It’s a simple thing to ask, but William Wollner, band director and associate professor of music, leans back in his chair and struggles with finding an answer that may be right on the tip of his tongue.
What does music mean to you?
For more than a half-century, music has been a common denominator in nearly everything he loves — from his family to his career. And it’s that career that will come to a close this May as Wollner retires after 34 years at the university. One can’t fault him for having to search for the right words. Asking him what music has meant to his life would be like asking anyone else what oxygen has meant to their life.
“Music has basically been everything,” he says, choking back tears. “I’ve been playing or teaching music since I first picked up a French horn when I was 10 years old.”
Wollner arrived on campus in 1982 from Colorado, where he and his wife, Jan, attended graduate school at the University of Denver. He recalls stepping off the plane and “into a cornfield in the middle of nowhere” for his initial interview at Saginaw Valley College, then returning to Colorado and joking with his wife that he didn’t see any valleys in Saginaw.
But he did see an opportunity in the fledgling college and its music department that excited him. He set out to build a program that would go on to perform in more than 160 halftime shows, 68 concerts, and every commencement ceremony during his tenure, orchestrating a sound of school spirit that grew along with the university.
“Spending my entire career here wasn’t the intention,” Wollner says, “but this was a unique set of circumstances. The school was also relatively young and it was perfect for someone like me. I was just starting my career and I could grow with the university.”
Fostering that stability was the reason Wollner and his wife fell in love with the local music community. Wollner joined the Valley Wind Quintet and the couple both performed with the Midland Symphony Orchestra. Their children were heavily involved in band and choir, and his wife accepted a job teaching music for Midland Public Schools. She will join him in retirement at the conclusion of the school year, and Wollner says the couple looks forward to becoming better “consumers” of music.
“There’s a lot of things to miss when you retire,” Wollner says. “And one of those is the relationship with students. I’ve had some great ones.”
Today, 109 students are in the band, more than double the 52 students who were playing when Wollner arrived. One of those original students was Dean Bass, a sousaphone player whose final year of marching band was Wollner’s first as director. Bass was one of three students who served on a student board tasked with meeting the final three candidates for the vacant band director position. Bass says the decision to hire Wollner was a unanimous one.
“Bill was clearly the top candidate in our eyes,” Bass says. “We hoped he’d be there long enough to provide some stability to the program, but we had no idea he’d be there for three decades.”
Wollner has been at the university long enough, in fact, that he’s now instructing one of his first pupils’ children. Bass’ daughter, Emily Bass, a junior accounting major, plays the flute and piccolo.
“Bill is an amazing director,” she says. “He has so much Red Pride and cares about every single student. I am so lucky to have been able to have Bill as a director and get to know him as a person.”
She will perform at May commencement, giving her the unique opportunity to play in the band Wollner directs for the last time at SVSU — three decades after Bass’ father performed in Wollner’s first appearance.
Wollner says he has yet to join his fellow faculty members in the pomp and circumstance walk that initiates each commencement ceremony, though this year, he considered asking a colleague to direct the band so he could finally participate. Though he says he would have been honored by the opportunity, ultimately, he knew there was only one place for him.
So on May 7, 2016, Wollner — baton in hand — likely will think of his special university and the previous decades served there now condensed to a stage in Ryder Center.
“It seems not a day has gone by this year where I don’t do something for the last time,” Wollner says.
“So I can’t think of any place I’d rather be than standing in front of the band at commencement, one final time.”