Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Remembering Del Eisch, My First Band Director

with 2 comments

Folks, last week, my first truly good band director died. (In all senses.)

Delbert A. Eisch — or Del, as he urged everyone to call him — was eighty-five, and had lived a good, long life. In that life, he’d done many things as a conductor, a trombone player, as an activist for live music, and much, much more. He taught in Racine for thirty-six years, and also conducted over 640 concerts while the conductor of the Racine Concert Band (previously named the Racine Municipal Band).

Much of this information can be gleaned from his obituary, which you can find here, but I wanted to summarize it before I got into what Mr. Eisch meant to me.

As I said, he was the first good band director I’d ever known. When I joined the Racine Municipal Band (not yet called the RCB), I was only fourteen. I played the oboe, then; I hadn’t picked up either the sax or the clarinet as of yet. I’d played in the Kiwanis Youth Symphony as an oboist and had played in my junior high school band and orchestra at Gifford (it’s now a K-8 school, but back then it was solely a junior high — our term for middle school at the time). But the junior high band was limited to what most of the performers were able to play, meaning I didn’t get a chance to play high-level pieces, nor did I get much sense at that time of what good band literature was all about.

Mr. Eisch knew how to program for his band, though. I figured that out immediately. We played marches — John Philip Sousa, Henry Fillmore, etc. — as nearly all bands do, but we also played more. We played show tunes. We played overtures. We played incidental pieces composed to be heard behind ballerinas, or with movies (as we certainly played selections from movie soundtracks). And we played the big pieces for concert band, including the two Gustav Holst Suites for Band, as well.

Mr. Eisch was extremely encouraging to me when I was a young musician. This was essential, as at the time I felt completely lost in my life. I loved music, loved to play, but otherwise I was a misfit. I read too much. I enjoyed talking with people much older than myself. I studied history and geography and some mathematics along with reading everything I could get my hands on, because I’d started to write stories and poems and wanted to be knowledgeable about my chosen subjects.

I loved science fiction and fantasy, of course, even back then. I was fortunate that my local TV station regularly played episodes of Star Trek (now called “The Original Series”), and I was even more fortunate that my junior high’s library had an excellent selection of SF&F books along with copies of Downbeat Magazine and other musically oriented magazines such as Rolling Stone. (That dealt with commercial music, sure. But things were applicable across all disciplines, and I tried to learn whatever I could, wherever I could.)

Anyway, I think Mr. Eisch knew, from all his years teaching at Gilmore School, that I was a bit of an odd duck. (Or at least that I felt like one.) He was gentle, kind, and patient with me as I learned the music — which wasn’t too hard for me, as even then I was quick on the uptake and an excellent sight-reader — and how to get along with the people in the band.

He encouraged my talents, to the point that I played oboe solos in front of the band, then later a clarinet duet, a saxophone solo, and finally a clarinet solo before I was off to my first undergraduate school. (Me being me, and more importantly being married to a guy who was then an Army Reservist and later in the active-duty Army, I needed to go to three different colleges/universities to finish my degree.) He also added in twelve bars for an improvised solo when I played “Harlem Nocturne” with the band, so it sounded a little jazzier and helped to give me a better experience as a musician.

My tale picks back up approximately ten years later, when my then-husband and I were back in Racine after his military service ended. Our marriage was breaking up, which I didn’t know then (but can clearly see now), and I needed music as an outlet. (I always had, so why not then?)

Mr. Eisch warmly welcomed me back to the band. (My soon-to-be-ex-husband also joined the band as a percussionist.) He had a need for an additional clarinetist, so would I mind playing clarinet?

I did not mind.

It was interesting, as I got to hear many of the same pieces in a different way than before. I learned how the various parts interrelated and asked Mr. Eisch many questions about music and conducting that he patiently answered. (At the time, I was hoping to eventually be a conductor myself. This is a dream that didn’t come to fruition, but the knowledge I gained was still invaluable.)

When I finished my Bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, I started looking for graduate schools. (I wanted to teach in college, and that was the way forward. Plus, I wanted to learn even more about music, harmony, melody, music theory, music history, etc., as I loved everything about music.) I discussed the merits of them with Mr. Eisch, along with several other wonderful musicians in the band; eventually, I decided on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Once I finished my degree there (it took me a few additional years due to family health concerns), Michael and I married. We knew we’d go back to his home in San Francisco sooner or later, so I didn’t rejoin the band at that time.

A few years passed. Michael and I had moved to Iowa. I’d looked into perhaps going to the University of Iowa as a doctoral student, once I qualified for in-state tuition…then Michael died, suddenly and without warning.

I have to include this, to explain the rest.

I didn’t feel like playing my instruments for years. I rarely composed any music, either. It was hard to write. Hard to do anything. I barely even recognized myself in the mirror, I was so upset.

So, because of that, I didn’t attempt to rejoin the band, or even find out if they might have a use for me.

I did, however, rejoin the Parkside Community Band in October of 2011 (not too long before my good friend Jeff Wilson passed away). And doing that led me back to the Racine Concert Band, where Mr. Eisch was now the band’s business manager (and conductor emeritus).

Mr. Eisch and I had several conversations along the way, once I rejoined the band. Some were to do with the band and its need for funding and fund-raising. Others were about life, and about loss, and about faith, as well as music.

Mr. Eisch then retired as business manager, and completely stepped away from the RCB. We did see him at concerts for a few years after that…then COVID hit.

Anyway, the last time I saw Mr. Eisch was earlier this year. I was going into Ascension All-Saints Hospital for an appointment; he was coming out of there, being medically discharged. He was happy to see me, and I was happy to see him; he asked how I was doing, how my family was doing, and asked me to tell my parents that he’d said hi (as he knew them both well, too, especially my Dad as he played in the RCB for ten years, himself, as a drummer).

I didn’t know that would be the last time I ever saw him, or I would’ve told him just how much his kindness and dignity and example had meant to me, along with all of the musical knowledge he’d imparted along the way.

Mr. Eisch was a very kind man. He was also a gentle man, in the best of senses. He loved music, of course he did, but even more so, he loved his family and friends.

Good men, good people, are sometimes hard to find. But when we get a chance to be around them, we hopefully reflect the light they can’t help but give out a little brighter. Then that light goes on, and on, and still on, for as long as people last…or at least as long as our memories do.

I truly hope that his widow, Anne, will be comforted by his memory. Always.

*****

An Addendum: I wrote this today, on the eighteenth anniversary of my beloved husband Michael’s death, because I wanted everyone to know just how much Mr. Eisch meant to me.

Michael only met Mr. Eisch once, I think. We were at the grocery store, or maybe at the mall…anyway, he did meet Mr. Eisch, and told him it was a pleasure to meet one of my formative influences.

I’d like to think that Michael again met with Mr. Eisch in Heaven, Eternity, or whatever The Good Place (TM) truly is, and that Michael has passed on what I’ve just said — as he knew I felt this way, because he knew me extremely well — just in case Mr. Eisch still did not know it.

2 Responses

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  1. You have some precious memories to look back on in your life, Barb.

    Kayelle Allen

    September 21, 2022 at 9:24 am

    • Yes, I do.

      I really wish I’d have said more to Mr. Eisch the last time I saw him. But hindsight is 20/20.

      Barb Caffrey

      September 21, 2022 at 10:57 am


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