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Swan song: Janet Olsen hands over the baton after 11 years at the helm of Friday Harbor high school and middle school bands
While horns blow and strings sing at the end-of-the year high school band concert, Janet Olsen stands front and center on the Whittier stage.
She draws her hand toward her chest as if a thread connects her fingers to the rhythm and volume of the music.
At the end of the performance, the seniors each pull on shirts decorated with a single letter. When they stand up it spells out, “We love you Mrs. Olsen.”
“I can’t think about it too much. I get very emotional,” Olsen said weeks later. Sitting in her office she explains how her time as band director is growing short.
“Graduation will be hard for me,” she said. “At the last concert I didn’t cry, but I was close.”
Janet Olsen is retiring after 11 years as band director of Friday Harbor’s Middle School and High School. Whether leading the band at halftime during a high school football game, or at a fund-raiser for a kidney transplant or performing music by Van Morrison at the annual Celebrity Golf Classic or just practicing in the classroom, Olsen has taught young musicians to exceed their own expectations.
Olsen began her tenure as band director in 2000. In the beginning, she doubted how long she could last.
Coming from the mid-west, the wet climate of the Pacific Northwest chilled her and running a big operation of multiple bands and performances was, at times, overwhelming. In those early years, she often came home and told her husband, Merritt, director of the San Juan Community Theatre, “I just don’t think I can do this.”
Her husband replied, “I know you can do this.”
Evidently he was right.
“She’s one of the best band teachers I’ve ever seen,” said high school Principal Fred Woods. “Her energy and passion for music and the students all comes together to make one amazing person.” But Olsen has been surprised year after year as teenagers show up for band practice. She realizes the pressures of school work and extracurricular activities make it difficult for kids to stay in band through high school.
“They are the cream of the crop, the movers and the shakers,” said Olsen about the students she has worked with for up to seven years. “For them to stick it out is so fantastic. It’s a tribute to me, no it’s a tribute to themselves.”
Olsen on the 'warpath'
It’s not a coincidence that her students are dedicated.
“Her passion is contagious, kids catch that fever,” Woods said. “She is also very demanding and expects the best. Her performances are proof of her accomplishments.”
Woods compares Olsen on a performance day to a football coach ready for a big game, focused intently on every move the players make on the field. As for herself, Olsen says she gets on the “war path” before a performance.
“Students can’t miss a performance,” said Olsen. “It’s too hard on the group and you can’t make a performance up.”
For senior and alto saxophone player, Luis Aguilar, attending the concerts and seeing satisfaction in Olsen’s eyes are perks of band.“
It’s good to make someone proud doing what you love,” said Aguilar, who also found something quiet unexpected during his time with Olsen. Originally from sunny California, Aguilar recalls freezing dark mornings in December when he just wanted to stay in bed.
“It’s crazy hard work getting up in the morning for class at 7:15 a.m.” he said. “But once you’re playing an instrument, it’s really calming.”
Olsen also knows the importance of leading students with ‘a carrot at the end of the stick’ and ‘a light at the end of the tunnel.’
She remembers fondly winning the 2008 Cruise Festival Overall Grand Championship Award for Concert Band Class AA, based on their performance during the cruise festival season onboard Royal Caribbean Cruise lines.
“It’s fun because I can tell the little kids you can do this someday,” Olsen said.
The band has played in Bermuda and the Bahamas for cruise festivals and Hawaii for an exchange concert. Long before those trips, Olsen said, “I didn’t see the need nor why other directors did it [trips] But now I do. Some kids need those incentives to work hard.”
Playing the future by ear
Now the question is, what will Janet Olsen do next?
“I want to slow down a bit,” she said. “I’m not just going to sit at home, but I will do what I want to do on my own time.”
She will still play in the One More Time Band, continue teaching water aerobics and possibly tutor students privately.
“I hadn’t planned it, but I felt it was the right time,” said Olsen. “I feel good about where the program is at and I feel good about handing it over to a young pup. Fresh blood will invigorate the program.”
Interviews for her replacement coincide with her last week of work. According to Woods, the next band director will have awfully big shoes to fill. In her final days at the school, in between saying goodbyes, performances and grading final exams, Olsen leads sixth graders in songs like “We Will Rock You".
When they get too rambunctious, Olsen raises her hand like a magic wand and the kids are suddenly quiet.
“We have time for one more,” Olsen said, smiling as she starts the music, which echoes in the gymnasium full of empty chairs, set up for graduation day. After the song ends, she checks her watch.
“Actually, we have time for one more,” she winks. And the band plays on... one more song.
“I take away a lot of good memories,” Olsen said. “My heart is full of good memories.”