After nearly four decades of teaching music — the past two dozen in Sequim — while leading school bands in countless concerts and football games and basketball halftime shows, parades and competitions, Sequim High School band director Vern Fosket is stepping down.
“Greatest job on this Earth for 38 years,” Fosket said from the SHS band room earlier this month. “The kids are what makes it worthwhile.”
But the longtime band director admits the past 15 months or so hasn’t been easy. COVID restrictions have students playing at least 9 feet apart and put a limit on the amount of time they can play together. The changes have seen the band sign-ups drop to the point where next year, the district’s secondary band director will teach three classes at Sequim High and two at Sequim Middle School — somewhat like Fosket’s scheduled when he arrived in Sequim in the late 1990s.
Fosket does get to see the jazz band more often with early-morning rehearsals, but the hybrid split schedule means he sees half of the band two days a week, the other half for two days. The focus this year is primarily on technique and skill, and getting ready for next school year.
“The instrumentation is interesting,” Fosket said, laughing. “We do our best. They stayed with it … even after last year.
“(But) I can’t imagine doing this full-time.”
At the end of the 2019-2020 school year, the band had finished adjudication. The ensuing COVID shutdown meant band members missed events such as the marching band parades, including the Sequim Irrigation Festival’s, as well as the state solo and ensemble contest.
COVID restrictions during the 2020-2021 school year also meant no concerts, no Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival in Idaho,no Warm Beach concerts, no to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in Seattle and to the band’s biennial trip to Anaheim, Calif. for the Heritage Festival.
“It’s a strange year; we’ve been marking what we would have done,” Fosket said.
“It’s not easy to leave, but maybe a bit easier. It’s not what I signed up for.”
The longtime SHS music leader says he cherishes the countless memories he’s experienced over the years — experiences that kept him and his wife Lynn rooted on the peninsula the past two-and-a-half decades.
“We love it here (and) I’ve got everything I want here,” Fosket said. “This was a great place to raise kids.”
John Lorentzen can relate. The Sequim high school and middle school choir director has coordinated events between the choir and Fosket’s SHS band since Lorentzen started at the district in 2011, most notably the Warm Beach Camp concerts during the winter holiday season.
“He as such a great mentor to me when I first moved here,” Lorentzen said.
“It’s a huge loss to the district. He’s kind of a legendary figure here in Sequim.”
A ‘timely’ phone call
Fosket grew up in the Lake Stevens area and by age 5 or 6 started in on piano lessons, and somewhere along the way he also picked up guitar. When it came time to rent an instrument as he grew into middle school age, the aspiring percussionist changed his mind at the last minute, and picked up the trombone.
By his senior year in high school, he knew he wanted to play music for a living. His original plan to play in a military service was thwarted by bad knees, and instead Fosket went the academic route. He pursued music and teaching degrees at Seattle Pacific University, playing gigs from jazz to classical to funk along the way.
In 1982, Fosket graduated with his bachelor’s and fifth-year degrees from SPU. He picked up a long-term substitute teaching job in Snohomish before landing a job teaching junior high band in the South Kitsap School District, a job he held for 13 years.
It was the third time South Kitsap’s local levy failed that Fosket decided it might be time to move. The district cut out the elementary band programs and began moving band directors to other classrooms to keep them employed.
“There would be no program to build on,” Fosket recalled.
One day after that third levy went down, Fosket got a phone call from Mike Johnson, then the Sequim High School principal. A small network of friends and colleagues led by Gary Rude, a Sequim resident who was a principal at a South Kitsap elementary school, had put Fosket’s name up for consideration.
“A very timely phone call,” Fosket recalled.
At the time, Sequim needed the band director at the middle school with just one section for band at Sequim High.
“Things (in Sequim) were starting to build; the middle school program had good numbers,” Fosket recalled in a 2012 interview. “There was a lot of potential. I kind of controlled my own destiny.”
Growing a program
In the years since, the high school band grew to boast 150-plus students at a time with five sections, including wind and percussion ensembles, a jazz band, a concert band and music theory class. Students garnered of top awards at the Heritage and Lionel Hampton music festivals, and dozens have gone on to play at music at college and university programs.
“I wanted my girls to be in a really good program; that was probably my inspiration to set this thing up,” Fosket said.
Along the way, he got to instruct each of his three daughters: Megan, Mallory and Noami, who went on to teach music.
“I never had to convince them to play band,” Fosket said. “They grew up doing band stuff. Friday nights was basketball, football games.”
For his efforts, Fosket was named to the Washington Music Educators Association’s Hall of Fame in 2012. But the band director noted he got plenty of help along the way, including key support from a devoted group of volunteers with the Sequim High School Band Boosters — officers and volunteers who collecting thousands of dollars each year to help Sequim students travel and participate in the exhausting festival/parade/concert schedule — as well as from SHS administrators.
“Part of his early success was (his schedule was) split between SMS and SHS; he was able to recruit those kids at the middle school,” Sequim High School principal Shawn Langston said.
Langston said he was impressed with band when he took over as principal 19 years ago.
“I was blown away by the culture and the high esteem band was held at here at this school,” he said. “It was cool to be in the band in Sequim.”
Langston got an up-close view of Fosket’s leadership during one of the band’s biennial trips to the Heritage Festival in California, as a handful of adults shepherded more than a hundred students onto flights, to Disneyland for parades and activities, to a college campus for performances and instruction, and more.
“They were amazingly well-behaved. That’s just a testament to Vern, about his leadership style,” Langston said. “He’s all about the kids but (he’s) more like a father figure.”
That respect is perhaps most obvious in the way Fosket brings the band to attention, moments that can happen at a concert venue or parade route or even in the middle of an airport terminal. With students milling about and in various scattered conversations, it takes one “Band!” from their director, and band members snap back “What?”, followed by respectful silence.
What can go unnoticed, Langston said, is how hard Fosket works with the band to bring their musical ability to an award-winning level.
“He loves music (and) obviously he takes pride in them being good; he’s got a great ear for it,” Langston said.
“I talk to so many retired folks who come (to Sequim High games) just to hear the band play.”
George Rodes, hired as Sequim Middle School Band director in 2018, was selected to succeed Fosket while retaining his position at SMS.
Fosket said Rodes will most likely teach three sections at the middle school and two at the high school.
It’s a schedule similar to Lortenzen’s, who teaches choir classes at both schools daily.
“(George) is very hard-working and dedicated,” Lorentzen said. “It’s going to take a couple of years to build it up again, but he’ll do that.”
While he’ll miss some events, Fosket said he won’t miss the hectic schedule a band director has to keep.
Instead, Fosket said, he’s ready for something different, though he isn’t sure what that is just yet. He said he isn’t quite ready to retire, so he plans to keep busy with the state music association doing adjudication and my get involved in traveling music programs.
Fosket said he also wants to play more music, with the Stardust Big Band and local ensembles.
“I’m leaving it wide open I do want to work some more,” he said. “This is kind of a new chapter.”