After more than 30 years of wielding the baton, Gary Wilkes still thinks conducting young musicians is what he was born to do.
"I feel like my mission in life is dealing with kids," said Wilkes, who recently ended his two-year term as the president of the Tennessee Music Education Association.
"Most adult orchestras are very jaded and smug," he added, laughing. "I've got some colleagues in an adult symphony who are not fun to be around."
Wilkes began his teaching career in Irving, Texas, in the early 1970s. After years teaching in various cities throughout the Lone Star State, he returned to Chattanooga in 1993 to teach at Red Bank High School.
After a yearlong break in 1997 to teach in Knoxville, Wilkes returned to take up his current position as the director of orchestras at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences.
This year marks Wilkes' 18th as the conductor of the youth symphony, the highest level of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera's Youth Orchestra program. In that time, he has seen the organization grow from one orchestra with 60 students to three full orchestras with a membership of 230 musicians.
Q What have been the highlights of your teaching career?
YOUTH ORCHESTRA SCHEDULE
The Chattanooga Symphony & Opera Youth Symphony, led by conductor Gary Wilkes, will perform twice more this season.
• March 7: 7:30 p.m., Brainerd Baptist Church, 300 Brookfield Ave.
• May 2: 7 p.m., Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.
A With every graduating senior class, that's a highlight. The really neat thing about CSAS is that we start teaching our kids in sixth grade. It's a little like helping to raise them and shape and mold their character.
Q What's the key to helping a child connect with music?
A Show them that it's not an impossible dream.
Q What is your take on the declining emphasis many school systems are placing on music programs?
A There's a lot of economic challenges that are going on right now, and sometimes administrators and school boards don't see the intrinsic value of music and what it can do for other subjects. The sequential lessons we teach in music become life's blood for kids when they go into other classes. It's so painfully evident to me that when they eliminate programs, as a few places have in Tennessee, they are stopping the creativity and the elements that music can offer.
Q How much freedom do you have in making those selections?
A I have as much freedom as I want. It would be foolish of me to want to play something they're not technically ready to play, even four or five months in the future. That being said, no one says, "No, you can't do that." You have to know that you're going to stand in front of them and wave the stick, and whatever they play is whatever you've been able to teach them.
Q Looking forward, what are your hopes for the youth orchestra organization?
A Of course you always want more. I would like to see it grow in size and in quality as well. Every year it gets better. Every year it gets a little bit bigger. Even in this economically strapped time period we're in now, we have kids who have parents who believe in what we do, so they keep sending their kids to us.
ABOUT GARY WILKES
• Name: Gary Wilkes.
• Age: 62.
• Hometown: Chattanooga.
• Family: Mother, Dimple Marlin, and brother, Randy Wilkes.
• Education: Graduated from East Ridge High School; Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville; Masters of Music in bassoon performance from Southern Methodist University.
• Instruments: Bassoon, oboe, alto saxophone and cello.
• Hobbies: Cooking and travel.
• Favorite food: Crab cakes.
• Favorite composer: Gustav Mahler.
• Favorite piece to conduct: "Scheherazade" by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.
• Favorite movie: All the "Star Wars" films.
• Fantasy coffee date: Gustav Mahler.
• Dream travel destination: Italy or Japan.