Lakeridge High School band director Corey Alston says that he has loved his eight years with the Pacers. But now he has an opportunity to see the world outside of the classroom, and he's going to seize it.
Alston, who is leaving at the end of the school year, says he has been lucky to live out his dream and teach "so many great students and meet so many great people," but he wants to take a break from teaching and roam the globe helping others.
He says he's wanted to be a teacher since first grade, and since high school has yearned to use music as a tool to teach.
"I'm lucky I've been able to live out my dream," he says.
His students, including sophomore Michael Rodenkirch, say they've been lucky to have Alston.
"He's very enthusiastic," says Rodenkirch, who plays percussion in Lakeridge's Wind Ensemble and Stage Band. "He has a great energy. He's very focused, and he strives for perfection."
Junior Penelope Tharp, a clarinetist in the school's Wind Ensemble and Jazz Band, says Alston is not only a good teacher but a person with a true fondness for his students.
"He genuinely cares about us and wants us to do well, and even when we graduate, he wants to be there for us, be there when we need him," Tharp says.
Junior Vanessa Tufts says it's true that Alston doesn't forget a student and checks in with former students. And he remembers key details in the lives of the young people he works with every day, says Tufts, a flutist in the Wind Ensemble who first met Alston in sixth-grade band.
"He remembers me on my first day sitting quietly in the flute section," she recalls. "He remembers everything. He is like an elephant."
Alston teaches all band classes at Lakeridge High and also leads classes in sixth-grade band at Lakeridge Junior High. This is the only teaching job he's ever had, but he says he's ready to try something new.
First, he's going to be a teacher for just a little longer and travel with some students to Europe through the Oregon Ambassadors of Music program. This group of some of the finest young musicians in the state will traverse England, France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany for two and a half weeks in July.
Next, he's going to visit with his two older brothers and other family members and then savor the rare solar eclipse in August. And then, well, he doesn't have a script for what's next.
"In the fall, I really don't know quite yet," Alston says. "Ideally, I would travel and help people, so I've been looking at different nonprofits that might allow me to go to different places around the world and help less-fortunate people."
Alston says part of his restlessness stems from graduating with a bachelor's in music education at Indiana University and going straight into teaching while simultaneously obtaining his master's in conducting from Colorado State University. He attended classes in Colorado during the summers and took courses online during the school year.
Once ensconced in his teaching position, he rapidly gained authority. He is currently the second vice president of the Oregon Music Education Association and served as chairman of the OMEA conference for the past two years. He's also the secondary music coordinator for the Lake Oswego School District, a role that requires him to serve as the liaison with the central office administration about music programs.
Meanwhile, he's also found time to play the saxophone in several ensembles, including the Lake Oswego Millennium Concert Band, Oregon Symphonic Band and Oregon Pro Arte Chamber Orchestras.
But most of his life centers around teaching. And he's made some major changes at Lakeridge High School.
About four or five years ago, Alston started a chamber music concert, which means that each person playing is responsible for their part. Chamber music takes additional skills because there's no hiding in a section where all musicians are playing the same part, Alston explains. About that same time, he began a wind ensemble retreat at the outset of the school year.
In 2012, he began an advanced placement course in music theory.
And this year, he launched a pep band camp before school begins and a concert camp on a weekend in February when a music professional visits to work with the kids.
He says his program has seen a great deal of success: For the past five years, the Lakeridge High School band has qualified for the state competition. Students interested in taking sixth-grade band at Lakeridge Junior High are so plentiful in 2017-18 that two teachers will likely have to divvy up four band classes, Alston says.
"I'm proud of what Lakeridge band has become, and so, I think, it's also in an OK place to leave it," he says.
Achievements aside, Alston has touched many hearts through his teaching. Sophomore Peter Cooley, a euphonium player in the Wind Ensemble, says that Alston has done a great deal for his band students, offering constructive criticism along with some sarcasm or jokes to keep the mood light.
"He really helps us progress a lot in band," says Cooley, who adds that Alston seems to truly care about his students.
Alston says one of his greatest memories with one of those students happened this year, when he participated in a saxophone duet to Steven Galante's "The Pawn" with student Owen Kaufmann, accompanied by pianist and principal's secretary Corey Fivecoat.
"I've known Owen for years," Alston says. "The fact that we could play that level of literature together is just an example of how much he's learned and how much he's grown as a musician."
Kaufmann, who graduated from Lakeridge this school year, played tenor sax through sophomore year in the Wind Ensemble and alto sax in junior and senior years. But he's known his teacher since Alston taught seventh grade at LJHS.
Kaufmann says his parents coaxed him to take band, with the threat of early-morning Spanish classes as his only other option. Although he'd enjoyed beginning band with another teacher, Kaufmann still wasn't sold on music until he met Alston the next year.
"As someone coming from a completely different set of interests — sports and science — I must attribute music's lasting presence in my life to the years I got to spend with Alston as my band director," Kaufmann says. "He showed me how music is a pure embodiment of emotion, dedication and family, and that without it, life is just a little bit less harmonious. That's why it will continue to be a part of my life, even though I'm traveling across the country (Georgia Tech) to study aerospace engineering."
His mom, Martine Kaufmann, says she's seen her son grow through band, learning to wait his turn in a conversation as he would wait his turn in a musical piece. Alston also has comfortable couches and a relaxed atmosphere between classes in the band room, so students feel welcome.
"For the final Lakeridge concert this year, Corey introduced each senior with touching insights into their personalities, with little emphasis on musical ability," she says. "In many ways, he has been the extra 'cool' parent to reinforce values and keep our kids accountable when they cease to listen at home."
Aimee Corso, who has two children Alston has taught, says that both her kids play percussion, so it may be noisy in her house, but she doesn't mind. Corso says she will carry with her fond memories of high school band concerts, one of which had a "Heroes" theme, causing her to always think of Alston as a hero.
"Another memory is watching the passion and the in-the-moment immersion that Corey has at every football game as he leads not only the band but the crowd," she says. "When the lights went off in the fall, the band demonstrated how much energy it can give off."
Other parents also have fond recollections. Meg and Thompson Godfrey have three sons, two of whom are in junior high working with Alston and one of whom is in elementary school. Meg Godfrey says that Alston's passion has been contagious, and that he motivated his students to learn because he is a great teacher. Her husband will never forget Alston's excitement over the Godfreys' use of a large personal vehicle.
"Maybe the fondest memory and just another example of Corey's passion for his job is when we rolled up to the sixth-grade band tour day with our big, 12-person passenger (vehicle), all seats removed, ready to haul band gear all over town for the day," he says. "(Alston) was so excited, he exclaimed, 'For the first time we can bring the chimes!' So we loaded up the huge set of chimes. He was always looking for a way to upgrade the program, experience or event."
Alston says he's grateful for the parents and for accompanist Corey Fivecoat and Bill Campbell, the choir teacher, both of whom were great friends to him. And there were so many other students and people on the staff and in the community who he came to know and care about as part of the Pacer family.
"Since I started this so young, I really think that Lakeridge has shaped me as an educator and a person," Alston says. "These were formative years in my life, and I'm really thankful for all of the people I've been able to work with."