Leaving on a high note

Photo by Ted YoakumLa Porte Band Director Mickey Stisher stands next to the band room's piano. The educator is retiring after 31 years of service at the end of the week.

La PORTE — Whether he's observing from the sidelines of a football field or standing behind a podium on stage, Mickey Stisher knows how to lead La Porte's band students to success.

In the course of his more than three decades as its director, the educator has brought the high school's music program to new heights. Among a litany of championships and accolades, the Indiana State School Music Association has awarded the La Porte band program with its "All Music Award" for excellence every year since 2002.

While such recognition is appreciated, Stisher's fondest memories aren't of any groundbreaking, transcendent performances.

They are of the lessons, mistakes, experiments and laughs shared between him and his students during rehearsals, "where the teaching happens," he said.

"I just love walking into the band room sometimes to watch the kids play," he said. "That's where you really make the music, where you really connect with each other."

"Or don't," he jokingly adds. "We have those days, too."

After years of sharing his wealth of musical knowledge — and sarcastic wit — with students, Stisher his finished his coda at La Porte High School.

The music educator retired last week after 31 years with the school. Stisher and his wife, Teri, plan to move to the Indianapolis area, where he will start a new gig with Music Travel Consultants, a travel agency for student music programs.

The move is bittersweet for the Stishers, who have lived and worked in La Porte — where they also raised their two daughters, Shauna and Lyndee — for the past 31 years. The community has provided no shortage of recognition for the family, with La Porte Mayor Mark Krentz declaring this past Sunday as "Mickey and Teri Stisher Day."

"Kids keep you young," Stisher said while relaxing in his office a little less than a week before his last day at the school. "I will miss them."

Stisher's retirement marks the end of a career in music education, something he had pursued since he was a junior playing French horn under the direction of John T. Wilson with the North Putnam Senior High School band in Roachdale, Indiana. 

Though the teenager had been in love with music ever since picking up the trumpet in elementary school, it was watching how Wilson got the most out of him and his bandmates that Stisher first became interested in becoming a band director himself. A trip to a band camp in Purdue, where Wilson also taught, cinched his decision to study music after high school, Stisher said.

"I still tell [Wilson] to this day, it's his fault I took this path," he joked.

In 1975, Stisher enrolled at Ball State University, where he received a bachelor's degree in music education in 1979. 

One week after he and Teri got married, the couple moved to Jefferson City, Missouri, where he took a job as associate band director at Jefferson City High School. Three years later, the Stishers moved back to Indiana, where he took over as director of the Yorktown High School band.

After five years there behind the podium, Stisher decided to give grad school a try, enrolling in classes at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. After spending a year studying and serving as a conducting intern, Stisher graduated in 1988 with a master's degree in wind conducting.

That fall, at the recommendation of one of his former Ball State instructors, he took over as director of the La Porte High School band program, a treasured institution that was in rough shape at the time, Stisher said.

"Music has always been important here — the community expects it," he said. "I learned that very quickly."

Despite the pressure, Stisher did not spend his first years worrying about championships, but on rebuilding and reorganizing the program, he said. 

The following year, he started the La Porte High School Jazzfest alongside his friend and fellow music educator, Jim Widner. The concert, which celebrated its 30th anniversary last month, gives students a chance to perform alongside professional musicians, who also provide instruction to students during their visit.

In 1990, Stisher founded the school's Winter Color Guard, which has gone on to win many Midwest Color Guard Circuit Championships and has been a finalist in the Winter Guard International World Championships four times. The school's Jazz Band, another program he developed, has also enjoyed much success over the years, winning multiple festivals in Indiana and Missouri and playing during the Indiana Music Education Association State Convention.

Under his leadership, the La Porte Marching Band has become a perennial favorite in the state competitive scene, winning a state championship in 2014 and serving as state runner-up in 2015, 2016 and 2018. The school's Wind Ensemble is also a three-time state concert band finalist.

Stisher has also racked up many personal accolades over the years. Phi Beta Mu International Bandmasters Fraternity named him as its 2006 Outstanding Indiana Bandmaster, and he won the Chicagoland Outstanding High School Music Educator Award the following year. The Midwest Color Guard Circuit also inducted him into its hall of fame in 2009.

"Everywhere I've gone, I wanted to make things better," he said about his career at La Porte High School. "That's what I'm most proud of here."

Stisher is quick to point out that he was just one cog in La Porte's band machine, though. He likens himself to the titular character in the "Wizard of Oz," as the man behind the curtains, pushing switches here or there to make sure everything goes off without a hitch. 

"I could not have done what we've done alone," he said. "It takes the kids, staff and parents to make this program successful."

What has driven Stisher these past three decades is not the awards, but witnessing the power that music education has on students, he said. While not every student is a musical virtuoso, everyone who participates in the program winds up developing a strong sense of self-discipline — and many deep friendships to boot, Stisher said.

Stisher's blunt honesty and sense of humor, which one of his former administrators labeled "positive sarcasm," has helped him to develop close bonds with many of his students, as well. Former students traveled as far as New York and Oklahoma to wish him a fond farewell during his retirement party last Sunday, he said.

"It means a lot," he said.

Stisher shared one final piece of advice for students — try to figure out what they love to do and find a way to make a living doing so while serving others. If that love happens to be music, he hopes that students will find a way to share that passion with others, just as he has done for so many years.

"Just pass it on," he said. "That's all you need to do."

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