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Director helps marching band smell the roses

Band director Ron Parsons is planning another New Year's trip. Band director Ron Parsons is planning another New Year's trip. (Mark Wilson/Globe Staff)
By Wendy Killeen
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2008
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When the Danvers and Saugus high school marching bands recently performed at a football game, Ron Parsons reminisced on the sidelines.

"I was thinking that 33 years ago today, I was conducting [the Saugus band] as drum major," said Parsons.

And, in a way, he's still marching.

After graduating from Saugus High School in 1976, Parsons went to the University of Lowell to study electrical engineering and pursue his childhood ambition to become an astronaut.

But, he said, "It just didn't seem the track for me. Music is what I really loved."

He switched his major to music and in 1987 joined the Danvers public schools as band director. Eventually, that led to the fulfillment of another childhood aspiration.

"Ever since I was a little kid I'd watch the Rose Parade on TV and I thought it would be cool to someday go," Parsons said.

And he has, twice.

Under the direction of Parsons, the Danvers High School Falcon Marching Band performed in the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif., in 2001 and 2006. And it has been invited to participate for a third time on Jan. 1, 2010.

"I was very surprised and very pleased," said Parsons, who turns 50 on Dec. 8. "The third time is pretty exciting."

It's not surprising to those who know Parsons.

"Going to the Rose Parade is a reflection of the energy and commitment he brings to the job," said Steve O'Connell, copresident of the Danvers Parents for Music Education. "He brings a passion to that position that is clearly evident and which serves our students wonderfully."

Susan Ambrozavitch, assistant superintendent of schools, said Parsons "has an intangible quality, but you know it when you see it. He takes pride in his work. He lives it."

Parsons said he didn't arrive in Danvers with lofty goals.

"I just year to year kept plugging away and tried to do the best we could with what we had and see where it would take us," he said.

His first year, the high school band had 31 members. This year, there are 120, which is 12 percent of the high school student body. The same students make up the marching band and the concert band. Parsons directs both.

"I enjoy it all equally," he said. "But where we have received most of our opportunity for once-in-a-lifetime travel has been through the marching experience."

The band's first big event was MusicFest Orlando in Florida in 1996, where it won first place in its division and the grand championship trophy. That led to an invitation to play at President Bill Clinton's second inauguration in 1997. A return trip to MusicFest in 1999 was literally a repeat, a first place and the grand championship trophy.

The band has also performed at Universal Studios, Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and in the New York City St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Bob Mulvanity, a 1977 graduate of Danvers High School who has been the band's visual designer and drill instructor since 2001, said it is these big events that motivate the band, which does not participate in circuit competition.

"Once you go the competitive route, the time commitment is much greater," said Mulvanity. "The downside of that is a lot of kids have to make choices; do they want to play sports or be in a competitive marching band? Ron's approach has allowed the kids not to have to make that choice. And it seems to have gotten great results for Danvers."

Parsons said the band program is designed to "be part of a student's high school experience but not dominate the high school experience." The band includes athletes, honor students, and students involved in theater and chorus.

He said that balance is one piece of the puzzle that has led to his and the band's success.

But the first and foremost reason, Parsons said, is "prayer. I pray for my job. I pray for my groups. And, it's a big part of my personal life. I have always felt if I honor God with my labor, God honors me with success."

Next, Parsons said, "is a very loving and supportive wife." And for the Parsonses, it is a family affair. Son Ronnie, a sophomore at Covenant Christian Academy in Peabody, which does not have a marching band, plays trumpet and marches with the Falcons. And by 2010, son Timmy, a student at Higgins Middle School in Peabody, will also likely be with the band, which means Parsons and his two sons will march together in the Tournament of Roses Parade.

Parsons also credits the band members, who "care about what they do and work very hard together," including participating in a peer leadership and mentoring program.

"He demands a lot of the students in a very good way," said O'Connell. "They learn responsibility and musicianship, teamwork, and leadership skills that will serve them the rest of their lives."

And, O'Connell said, "Ron has a great sense of humor and the kids have a lot of fun."

Junior Charles Smith, who plays trumpet in the band, put it simply: "He's awesome."

Parsons said a lot of his approach is modeled after his marching band director at Saugus High School, Jerome Mitchell, who held the job for 42 years, retiring in 1991.

"I'm not surprised Ronnie has done well. He was an excellent trumpet player and always a good boy," Mitchell said. "He's done some things similar to what I would have done. He's following his master's footsteps."

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