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Teacher inspired students to love music for 30 years - Daily Leader Extra : Top Stories

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Teacher inspired students to love music for 30 years

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Posted: Friday, May 17, 2019 3:59 pm

People are asking Chester's retiring band director the wrong question these days.

"People ask, `How many days'?" Helen Mogen said on Thursday morning. "It's more how many tasks I have to do."

Mogen was introducing Amy Weight, who will pick up the baton in her place, to the band program she has developed over the past 30 years. Weight has visited the school several times to observe Mogen working with students and recognizes she will have big shoes to fill.

"My feet aren't big enough," Weight admitted.

She intends to make the transition for students as smooth as possible, though, recognizing that change can be difficult. While she may tweak a few things to make the program her own, it was the strength of the Chester band program which inspired Weight to apply for the position.

"The Chester band program has been a strong program for years," she said.

Mogen just shrugged when asked about that.

"My foremost thing was to have them love music," she said, and then reiterated the point. "I wanted them to come away from band loving music."

Mogen herself loves music, which has been part of her life since she was a preschooler.

"My paternal grandmother -- who was also named Helen Mogen -- lived across the alley from us and she was a piano teacher," Mogen said. "I started when I was 4 1/2. I had piano lessons and vocal lessons every day."

Mogen studied at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., graduating with a major in piano -- which is an uncommon major for an instrumental music teacher.

"When I went to school, I thought I would teach general music, elementary music," she said.

Her early teaching jobs did involve teaching both vocal and instrumental music. However, once she arrived in Chester, that changed. She still smiles when she recalls how she learned about the opening.

At the time, Mogen was on staff with the Mid-West Ambassadors of Music (currently named South Dakota Ambassadors of Music). Through the program, high school students and music teachers make biennial trips to Europe, where they perform and learn about the culture in the countries they visit.

"I was in Austria and I had the flutes, and one of the flute players was from here," Mogen recalled.

The Chester flute player told Mogen about the opening and she called the Chester school superintendent from Austria to learn when the position closed. When Mogen returned to the States, she interviewed for the position and was hired.

"I don't know if it was fate or...," she said and trailed off. When prompted, she continued. "It was the right thing to do."

Mogen has a long list of reasons she has enjoyed working in Chester: beautiful facilities, good kids, supportive parents, good staff and administration to work with, good location.

"There are a lot of things available without going very far," she said.

When asked about her tenure with the school district, she doesn't take credit for much, preferring to focus on opportunities she has been able to offer thousands of students, such as the biennial band trips. Over the years, they've gone to Branson, Mo.; Chicago; Winnipeg; Denver and Colorado Springs, Colo.; St. Louis; Minneapolis; Nashville; and Kansas City.

"It's not how far we go; it's what you do when you get there," she said.

In addition to performing, the students engage in a wide range of activities, from musicals and museums to baseball games and amusement parks.

"It's something we can do that gives them a new experience," Mogen said. "It's not all music."

However, she provided her students with one music experience that made a whole generation into Beatles fans. The Liverpool Legends, a Beatles tribute band, performed in Chester twice. For part of each performance, the Chester band played backup for the group.

"I'm a huge Beatles fan," Mogen confessed. "We could go on about that forever."

She is a rock star herself and will be opening for Blood, Sweat and Tears at the Mitchell Corn Palace in August. She has been a member of Something New since 1991, when she was asked to audition on keyboard.

"We play nothing new," she said, explaining the name is a bit of a pun. "We play rock 'n' roll from the '50s through the '80s."

The group performs over a five-state region, playing wedding dances and bar mitzvahs, as well as opening for some of rock 'n' roll's legendary bands. When they performed at the 2012 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, their performance was broadcast on South Dakota Public Television.

Something New will perform locally at the Lawrence Welk Opera House at 7:30 p.m. during the Jamboree at Prairie Village.

While she is hesitant to toot her own horn, Mogen will be remembered not only for the number of contests her bands have won over the years -- so many that trophies are just crammed on a shelf in the band room -- but also for the opportunities other bands have enjoyed because of a project begun on her watch -- the annual Chester Marching Band Festival.

She said the festival grew out of changing circumstances. At one time, high school bands marched in college homecoming parades.

"It got to be that bands were their last consideration," Mogen said.

Around the same time, the high school athletic arena was changing. Volleyball was moved to the fall with tournaments held on Saturdays. Football jamborees were also being held on Saturdays.

"You had that competition, so it was hard to go to those college events," Mogen explained.

Milbank started a marching band festival, which was later moved to Waubay. After the Chester marching band attended that event, former Superintendent Mark Greguson posed a question to Mogen.

"Can we do something like that here?" she recalled him asking.

In 2004, Chester hosted its first band festival. In 2018, 34 bands from four classes participated. In addition, a college band has performed most years.

"It is a recruiting tool for them but also lets kids in our bands see field marching," Mogen said.

Most years, they have between 1,500 and 2,000 students participate. Scheduled to coincide with the Festival of Bands in Sioux Falls, the Chester event allows schools that travel to participate in both.

"Some bands come and stay overnight in Sioux Falls and participate in the Festival of Bands the next day. It's like a dress rehearsal for some bands," she said.

In looking back over the past 30 years, she doesn't quite know what to say.

"It's been quite a ride," she finally said. "It's been a wonderful experience. I've never regretted being here."

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