Band director brings her own style |

Band director brings her own style

by Maggie O'Neill
Appeal Staff Writer

BRAD HORN/Nevada Appeal Carson High School's band director Felicia Wirgau watches the marching band rehearse in the high school parking lot on Friday morning during the Blue Thunder Marching Band's annual camp. Wirgau takes over as band director as school resumes session Wednesday.

They may be hard shoes to fill – the ones left behind by Robert Brooks, who left to pursue a master’s degree.

But two weeks through band camp and Felicia Wirgau’s students have no doubt she has the demeanor to fill them in.

“I think she’s going to be very good to our program,” said junior drum major Ashley Merriner. “I think after Mr. Brooks left, we were very scared. We’ve had a successful program for the past few years. We’ve been getting better than ever. We were afraid the program was going to get lax again, but we don’t have to worry about that. Ms. Wirgau is obviously very into it.”

Brooks, known for being tough on his students and for procuring a high level of commitment, took the Blue Thunder Marching Band to competition after competition last year and garnered win after win. The band received several first-in-class trophies and more than 20 titles over all.

Last week during band camp, Wirgau seemed to be demanding much of the same level of commitment, going bit by bit through the new piece “Jubilation Suite” with the Blue Thunder Marching Band and exacting push-ups in 10s for students out of step, much like Brooks did.

“It’s all a matter of how much time and effort you want to put into this,” she said to her students.

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But Wirgau has a soft side, too.

“I think she’s going to continue with the program where Mr. Brooks left off,” said Timmy Chatwood, who plays the marimba, a percussion instrument similar to the xylophone. “She is different (from Brooks) in the way she’s a little more sociable off the field. On the field, they’re exactly the same.”

Wirgau, who comes from Michigan, is not new to directing band. Her previous job was at Lakeview High School in St. Clair Shores, Mich., where she spent two years teaching band. She also taught English. Before that, she was band director at Memphis High School in Memphis, Mich.

“I would say I’m high energy, enthusiastic and fast-paced,” she said. “I hate to say fun because it’s such a blah word. I’m all about having a good time when we work hard. It’s a mutual thing. You work hard and I will work just as hard for you.”

Wirgau, who has settled into an apartment in north Reno and has a 50 minute commute in front of her each day, completed her master’s of arts degree at Central Michigan University and received her bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. She has a minor in English.

It was the breath-taking landscapes, like in Bryce Canyon, Utah, that she discovered on national park travels that compelled her to move. She wants to see Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and Redwood National Forest in California.

“Wow, I just fell in love with the West,” she said. “I didn’t want to necessarily leave Michigan. All my family is out there and nobody has ever left.”

An avid coin collector and outdoors enthusiast, she does have some ideas for updating the band program. Plans include changing the rules from requiring students to participate in two ensembles to be in marching band.

She will invite her students to be involved in policy making and take any of their suggestions for improvements. Wirgau wants to work closely with the middle school band programs and build a good relationship.

“I’m going to keep doing those things as close to the same as possible for those things that worked,” she said.

The Blue Thunder Marching Band’s first performance will be at halftime at the school’s first football game scheduled for Thursday and Wirgau looks forward to it, even though there is some work yet to be done.

Band members have a tough schedule ahead of them and will stay busy throughout the upcoming months, something they’d become accustomed to under Brooks.

“The previous director did a fabulous job building the program up,” said Wirgau. “The administration seems very supportive and parents seem very supportive.”

The piece they are working on is a grade-five piece, the most complicated of all the grades. A grade-five show includes advanced marching steps and inclusion of ancillary pieces. Brooks picked it out before he left, not an uncommon thing to do, because it provides direction to the band over the summer and allows costumes to be ordered for color guard.

It also means he’s left Wirgau and the Blue Thunder Band a tough marching order. But Wirgau is wearing those shoes and making them her own.

It’s part of the reason she came here.

“So many signs were pointing yes, yes to Carson City,” she said.

— Contact reporter Maggie O’Neill at or 881-1219.

The Blue Thunder Band’s schedule:

• Oct. 1, Reno, at McQueen High School

• Oct. 8, Las Vegas, Bands of America

• Oct. 15, Galena and Del Oro, Calif., a double competition

• Oct. 22, Eugene, Ore., Festival of Bands

• Oct. 29, Nevada Day at the University of Nevada, Reno

• Oct. 31, Nevada Day Parade

• Nov. 12, Napa, Calif., Vintage Field and Review