New director revives high school band program

Last year Custer County District High School (CCDHS) welcomed new band director Mike Gillan, who has been shaking things up ever since. 

Under his direction, the band has received new uniforms and instruments, and added about 15 members.

This is Gillan’s 37th year of teaching, including about 20 years at the collegiate level. 

He attended Central Michigan University before transferring to Michigan State to earn his degree.

Gillan said that while attending college all his voice teacher ever talked about was Montana, and specifically Miles City. 

“All I ever heard about was the Bucking Horse Sale, how great the town was, and how he missed it,” said Gillan.

According to Gillan, he had been thinking of moving to Montana to be closer to his mother so when the band director job became available he applied. He was called a few days after the interview and was hired. 

“I think that we hit the jackpot when Mike Gillan picked Miles City to come to,” school district Superintendent Keith Campbell said in an email response to questions. “Each day, month and year you can see and hear the obvious improvements that the program is making under his leadership. He has exceeded expectations when it comes to rebuilding the program and he was by far the best candidate for the position.”

According to Campbell he enjoys Gillan’s wealth of experiences, his commitment to music, and how he has a sense of purpose.

So far, Gillan said he loves the town and the people, adding he’s really enjoyed working with the students.

“I wanted to be a teacher since about junior high. That was when I made up my mind,” Gillan said.

Since taking over the band director position, Gillan has made several changes, the most noticeable being the snazzy new uniforms. 

According to Gillan, the old uniforms were aging and showing some wear and tear. 

“I was worried they wouldn’t be able to wear them without the seams coming out,” said Gillan. “They were that old. It was time.”

Each new uniform was purchased locally. According to Gillan, each uniform cost about $140. If purchased through a large company, they would cost around $400 each, he said.

The uniform includes a dark blue, long-sleeved, collared Carhartt shirt, gold suspenders, a gold scarf, off-blue Dickies pants and a wire-rimmed Montana-creased cowboy hat. The pants also have gold stripes down the side. The uniforms are paired with black shoes. 

Each student also received a gold Carhartt rain coat. The jackets were donated by Stockman Bank and feature the bank’s logo on the back.

“I wanted to go for a more historic feel,” said Gillan. “They’re also universal and can be used for a long time.”

The old uniforms were purchased in 1964, when Ralph Hartse was still the band director.

By purchasing each piece locally, Gillan can pick up a replacement piece right away.

“Plus you’re spending the money in town and that’s always a good thing,” Gillan said.

“He does a fabulous job of finding ways through trade-in programs, grants, and working with the community to replace and repair many of our instruments that had become unusable. He was able to get new uniforms for the band through the help of many generous donations by community businesses,” CCDHS principal Beez Lucero said in an email. 

Campbell agreed, calling the work Gillan has done with the instruments, uniforms and facilities a “more than accomplished feat.”

Purchasing new uniforms was only the first step toward rebuilding the band. 

According to Gillan he doesn’t know what happened to decrease the size of the band. He did point out that it was a very strong program in the 1960s but it was a different school then with 800 students instead of the 500 they have now.

According to Gillan, he is working on teaching the students that how they present themselves is how the public sees them.

“We added some things at the football games. Normally we try to do something at halftime. We do a pregame march into the stadium,” said Gillan. “The band can add atmosphere to an athletic event.”

Currently, between the concert band, percussion assemble and the symphonic band, the program has 45 students. According to Gillan, when he began last year they only had 28.

“I’d like to get it built so the percentage of students that are participating is about 15 percent,” said Gillan. “I don’t think we’ll grow much next year as the eighth grade class is small but after that it could take off.” 

According to Lucero, the increase of student interest in the band is being noticed. 

“Mr. Gillan has done a wonderful job increasing interest in the band,” said Lucero. “He works very hard for the program.”

Currently, the sixth-grade band, which is the beginning band, has 60 students. 

Gillan said he hopes that most of those students will stick with band as they move into the high school.

This year the band will not be participating in the district music festival. Instead they will be attending the Montana State University-Billings band festival. Attending this festival allows the students to attend master classes with one of them being taught by the Billings Symphony. 

In February, Gillan is bringing in a guest conductor. He is also hoping to bring in more master classes.

“This year is dedicated to how we play,” said Gillan. “Individually I want to raise the bar. The better we play individually the better music we make. I think that’s an important concept.”