DAGSBORO — Nathan Mohler’s family tree has several branches occupied by music education majors.
“My parents are instrumentalists. They are both music education majors. Both graduated from West Chester,” said Mr. Mohler. “My mom’s dad also graduated from West Chester with a music education degree. So, I am what you’d call a legacy, I guess.”
Indeed, music is in his veins.
Born and raised in Kutztown, Pa., Mr. Mohler in 2009 graduated from West Chester University.
“My specified degree was in music education,” he said. “My main instrument was bass trombone, which a lot of people don’t even know is a thing. It’s a trombone, just pretty much twice the plumbing.”
Mr. Mohler has been a music educator in the Indian River School District since 2010. His IRSD career began as elementary band director for three schools: Lord Baltimore in Ocean View, Phillip C. Showell in Selbyville and John M. Clayton in Frankford.
He is currently in his third year as Indian River High School’s band director.
Presently, he and students are gearing up for the band’s annual stage production fundraiser. It’s renamed IR LIVE. This year’s performance, March 24-25, will play to “The Corner on Baker Street” theme. The fundraiser ($5 for adults) starts at 6:30 p.m. both nights. The show will run about two hours.
Mr. Mohler is married to his college sweetheart, Jenny. They have a young son Luke, whose first name perhaps coincidentally ties in with Mr. Mohler’s passion for Star Wars movies. Two dogs and two cats are part of the Mohler family that calls downtown Dagsboro home.
Outside of work, Mr. Mohler enjoys being a happy camper — family camping trips.
This week’s Person to Know: Nathan Mohler.
You moved from a community band hot-bed?
“Before I moved down here, I played with the Allentown Marine Band, which has no affiliation with the United States Marine Corps. Allentown has some of America’s oldest community bands. My mother is still currently a member of the Allentown band. The Allentown Marine Band is the next best thing.”
You’ve done wedding gigs in the Philadelphia area and played in a band here in Sussex County?
“I played in a wedding band out of Philly, called Groove Place. The only reason I stopped playing was I got tired of driving to Philly for gigs. I did probably over 100 weddings. I also play bass guitar. I was in a group called Runner-Ups, a Sussex County band. I stopped almost two years ago. When I started doing high school stuff it is a lot to have a playing career and a teaching career, especially at the high school level.”
Career-wise, you dabbled a bit before deciding upon music?
“I had several different ideas. I dabbled with the idea of going into engineering. Even though there is variety to all jobs, I realized that that would not be exciting enough for me.”
“And I dabbled in landscape design for a while. I worked it one or two summers, and I realized that it would make me an older man quicker than I would want to be.”
So, you became the Music Man?
“I chose it because I knew I could do it. I started on trumpet in second grade. I worked my way through brass family. I played brass instruments all through school. I was part of county jazz band. Down here, marching band is big. Jazz band is pretty serious in southeast Pennsylvania. That’s your flagship.”
Your first work in the music world was with a publishing company that had contractual connections with catholic and parochial schools?
“Often the catholic and parochial schools need music teachers but not full-time. They can’t pay their teachers a lot; they only need you for two or three days. I taught in Hatfield and Plymouth Meeting. I taught Elementary General Music, which is the exact opposite of what I do know.”
“I really loved it. I learned a lot about myself that year. I learned a lot about music that year. In the catholic schools, I didn’t have to come in and teach discipline, manners, things about life because the nuns took care of that.”
“I worked there one year. The pay wasn’t substantial to grow up all of the way. And I really did want to get in the band world.”
Opportunity knocked in southern Delaware?
“I knew somebody down here. My roommate from college. He calls me up one day, ‘Hey, are you still teaching catholic schools? Do you want to teach band?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, I want to teach band.’ I applied. I had the interview in August 2010. I knew it was a good sign when an hour and a half after my interview I was getting calls from my references.”
Elementary schools were the next stop?
“I ended up getting the elementary band job. I taught at Lord Baltimore. Phillip Showell and John M. Clayton elementary schools.”
You followed in family footsteps?
“My mom has taught 15-16 years. My dad taught elementary band. I loved it. It was great for me. I need variety in my life. If I have the same thing every day I tend to go a little nuts. Music is always changing. There is always new stuff you can do with music.”
“What I liked about it is even though it’s the same school district, even though they are just six miles apart, Lord Baltimore, Phillip Showell and John M. Clayton are three completely polar-opposite elementary schools. And in no way is that a bad thing. I was there for five, well not quite full five years. And I learned so much about teaching being in those three schools because of the students I worked with. Each group was so different. I essentially had 15 different bands over the five years. You’re constantly getting different kids every year, you almost have to change your approach.”
“One year you might have a class full of kids whose families are well educated and they have good family units at home. They come in not carrying any baggage. They are ready to play. Then the next year you might have a group that has a lot of kids that maybe mom or dad is not in the picture, or there are family issues. We have that around here. What’s nice is with me, they have a little time to not worry about that. They can sit and create and play and enjoy themselves. I try really hard with my kids to not put any stress on what we are doing.”
Then came that “startling moment” that landed you at IRHS?
“It was a Tuesday … in October 2014. The principal said, ‘You’ve got to go talk to the superintendent.’ I was blindsided. I had no clue. They said the current band director, Mark Marvel had some health issues. I had to fill in. I figured I’d be doing both for a while. Then in December Mark retired. I was already here. I was ready for move up.”
