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Golden Valley band director nears grand finale of 35-year career

Now that Greg Christiansen is retiring as band director at Golden Valley High School, he figures he will have more time to play his favorite instrument -- the trumpet -- as well as hone his developing skills as a golfer.

The 60-year-old teacher, musician and band director is winding up his 35th year of teaching this summer. He said it's time for a younger person to do the job.

"It's very demanding, time-consuming." Christiansen said. "It's definitely work. I was blessed to have really great students. What I enjoy more than anything is the students -- to me kids haven't changed a bit; they're still kids."

Without having to heed school bells, Christian-sen hopes to delve into writing music, orchestrations for jazz ensembles, something he hasn't had much time for until now.

He hopes to indulge in the trumpet and jazz, his favorite form of musical expression.

"Music allows me to express emotions in a much deeper way," Christiansen said. "I love the experience of playing with other people. Trumpet is the leader of the band, the instrument that most often has the melody."

Christiansen led the Golden Valley High School Cardinal Regime since the school was founded in 1994; he taught music and band for nine years at Merced High School before that.

Christiansen said his two biggest accomplishments were being invited to play in the Rose Parade in 1990 with Merced High and again in 2009 with Golden Valley.

"So many great things happened," Christiansen said. "I worked with terrific people. I had such strong community and parent support it's been wonderful. I so loved being here and them trusting me with their kids."

Former pupils earn musical living

Tenaya Middle School band director Michael Vasquez was Christiansen's student from 1993-97 and said he remained his pupil even after Vasquez became a teacher.

"He's been an incredible mentor," Vas-quez said. "He has had tremendous influence on students' lives and the performing arts community every place he's taught. His focus has always been on what students can achieve."

After retirement, Christiansen plans to become a judge for band reviews held from September through mid-November throughout Northern California. He said 15 of his former students are teaching music and the same number are professional musicians.

Craig Chavez, former Golden Valley principal and now the Merced Union High School District's executive director of educational options, said the program Christiansen established has set the bar high for others.

"Students get more than music," Chavez said. "He is a teacher who brings it all to the table, and they become partners in the process. They learn to strive for perfection and ultimately become self-motivated."

Christiansen said the importance of having music in schools is clear: Students in band are the top students at the school.

Marching in borrowed shoes

Christiansen said there have been many amusing stories during his tenure as band director. He recalled that when the Merced High band was going for an audition for the Rose Parade, it had to play at a band review in Monrovia. He discovered one of the band members had forgotten his shoes, a deal-breaker for participating.

Later he noticed that the student was wearing shoes as he marched. After the band review, he noticed the student walking up to the bus to give the driver his shoes back.

Christiansen and wife Michele have two children: a 4-year-old daughter, Gaby, who is a kindergartner at Franklin School, and a son, Matthew, a seventh-grader and band member at Hoover Middle School. He also has two grown children, Jenna and Steven.

Fellow Golden Valley teacher and coach Matt Thissen said Christiansen will leave behind a legacy that will last for many years to come.

"His career was nothing short of spectacular," Thissen said. "His bands set a standard by which all other bands were compared and judged. As a fellow teacher and coach, I really admire his attention to detail. Nothing gets past that guy."

Former student Chad Humpal, Buhach Colony High School band director, said Christiansen has an ability to turn any student into a success story.

Humpal said Christiansen has taught generations of students the ingredients to a successful life: Personal responsibility, hard work, perseverance and the pursuit of perfection.

Reporter Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

BIOGRAPHY

Name: Greg Christiansen

Occupation: Band director, Golden Valley

High School

Age: 60

Born: Estherville, Iowa

Education: University of the Pacific, bachelor's of music, 1974; master's of music, USC, 1985

Teaching experience: 35 years -- at Golden Valley since it opened in 1994; Merced High School from 1985-94; two years at Harvest Park Middle School, Pleasanton; three years at Amador Valley High School; and two years at Capuchino High School, San Bruno

Biggest accomplishment: Bands invited twice to participate in Rose Parade -- Merced High School in 1990 and Golden Valley in 2009.

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