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Longtime HHS band director gets new gig

Fran Shelton, the retired Hendersonville High School band director, has joined Asheville Community Band as director and conductor.  [LIGHTNING FILE PHOTO] Fran Shelton, the retired Hendersonville High School band director, has joined Asheville Community Band as director and conductor. [LIGHTNING FILE PHOTO]

After 32 years as a high school band director, Fran Shelton was ready to take up music again — as a musician and not a teacher.

She and Buddy Gudger, who just retired last month as band director at Hendersonville Middle School, decided to rekindle the fun of music without the pressure of class work, long bus trips with hormonal teenagers and high-level competition at the nation’s top concert halls.
“Buddy Gudger and I just joined the band to play again with little responsibility, just for the joy of it,” she said of their move to the Asheville Community Band. “We were last and second-to-last chair trumpet, and would always come to rehearsal two minutes before the downbeat, because we spent so much time at Wild Wings.”
She had no intention of conducting again. Yet when the incumbent director Jim Kirkpatrick asked her to guest conduct the band’s March 25 concert, she said, “Maybe.”
Kirkpatrick persuaded Shelton to conduct “Light Calvary Overture,” an iconic Franz von Suppe work familiar to many for its use in spaghetti Westerns. Shelton’s appearance as the conductor went off without a wrong note. Her reputation was known to a few members of the band, and her demeanor when conducting was enough to command the respect of everyone in the room. She would go on to conduct a few more pieces with the band and was named associate conductor. In early May, after the band finished up its season, the board of directors came to Shelton with the offer. After three long meetings and some negotiation, she accepted.


No loading buses

Shelton spent most of her career directing high school bands. She taught for 5½ years at Robbinsville High, and dedicated 28½ years to HHS, taking the bands to renowned concert halls across the nation and bringing home loads of gold awards.
Speaking with the board of directors, Kirkpatrick emphasized the talent and experience of the diminutive woman sitting in a chair by the door playing third trumpet. The board listened, and began to talk with Shelton about taking the reins.
“Ms. Shelton is highly regarded as one of the most accomplished band directors in the state of North Carolina,” Kirkpatrick says. “She is a consummate musician and understands the importance of service in our music community. Ms. Shelton is a good friend of mine and it was important to me that the next person to take the baton be one that I trusted. Ms. Shelton, without a doubt, will draw from her tremendous experience to continue the legacy of musical excellence attached to the Asheville Community Band.”
Having spent 30 years performing miracles with high school bands, Shelton was adamant that she would take the baton but not the grunt work. “My days of loading trailers, copying music, and filing folders are over, O- V -E -R, capital letters,” she said. “They call me the artistic director. I just get up there and direct.”


Themed concerts

Formed in 1979, the Asheville Community band is the oldest community band in WNC. It has performed in Hawaii, Germany and Austria. Shelton performed with the band Hawaii and Europe, before she had to commit more time to her high school bands. Now back as the conductor, she hopes to make the band stronger. One goal is for the band is to return to national and international performances.
For concerts, she wants to have themes, and divide the concerts up. Instead of one long performance, she envisions two halves with an intermission. She hopes to form a few specific ensembles within the band, such as woodwind and brass sections, adding variety to the concerts. This coming spring, the Asheville Community Band will participate in the Amadeus Music Series along with the Asheville Symphony and Chorale group. This will be a family oriented concert, a great chance to expose younger kids to classical music, she says.
She also spoke of holding exchange concerts with the other community bands in the mountains, speaking highly of each. Many musicians are members of the Brevard and Hendersonville bands as well as Asheville’s. Asheville is the biggest ensemble of the three, with nearly 90 members. Among the members, numerous musical backgrounds are represented. Some were music majors in college, some just never quit playing after high school and some just picked up their horn again with a passion to play, with ages ranging from 18 to 80.
“The biggest challenge is that they all have an opinion!” Shelton says with a laugh. The key in this new venture her is to home in on the musicians’ balance and pitch. She was surprised at how well they responded to her conducting. That was something rare for her high school bands to do consistently, and she was pleased with this groups’ responsive nature, a result of their passion for music.
The group practices one night a week, for two hours, with six rehearsals between concerts. Every rehearsal needs to be focused, and the musicians need to be excited to play to be successful. That excitement and emotion, translated through the music, is the allure of the band.
“I think it’s a great thing she’s taking over the band,” Gudger says. “She’s got a lot of great ideas and I think she’s going to bring to new things to the table, and the members are really excited to have her.”
Shelton has extended a special invitation for all her former students to come audition for the band.
Her debut as the full conductor is Oct. 21, a 3 p.m. concert in Lipinsky Auditorium at UNC Asheville. Tickets are $10, and proceeds fund scholarships for young musicians. Shelton hints at a potential mountain-themed concert for her debut, so make sure to come out and support the fine musicians of the Asheville Community Band, now led by a Bearcat legend.

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Lightning correspondent Dawson Walker, a 2016 graduate of Hendersonville High School, played saxophone in the HHS band from 2012 until 2016. He is a rising sophomore at Clemson University.