Was there a transition period?
“Since then we have really settled in around here. The students have settled in to how I do things. I have settled in to how high school kids work. Well, you never really settle in to how high school kids work but I have learned that the average 15-year-old is not the average 10-year-old.”
“I started a jazz band, an after-school program. We have a lot of small after-school groups. We have clarinet choir. We have a brass choir. We have a baroque music group. I do have goals to get a percussion ensemble started at some point. But with everything that we have been doing it’s tough to find time for one more group. But we’ll find it somehow.”
How about the evolution of the band’s stage production?
“Our previous band director did an awesome job. He had a variety show, which was phenomenal. The first year we revamped it. I had students emcee the event. Last year, a couple kids and I said let’s do like a radio broadcast; just something different. The students picked all of the music. We called the show, Spirit of the Radio.”
This year’s production is an original, with hand-picked music from the 50s through the 80s?
“One student in particular and I sat down and wrote an original script. Students still picked all the music. They only thing I picked was the title track.”
“It’s IR LIVE. It’s a variety show. We have a variety of music because the musical takes place … a lady goes on a journey from the 50s through the 80s and sees how her uncle grew and changed in the musical world.”
How about connection with your students?
“I think what I have that many other band directors are not blessed with is the juniors, sophomores and freshmen students as well as the next two incoming grades are all students I started in fifth grade. That can be a good or a bad thing. If you ask most of these kids, it’s a good thing.”
“We have a good time. My kids are phenomenal. I just absolutely adore my kids. They were good when I got here. So, it’s like, ‘Ok, let’s try a harder piece.’ I keep throwing stuff at them and they keep tackling it and then some.”
“It’s funny. After a concert people always tell me, ‘You did a really good job.’ While I am steering the ship, the ship wouldn’t be moving if it wasn’t for all these guys. They are the ones that have the oars. We’ll only go as far as they want to paddle and my kids want to paddle. They want to go somewhere. They want to do things.”
Your wedding bands date back to college band days?
“Jenny was a color guard. We didn’t ‘officially’ meet until my senior year, her junior, even though we had been in band the previous two years. My senior year I was president of marching band. For the end of band camp — and they had never done it before — I’m like ‘I am going to put on a mixer.’ Out of a 300-member plus marching band I think 35 or 45 people came. Everybody was tired. We had been marching for 14 hours a day.”
“I’m glad I threw that because she said to two of her friends, ‘I think we should go to the party.’ It was in the music building, in the band room at West Chester. That is actually where we officially met.”
“She is the bold one. That night she said, ‘Hey, we should go to the band banquet together.’ I’m like, ‘All right.’ We grew very close very quickly. We have been married officially for 3 ½ years.”
“She is part of the reason why I still do this. My teaching career has not been 100-percent smooth sailing. Overall, it has been amazing. Obviously, you have bad days. She really does help me get through that. She also understands what I do takes time. It takes energy, it takes focus. She is a wonderful support in my life. She is at almost every single concert.”
Thanks to a couple days’ premature arrival, wife and son share the same birthday?
“He was born on her birthday in 2015, which works really out well for me because it’s only one day you might forget …”
IRHS band has become a family affair?
“My wife is my color guard coach. Luke is almost two. He has 100 big brothers and sisters, dozens of surrogate step-parents. They all help take care of him. He is a member of this big old family we have here in the IR band program.”
You are pursuing a unique master’s degree at Southern Oregon University and must learn several hundred classical band songs, like “Stars & Stripes”?
“I started last year. The program is the only one of its kind in the United States to my knowledge. It’s a master’s degree in band conducting. What is super exciting about it is set up by band directors. This past summer was the 28th year. It started in southern Oregon. It’s three weeks, over the Fourth of July, over a course of three summers. They bring in some of biggest people in the musical world. They do clinics with you. You do projects when you are there. But most of the time it is just the interaction that you get with people.”
“They post-test each year on your weaknesses. Band literature was one of my weaknesses. I am affiliated through Sam Houston State University in Texas, but I go to Southern Oregon in Ashland, Oregon. I wrote a book on how to change from concert percussion to drum set drumming. I am writing book on how to start oboe and bassoon. It is the coolest program.”
How about leisure time?
“When I am away, I listen to a lot of blue grass and a lot of European heavy metal. It’s very symphonic in nature. I play a little bit, not as much as I used to. I play with my kid.”
“I was one of four kids. With six of us, vacationing was sometimes out of the budget. My dad had a popup camper. We always had campers. I bought a popup camper for like $600. My wife and I traded it before got married; we’ve got a Coleman camper.”
“My family went to Chincoteague island five, six, seven eight times a year when I was growing up. When I get away I really want to get away. My idea of vacation isn’t going to some fancy theme park, but I like to go to places where I can get away.”
“Last year in Oregon we went to Crater Lake. This year I’m going to the Redwood Forest. I am super excited. I am a huge Star Wars guy. I will be where they filled episode 6, Return of the Jedi with the Ewoks. Outside of teaching, camping, fishing and Star Wars is my life.”
It appears the band program has plenty of support, including IRHS Band Booster organization.
“I am very touched by the number of donations we’ve got this year. A lot of people believe in what we are doing here. We have a good time. The kids love playing.”
“I was surrounded by people that not only motivated me but made me feel at home and made me feel happy. I love music. I love what I do.”
News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at email@example.com