he said.

It has been his instrument of choice since then, he said. He decided to major in performance and composition at UNC-Greensboro in bassoon as well as trumpet. He would find ensembles and other groups to play in while in college. He took a break from performing while working on his graduate degrees, but began again once he moved to South Carolina. Once there, he began performing with various symphonies and other groups. Double-reed players—such as bassoon performers—were in short supply in that area of the country, he said.

He faces a similar situation at ASMSA. Finding enough students who academically qualify for ASMSA while also finding the right number of players needed for the various groups will be a challenge.

Dempster reflects on his high school career. He considered attending the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics beginning in his junior year, but it didn't offer a robust enough musical experience for him.

He said he could understand why some ASMSA students may have similar thoughts. “I think the expectation is that if you come here to do physics or geometry or whatever, you won’t be able to be part of an ensemble. That is not true,” he said.

“One of my challenges is that I need to find students academically eligible for ASMSA but who also happen to meet my needs for ensembles. Right now we’re about 95 percent covered. It’s one of the interesting balancing acts I’ll have to do to ensure that I can have the right number of players each year,” he said.

He said the school administration has been supportive, including purchasing instruments that will be needed for the expanded program. A new rehearsal and performance space will soon be available once the Creativity and Innovation Complex is completed.

Dempster said he also plans to add courses such as a history of blues/rock course as well as world music and jazz appreciation among others. He plans to offer a stable of three or four courses each semester, including music theory and music composition. He is also helping with the popular Folk Music and Acoustics class.

“They could leave their instrument at home but still be a part of something by taking other courses,” he said.
 

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