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Bandleader bows out: UND percussionist to retire after 42 years

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Percussionist Mike Blake directs the UND Steel Pan Band during a recent practice. Blake will direct his last concert of the UND Steel Pan Band at 8 p.m. Monday at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. (Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 2

If you close your eyes, you might think you're on a beach in the Caribbean, so mellow are the mesmerizing sounds of steel pan drums that fill the band room at UND's Hughes Fine Arts Center.

It's nearly impossible to not move with the rhythms that 13 students create with mallets on pans, sticks on the drum set, and hands on the shekere, a gourd-shaped instrument covered in a bead netting.

Under the direction of Mike Blake, members of the UND Steel Pan Band are preparing for a concert which begins at 8 p.m. Monday at the Chester Fritz Auditorium.

It will be the last time Blake, percussionist and teacher, will lead the group on stage. He intends to retire at the end of the school year, closing the book on a 42-year teaching career with the UND music department.

The program will feature calypso music, which the steel drum is best known for, he said.

But Blake has much more in store.

"If we were to play all calypso music, it'd be like a blues band playing in the same key for an hour," he said.

He'll spice the concert experience, adding cha chas, pop music, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian melodies to the mix which will conclude with "Black Magic Woman."

He's also invited Brazilian percussionist, Marco Santos from Boston, to perform with the group on four selections.

Blake met Santos at a percussive arts convention years ago in Boston.

"I heard him solo on four pieces on different Brazilian instruments," he said. "He was here for our Day of Percussion in 2013. He walks in a room and everybody smiles."

Over the years at UND, Blake has made a practice of bringing accomplished jazz artists and other musicians to campus to perform with, teach and inspire students.

He also has taken his UND jazz ensembles, by invitation, to performance venues where jazz is celebrated, notably the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1999 and 2005.

"They pick 13 college bands each summer. We submitted tapes twice and were accepted twice. It was fun," he said. "These were groups of about 18 to 20 kids. It's kind of overwhelming when I think about it."

An avid performer himself, Blake plays regularly as a soloist and with a jazz trio, "Jazz on Tap," and a nine-piece group, "Downtown Horns."

He is known widely for deftly coaxing buttery smooth sounds from his instrument of choice: the vibraphone.

As a soloist, "you have all this freedom—it's not as strict as in an ensemble," he said. "You can play different styles and have more flexibility."

Long teaching career

Blake, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees from UND, joined the school's music department, on a part-time basis in 1977, to teach percussion and percussion methods.

He brought years of experience, having started his own band as a seventh-grader in Marion, N.D.

"We played all over—every place that had a town hall back then," he said.

As a teacher at UND, he loves connecting with students.

"I like the individuality (of teaching), especially in my studio privately with students," he said. "You get to know them, what kind of instrument they enjoy, and then seeing them improve quickly—if I read them right. And when they do, look out, they really go at it."

In ensembles, he emphasizes "dynamics, texture and tone," he said. "Then there's time and feel. You may have good time, but that does not necessarily mean you have a good feel for the music."

After more than four decades as a teacher, Blake is most proud of "the success of my students," whether in music or any other field, he said.

Austin Winger, lead steel pan player, holds a doctorate in education and is an instructional designer at UND. When he was in sixth grade, he began taking lessons from Blake and continued through his high school years.

"I learned everything I know about music from him," he said.

Winger said Blake "is all about the music and the students, and whatever is best for the band.

"He's so passionate about the music and so compassionate with his students and colleagues. He's been the heart of this percussion program at UND."

Influence in the field

That sentiment is echoed by Blake's colleague, Rob Brooks, associate director of bands and director of the Pride of the North Band at UND.

Brooks, who has worked with Blake for 21 years, said he admires his colleague for "his love of music, his love of students and his love for UND."

"He consistently brings wisdom and talent to anything that he does," Brooks said. "He's a treasure to the students, and a wealth of knowledge for (them)."

Blake "always puts students first, and does what it takes to make sure they succeed—that's what we're there for. He may say things they don't like, but that's part of the growing process."

"His reputation for musicianship and professionalism is in high regard around the state, region and nationally," Brooks said. "He has continually kept up with players and teachers throughout the country, and is in constant contact with what is new in the world of percussion."

When he retires in May, Blake will leave "a big hole" in the music department, Brooks said.

"I will certainly miss his smile and wisdom around the department."

In retirement, Blake plans to continue developing his craft and "continuously learning," he said.

"I'm a lifelong learner. The more I play, the more I learn."

If you go:

What: UND Steel Pan Band

When: 8 p.m., Monday (Nov. 19)

Where: UND Chester Fritz Auditorium, 3475 University Ave.

Admission: Adults, $7. Students and seniors, $3. Family of four, $14