Art Himmelberger: Thirty Years Conducting the Marist Band
From humble beginnings to a brand new building, the music plays on
For anyone that has been involved in the Marist College Music Department, the story of Art Himmelberger’s first day as the conductor of the Marist College Band will always be etched in their memory.
The story begins thirty years ago when Art first set foot on the Marist College campus. Already tasked with conducting the nearby West Point Military Band, the University of Michigan graduate only accepted the Marist job because he thought the previous band director had abruptly resigned. On a cold January day, Art stepped into the college chapel to find two trumpets, two trumpet players, and a swift realization that there had been no previous Marist Band director. The three musicians were then tasked with preparing music for an upcoming Marist basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
“I knew then that my primary job was to create a band,” said Art. However, it is what came after that game – which they did play at, with Art on the drums – that is not as well known, yet speaks volumes as to why the music program thrives at Marist, while other schools have experienced stagnation or decline.
“Art doesn’t necessarily tell this story, but when he started at Marist, he didn't have an office; he didn't have a table,” explained Michael Napolitano, Operations Manager of the Marist College Music Department. “He would walk around with a box of music, looking for the students that would be in his band program. A lot of people would have given up but…he made sure that the charge for developing the band program would never stop.”
It is this charge that has seen the Marist Band become a fixture of the college community. From two trumpet players, the band has grown to a symphony of over 100 students and community members, including faculty from other departments. Students play at football and basketball games, turning the home field advantage into a wall of sound, especially in the confines of McCann arena. Brass, Jazz, Woodwind, and Percussion ensembles provide specialty groups outside of the regular symphonic bands. There is even an honorary band fraternity and sorority on campus, Kappa Kappa Psi and Tau Beta Sigma, that perform community service in the Poughkeepsie and Hudson Valley areas as well as perform in the Marist Band.
Long gone are the days without an office or designated space, as well. All of the Marist Band activities now take place in a newly-built, state-of-the-art building that is one of the finest in the Northeast. The building, which is an addition to the college’s Student Center, contains ten practice rooms, a large, 200 seat rehearsal hall with perfect acoustics, and a performance hall that plays host to both student musicians and small quartets. The only item that the Music department is lacking in – a Music major – is actually touted as one of the band’s key strengths, allowing students who love music to play in a non-competitive environment.
“You have to have a major that can afford you a career when you leave our halls,” Napolitano states. “Music is here to enhance that experience. I think that’s part of our charm.”
It cannot be understated, however, how much this growth is attributed to its leader. To students, Art is more than an instructor. He is a father-figure, and even thirty years after the first group of band students passed through the halls, the passion and drive that Art has for both his music and his students is clearly visible to all.
“Art’s the kind of person you hope you’ll run into every single day,” notes Gabi Perpignand ’16. “Every time you see him, he has something different to say, and it never ends at ‘Hi, how are you!’ He tells stories that make you inspired, that make you want to play your music better than you’ve been playing it.”
“He is our biggest advocate,” states Napolitano, who first became involved with the Marist Band as a student in 2000. “Art makes you feel like you play a very specific role, a specific function in making our band unified and wholesome.”
While one could fill a book with the number of events and performances Art has been responsible for over the past three decades, he's given no indication that the final chapters are soon coming. He expects to stay at the helm of the band for several years to come, and see no reason to give up the charge of growing and developing the music program anytime soon.
Says Art, “I always ask my students, ‘Where are we in this process of building?' The answer is, and will always be, ‘We’re halfway there.’”
Written by Gregory Rycharski ‘16, a proud member of the Marist Band.
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