Little did anyone at Sycamore School know what they were getting when they hired music teacher Paula Fair.
Knowing now what we do, the recruitment, as it were, of Fair, was unspectacular. The results? Anything but.
Sycamore's Head of School at the time, Alice Bostwick, needed a music teacher. It was 1991, and Fair was working in the IPS system. She had a neighbor who was evangelical in her comments about Sycamore.
"I was neighbors with one of the math teachers, Sue Hoffer. She had a son who was the same age as mine, Chris - they were toddlers. We met in the middle of the street and talked. She was brilliant and talked a lot about the school where she taught. At the end of that first year, she came to me and said 'They are looking for someone to start an instrumental music program.'"
It was the first step in Paula's journey to starting one of the top middle school music programs in the country.
"We set up an interview, and I interviewed (with Alice) for the first time," she says. "Then I kept calling her. 'Are you ready to hire me?' I would ask. (Bostwick) would say, 'We are still interviewing.' I'd wait a few days and call her again. I think I had two interviews, and I think they hired me because everybody else said, 'No, I don't think so.'"
The next step was figuring out how to create the program from the ground up, and who would take part in the music program at Sycamore.
"Alice asked how we should set this up," Fair remembers. "I said, 'They all need to play in the band,' so we need to make it compulsory.”
Bostwick was more relaxed about her ideas of making the band and orchestra a required class. Fair had other ideas. She was told the school wouldn't require student to participate.
By the time October came around, it was the students had made the choice.
"Everybody in 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th, minus two or three kids, played," Fair says. "By the third year, I started the Cadet Band, and that was compulsory. They did agree (to that). The same year, third grade became the string orchestra, and it was compulsory." Then fifth grade and Middle School music were an elective, but the expectation was that you would play something. And they did.
"So I am not sure the original idea was that it was going to be a big program," Fair says. "I think (Alice) would have been happy with a handful of kids making music. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger."
Paula Fair quickly went to work, and it didn't take long to find success. She took Sycamore's first Symphonic Band to the Indiana State School Music Association that year, earning the highly-sought 1st Division honors in the inaugural performance at the contest. It would be the first of many honors that Fair and her student musicians would bring to the school. Quite a feat for a new program at a school that was just six years old. When she left in 1999, Fair had built one of the top private middle school music programs in the country.
Fair led the band as Sycamore School performed at festivals in New York, Cleveland and St. Louis during her decade at Sycamore. in New York City, they performed as part of the National Invitational Band Competition, one of only 11 bands in the entire country to be chosen to perform, and the only Middle School band deemed worthy of the honor.
But it was the behind-the-scenes efforts that allowed the Sycamore students and musicians to be able to perform on the national stages. Fair held music camps for the band each summer, breaking them into beginner and advanced camps, culminating in public performances at the end of what was usually a hot, sweaty week of fun and work. She also worked with the younger students throughout the year, including coordinating a "Kindergarten Opera", and enlisting 8th grade students to help direct and build stage sets for her performances.
“What I discovered here was how quickly (students) picked (ideas) up,” she says. “And their intense need to study the whole thing.
“I remember this: I was teaching two-year olds, and I would sit on the floor with my Ovation guitar, and they would sit around me. I remember I had a capo, and would move it up or down the guitar neck. One of the little two-year olds asked 'why are you doing' that?' I said I am doing it to change the key. 'well, how does that work?' he asked.
“So, by the end of the 20-minute class, we were discussing Pythagoras and the theory of the shortened string,“ she says. “They were just fascinated. You don't find that many places."
Inquisitive behavior from the students never ceased to surprise and delight the music teacher.
“We are studying Gutaf Holtz from the 20th century (in music history),” she says. “I would play different movements, and they would always come up and hover around the CD player, writing things down. They would ask if they could borrow the CD.
“And that's the thing,” Fair continues. “If you can get a student that comes in the next day and says ‘I got online, and watched video’…if they take it out of the classroom and then bring it back, then you have done something. They do that a lot here.”
Fair broke new ground by working with the band to release two CD's during her time at Sycamore. "Sounds of Sycamore ‘96" was recorded at The Lodge Recording Studio in Indianapolis. It was followed by "Sounds of Sycamore, Vol. 2", recorded in 1999, featuring live performances from New York, St. Louis and Cleveland. The Cleveland set also included a performance by the Sycamore School Jazz Ensemble.
Sycamore continues to emphasize the importance of music in education and for the development of young minds. Current Band Director and music teacher Candi Granlund has set her own standards as she has built on the tradition of excellence set by Fair. In 2015, 32 band members competed at the prestigious ISSMA Contest. The band earned eight gold medals, as six soloists and two ensembles picked up the top awards at the event. The band continues to tour other cities, competing in contests and performing at other schools.
For Fair, she left Sycamore after nine years to move with her family to Virginia. She left behind the music program, but carried – and still carries – a lot of Sycamore School lessons with her.
“I was so much a better musician and better teacher after my experience here. I carry everything I learned over the nine years at Sycamore. There is a collegial thing happening at Sycamore that you don't find in many schools. With every teacher here, if you learned that somebody was doing something innovative, there was real sharing. And you grow as an educator at this school. And that was the problem - there was not life after here. Sycamore is a different school - entirely unique. There is no other place like it.“
Fair eventually got back into teaching, teaching music at James Madison University.
“When I introduced myself at James Madison University, I interviewed with Dr. Rooney, because I wanted to do my Masters with him,” Fair says. “I had my CD's. He was interviewing me, and I was interviewing him. I asked if he wanted to listen to my CD (of the Sycamore band and orchestra performing). He listened to it, and looked at my portfolio. The music ended, and he closed the portfolio and said 'You know, you aren't going to find this here.'
“I said, ‘I figured that.'"
Paula Fair returned to Sycamore School in the Spring of 2015, greeting friends and alumni who came back to see her and honor her. Sycamore hosted a Friday reception for current parents and teachers in the Sycamore Library. On Saturday night, Sycamore hosted a 21-and-over event, with locally-brewed craft beers and hors d’oeuvres and food. Sycamore Head of School Diane Borgmann spoke briefly and Fair talked about her time at Sycamore and the importance of music in education.