FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — “I teach and play music to share my love of music with others — it’s why I joined the Army — I knew that I would get to make music for others in some pretty meaningful ways.”
And last month, Spc. Douglas Olenik, a tuba player with the 399th Army Band and leader of its Route 66 Brass Band, got to do just that, when he conducted two high school bands during two different concerts: one at the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association’s District 5 Junior High Festival in Greenville, Pennsylvania, and the other at his alma mater, Norwayne High School, in Creston, Ohio.
In the fall of 2021, Dan Danch, the host of the PMEA District 5 festival and band director at Greenville High School, reached out to Olenik and asked if he could conduct 94 students in the district’s ninth-grade honor band at the event.
According to Olenik, students from District 5, which includes Beaver, Butler, Lawrence and Mercer counties in western Pennsylvania, auditioned for the honor band. A committee of band directors from the area — many of whom attended college with Olenik – organized the ensemble based on those auditions and formed a group that performed at the festival on March 29, at Greenville High School.
It’s “kind of like putting together an ‘all-star’ team” of student musicians,” said Olenik, who has a bachelor’s in music education from Youngstown State University and a master’s in music performance from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Rehearsals were all day, starting at 9 a.m., and the concert was at 7 p.m. — a long, but fun day.”
The day prior to the PMEA District 5 festival, Olenik led two rehearsals with the band at Norwayne High School. This opportunity came about after he had heard that the band’s latest concert might be postponed following the resignation of the band director, he said.
“I emailed the principal and asked if there was anything I could do to help — noting when I would be driving through the area for the PMEA honor band that was already scheduled,” he said. “(The principal) asked if I would conduct the high school concert band on March 30, and after adjusting my TDY, (temporary duty travel), with the assistance from the command team, we were able to make it happen.”
Olenik said conducting the Norwayne High School Concert Band was a unique experience.
“Being an alumni, it was kind of surreal to go back to the building, and conduct in the room I used to go for band class 19 years ago,” he said. “I was honored to be there, hopefully helping them get excited about making music and seeing what a former band student is doing.”
It was also an emotional experience, he said.
“I owe so much of my musical career to Norwayne, it felt great to give back,” he said. “Side note — one of the substitute teachers was my first band director — Mrs. Diana Kobs handed me my first instrument in 5th grade, so there were many emotions with the experience.”
Principal Doug Zimmerly said Norwayne is always happy to have alumni return to the school, “and especially when they are military or former military members.”
“I had Doug as a former student and remembered him being the ‘tuba guy,’” Zimmerly said. “Our students and community were honored to have a military band member work with them and conduct during their concert.”
The audience that night also moved Zimmerly.
“I was touched to see former classmates of Doug's in attendance that evening and very proud to hear his message to the students and community,” he said. “Many community members wanted pictures with him after the performance as well.”
According to the 399th Army Band Commander, Warrant Officer Brian Dorgan, engagements like these are important for a number of reasons.
“First and foremost, from a talent-management perspective, it shows that the Army and Army bands are focused on seeking, hiring and retaining Soldiers/People with the talent necessary to not only be experts at their chosen craft but to be trained and proficient Soldiers,” Dorgan said. “Spc. Olenik, like many other junior Soldiers in the Army band field, have years of teaching experience and other credentials that could rival some of our most senior leaders in the field.”
Another great aspect, according to Dorgan, are the real, face-to-face, engagements with the public.
“Spc. Olenik was able to speak to veterans from his hometown,” Dorgan said. “He listened to their fond memories of service but also had the opportunity to answer their questions about his Army experience and inform them of all the great things happening here at Fort Leonard Wood.”
To help prepare for both concerts, Olenik credited his background in education and his past teachers.
“When I heard about both of these opportunities, I was able to prepare for them relatively quickly,” he said.” I am thankful for all the great teachers I’ve had in my life to help me prepare for opportunities like these.”
Prior to joining the Army, Olenik was a band director at Ottawa-Glandorf Local School District in Ottawa-Glandorf, Ohio, teaching music to grades 5 through 12 — he is currently on leave from that position while he serves in the Army. Before that, he worked as a college band director at Union College in Barbourville, Kentucky.
He said it is exciting to share music with future music educators and performers.
“The skills students learn from music carry into so many other facets of life as well,” Olenik said. “It’s just so exciting to see students ‘light up’ when we make great music together. Being in front of the honor band really brought me back to when I was teaching and reminded me how much I love sharing music with young music makers.”