He Lives By....the Sound of Music

As a renaissance man of music who can play any instrument, Alex Knoepker has dream jobs as band director for Grafton High School and Kids From Wisconsin

First-year Grafton High School band director Alex Knoepker took piano lessons in second grade before playing percussion and pursuing his passion for music. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Alex Knoepker doesn’t exactly remember the moment the passion that would lead to his career was sparked.

But his mother does. It was a family trip to a La Crosse Concert Band performance nearly 20 years ago. Alex was 4.

“My mom told me I could not stop asking questions about what was going on up there,” he said. “There was something about the music.”

Knoepker, 23, is still asking questions.

“If you listen to a song on the radio, there are songs that you like. Why do you like those songs?” he asked.

That’s what attracted him to music theory. But he didn’t study it just to satisfy his own curiosity.

“It’s fun to share that passion with kids,” he said.

Knoepker is doing that as band director at Grafton High School, his first job out of college. He majored in music education at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire after excelling in percussion at
Tomah High School and playing in the prestigious Kids From Wisconsin.

The native of Warrens, Wis. — known for the cranberry festival that for one weekend a year spikes the village’s population of 500 by about 300% — had heard of Grafton through a college friend and had performed with Kids From Wisconsin in Cedarburg.

“The facilities are really great and it’s a welcoming community and people value the arts here, especially the performing arts,” Knoepker said of Grafton and its school district.

In addition to teaching advanced placement music theory, he is in charge of the school’s concert band and its select symphonic band, as well as pep bands, pit orchestra and the jazz band.

While Grafton has held in-person school all year, Knoepker said, the Covid-19 pandemic put the kibosh on nearly every performance.

“We didn’t get to play at games,” he said, though he did manage to put on a 30-minute concert of favorite pep band songs in the high school gym in December.

“You’ve got to keep kids motivated. That’s probably been my biggest hurdle this year.”

He has had plenty of smaller ones. The 45-member band may only rehearse in the school’s auditorium or large gym due to 10-foot distancing requirements. Wind players wear specially designed masks with holes that close up when they aren’t playing. Nylon coverings must be put on instruments’ bells to prevent the spread of germs, which changes their sound.

Last Friday, the band got to practice outside where “we don’t have to wear any of this stuff,” Knoepker said.

Easing into his job was made easier by John Long Middle School band director Brett Dimmer. He used to lead the high school band, and “having somebody who did this job is really helpful,” Knoepker said.

While the pandemic threw a wrench into plans for his first year of teaching, it wasn’t the first time Knoepker had to make do on the fly.

His practice teaching was done at Eau Claire North. The band director there took a child-care leave just as Knoepker arrived. “I showed up to Eau Claire North, and I was the band director for four weeks,” he said.

The regular band director  came back one week before schools closed due to the coronavirus.

“I think back to that week a lot,” Knoepker said. “Boy, nobody knew how good we had it.”

Knoepker said he’s in a good place now as well. “I have the best kids in the school,” he said. His philosophy is to “have high expectations but have fun doing it.”

People 50 years removed from high school, he said, tell him band was their best memories.

“I want to be part of that. I want to be an advocate for people to have fun and enjoy life through music,” he said.

He looks forward to a larger band next year — 66 students are signed up — and he won’t turn anyone away.

Knoepker said music was always played around the house when he was a child. His mother was an elementary school teacher and now a librarian, and his father, who used to play trombone, had managed a cranberry marsh before becoming a public works director.
Knoepker started his music education with piano lessons in second grade. In high school, he learned how to play all kinds of percussion instruments — the marimba is his favorite — and was one of two percussionists to be chosen from nearly 30 applicants for Kids From Wisconsin.
Thousands of people watched the group perform across the state before everything was canceled last year.
Knoepker aged out as a performer in the group that is limited to 15 to 20-year-olds, but he stayed on after being named band and tour director and community enrichment lead, perhaps the youngest director in the group’s history.
Kids From Wisconsin has nearly 50 scheduled performances this summer starting on July 4. All are outdoors.
Before summer, Knoepker is planning one final high school band concert sometime in May. He has been giving lessons to students on every instrument, using what he learned in college. He took seven instrument methods courses, as well as strings classes.
“I firmly believe those were the most important classes I took,” he said. “You have to learn how to play everything. The only disadvantage is I wasn’t used to blowing into things.”
His alma mater, UW-Eau Claire, has 11,000 students, 500 of whom are in the marching band that would add excitement to the football stadium.
“At the games, it’s deafening,” Knoepker said.
He said he enjoys all kinds of music but his favorite is classic rock, especially performed by Neil Diamond, Sonny and Cher and the Doobie Brothers. He wants to pass on his appreciation for all music.
“One of my goals as a musician is to appreciate all music, even music I don’t love. All music is valid,” he said.
Outside of school, Knoepker enjoys riding his bike on the Ozaukee Interurban Trail and spending time in state parks. He goes home every other weekend to play the organ at Queen of the Apostles Parish.

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