Band performs in new center

Band director Jim Tallman conducts the WCHS band in the new Frances Whittaker Center for Musical Arts. 

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Frances Whittaker Center for Musical Arts addition to Washington Community High School was more than a showcase for a new, exemplary band and choir facility.

It also was a reflection of the Washington school community, its commitment to excellence and the legacy of the educator for whom the facility is named.

Three hundred citizens attended the ribbon-cutting event on September 28. They were given a tour of the 16,770 square foot music facility with band director Jim Tallman and choir director Lara Reem highlighting features of the facility that enhance implementation of the music program, learning opportunities of students and music services for the entire school community.

The facility houses a music library, practice/lesson rooms (separate from the rehearsal rooms), additional space for students to rehearse in small ensembles and locker storage in the hallways, which alleviates congestion in the rehearsal rooms.

Director Tallman said the increased square footage of the new facility was desperately needed. “When the marching band would rehearse together inside, there would be several students in the storage rooms, out in the hallway and some close into the chorus room,” Tallman said.

“Decibel levels in the old rooms were an issue as well,” Tallman said.  

Senior Cale Roberts, trumpet player, said that in the old band room, a loud ring would continue after the musicians had stopped playing.  “We would play and play something, and when the director cut us off, it would ring very loudly,” Roberts said. “Now the new room has state-of-the-art acoustics.” 

Roberts said the overall atmosphere has also improved. “The old band room was like a cave,” Roberts said. “The small windows were never open. When we are in the new band room,” he said, “I feel like it is much more open now. It feels more natural in the room and less like a dungeon.”

Students and staff got a preview of the new music facility during summer band camp. “The students’ expressions were priceless,” Tallman said.

Kenzie Meyer, flutist for concert band and bass drum player in marching band, said the added garage door to the building makes loading and unloading instruments more convenient. “The band trailers can back right up to the garage doors so that instruments can be moved more easily,” Meyer said. “It is more convenient going in and out for marching band, as well.”

The new facility helps resolve a safety concern in the old facility.

“One safety concern was students carrying heavy equipment up and down stairs,” Tallman said. “There were some accidents for both kids and instruments over the years.” 

Both Roberts and Meyer were in awe of the amount of space the new band/choir rooms have. “There is storage for things like uniforms and instruments,” Roberts said. “We don’t have 800 instruments packed on top of each other in a small broom closet that held the music as well.”

“The tuba players have two separate lockers,” Meyer said. “One for concert band and one for marching band.”

Band director Lisa Parrott said the extra space better accommodates private lessons many students take. “We have more appropriate practice room space for private lessons instead of in closets like in the old space,” Parrott said. “This is a very important part of our program.  Many students take advantage of the opportunity to take private lessons weekly during band class.” 

Before the open house tour of the facility, Dr. Kyle Freeman, superintendent, welcomed all community guests and praised the many ways the community takes initiative in supporting the educational program and extracurricular activities at WCHS.

Jim Tallman and Lara Reem and the WCHS Band and Choir performed.

School board president Jennifer Essig praised the partnership between the school and community and the shared commitment to promote educational excellence.

Other special guests at the open house ceremony were the nephew, Dick Whittaker and niece, Marilyn Whittaker, of the music facility’s namesake, Frances Whittaker. She was chosen for that honor by a committee of students, educators, school board members and community members.

What a legacy Frances Whittaker — educator and activist — achieved in her service to Washington Community High School and her town.

Whittaker taught at WCHS from 1944-1968. She began the music program at the high school with eight student musicians and no instruments, sheet music or supplies. She kept recruiting and finished the year with 33 members of the band. She also assembled a choir — girl’s chorus and mixed chorus.

Whittaker coordinated fundraising campaigns to acquire uniforms, equipment and supplies. She took initiatives to instruct students at Washington Grade School, walking a mile to the grade school on Spruce Street to instruct the younger students.

The creative teacher also remained interested in her students after they left school, according to Joyce Nordhielm, a former student and Washington resident. “She had several thick scrapbooks filled with pictures of band and choir activities for each class,” Nordhielm wrote in an article. “She would add to her books when she came across news about former students. Her scrapbooks included engagement announcements, wedding pictures, anniversary pictures and a plethora of newspaper articles.”

Whittaker lived in Washington for 54 years.

Jim Tallman, WCHS band director and a member of the committee, said he met Frances once. “She was a very nice lady and very encouraging,” Tallman said. 

Tallman said Frances “meant a lot to the students who were under her in the music program”.

Lara Reem, choir director, said it is “absolutely fitting that the facility is named after Frances Whittaker”.

“The WCHS program reflects dedication and excellence of students over decades,” Reem said. “As Miss Whittaker inspired her students and motivated them toward excellence, naming the facility after her is a daily reminder of how the music program began and continued to build strength over time. 

“She was the first president of the Washington Historical Society, Grand Marshall of Sesquicentennial Parade in 1975, was active in the Methodist Church and played first violin in the Peoria Symphony from 1945-1968,” Nordhielm wrote in an article.

Students and faculty in the music department are excited about the new season as they prepare their programs of beautiful, musical sounds.