David Stanton inside his practice space in Torrance. Photo by Alyssa Morin.
Three years ago David Stanton retired from his career as a school teacher and literacy specialist. He is now busier than ever.
For starters, he was appointed musical director of the Palos Verdes Symphonic Band in May of 2011. As the director, he is in charge of rehearsing the 70-member ensemble, planning their musical programs and conducting their performances. He also teaches music at AMUSE Palos Verdes Music Center in Rolling Hills Estates and performs as a clarinetist in a number of side bands.
“I guess it was more of a career change than a retirement,” said Stanton, sitting in a practice space in Torrance where he rehearses with a clarinet quartet. “I work seven days a week but I am doing what I love.”
Stanton spent an earlier part of his life as a professional musician. He began playing clarinet in middle school and fell in love with the instrument. He went on to study music as an undergraduate at the University of Southern California and then moved to New York to get his Master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music.
“I stayed in New York for 17 years,” he said. “I love New York. There are still some things I miss. I loved the public transportation, not needing a car and all of the theater, music and art.”
Stanton enjoyed a storied career in New York City. He performed as a classical musician on Broadway, in operas, at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center. He recorded with opera legend Kathleen Battle and accompanied tenor Carlo Bergonzi at the New York City Opera. On his off days, he taught clarinet at Princeton University and Long Island College. This was how Stanton discovered his passion for teaching.
“As I got more and more into teaching I realized I enjoyed it a lot,” he said. “I decided why not move back to California and be a teacher. I was about 38 when I moved back. I got a teaching credential and mostly stopped playing music, just teaching.”
Stanton began his new career in the Teach for America program. He was assigned to an elementary school in Compton where he taught third and fifth grade. He then became a literary specialist and spent his last years in Compton educating teachers on literacy. He didn’t fall back into music until he was recruited as music director for the Lake Center Middle School in Santa Fe Springs.
“I was the band and chorus director for the middle school,” said Stanton. “It was a very strong program, and I was in charge of all of the music performances for the school band, the chorus and the jazz band.”
In 2011, Stanton was offered an early retirement bonus and decided he had been in public schools long enough.
“I thought it would be better to retire too early than too late,” he said.
Meanwhile, he had been playing in the Palos Verdes Symphonic Band for 11 years as first clarinetist. His love for music called to him again. He realized he wasn’t done teaching.
“I began teaching clarinet at AMUSE and also became a music specialist for Palos Verdes schools,” Stanton said. “I go around to the elementary schools and I teach woodwinds.”
Stanton enjoys combining his love for music with his passion for teaching. The elementary school program feeds into the middle school and high school bands, and Stanton likes being able to help mold young musicians at the start of their playing. He tries to encourage students to try the clarinet.
“The saxophone has more popularity but the clarinet is very necessary to bands,” he said. “You need them. The thing about it is, if you start playing the clarinet in fourth grade, you can easily transfer to the sax later on. But the other way around is much harder. The clarinet takes more discipline, breath and finger work. I tell kids to start with clarinet.”
Stanton also tries to teach students to learn musical pieces by ear, and not just by sheet music.
“I have this theory of music teaching,” he said. “Normally music is taught through the written page. And music is not a visual art, it is an oral art. I always try to do some teaching of learning the musical ear. I think that focusing too much on visual learning is to the detriment of the ear.”
Stanton’s musical skill and ability to teach is highly valued at the Palos Verdes Symphonic Band. The band began in 1962 as a place for Palos Verdes instrumentalists of all levels of expertise to play for their community. It now boasts 70 members.
David Stanton, music director of the Palos Verdes Symphonic Band, conducting his 70-member ensemble. Photo courtesy of PV Symphonic Band.
One such member is George Bird, former mayor of Palos Verdes Estates and current councilman.
“The band is made up of professional musicians, senior members of the community, former marching band geeks, students and those who collectively share an interest in performing for the enjoyment of the entire community,” Bird said.
The band’s youngest member is in middle school and its oldest are well into their golden years. In the band, Stanton’s abilities both as a performer and a teacher have proven essential.
“David Stanton is a mensch,” said Bird. “He is an incredible musician and a gifted educator committed to perfecting each member of the band to their full potential. He is passionate yet patient with every member, regardless of their skill level.”
The Symphonic Band has expanded from its local roots to include members all over the South Bay and Los Angeles. As its membership has grown so has its quality.
“The band has gotten really strong, and we’re playing at a very high level right now,” Stanton said. “We have acquired some really strong musicians and they have brought their talented friends in, too.”
Tuba player and concert coordinator Howard Korman credits Stanton with the band’s growing success.
“David became our director almost three years ago and we immediately found him to be fabulous,” said Korman. “He has what I’d call the three main ingredients to be a great conductor: he is technically solid with wonderful musical skills, he’s a fantastic and detailed planner who thinks about concerts a year in advance, and he has wonderful interactions with the band and the audience. David is very personable and articulate. The band loves him and the audience loves him. He is the best conductor I can imagine.”
The Palos Verdes Symphonic Band plays seven or eight concerts per year. Their performances include a Green Hills Memorial Day concert, the Rancho Palos Verdes Fourth of July celebration, winter holiday and Mother’s Day concerts at the South Coast Botanic Garden and a summer Pops Concert.
“This year for our Mother’s Day performance we are taking moms on a tour of the world,” said Stanton. “We are doing pieces from Spain, Mexico, Ireland, Armenia and the jungle.”
The concert is on May 11 at 5 p.m. in the Frances Young Hall at the South Bay Botanic Garden in the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The band is celebrating the 100th birthday of legendary composer Morton Gould and will perform three of Gould’s pieces on May 11: “Cafe Rio,” “Cinerama March” and “Tropical.”
“We are also performing a piece by a local composer, Carl Rigoli,” said Stanton. “There will be solos by several musicians including trumpeter Carvell Holloway and flutist Kimberly Bell.” Tickets are just nine dollars for adults and kids under 12 are free.
Stanton is justifiably proud of this year’s band and programming. But he is quick to give credit to his fellow band members, too.
“I decide on the programming but I rely on others who have great knowledge of band music,” he said. “Tom Scanlon, our librarian and piccoloist Eileen Walpole help a lot. And Greg Nielsen who plays trumpet has an encyclopedic knowledge of band music.”
Stanton’s attempts to cultivate the talents within the Palos Verdes Symphonic Band are proving fruitful. Attendance is on the rise for all of the band’s performances.
“David Stanton is the consummate conductor,” Bird said. “Because he is such a talented musician he appreciates what it is like to follow the conductor who must balance all of the sounds, energy and egos of the musicians, and to produce the very best music from the band.” PEN