Local percussion ensemble blends talents with the music of Phish
NAUGATUCK - It’s not everyday that a high school percussion ensemble devotes themselves to the music of perhaps one of the biggest touring bands of the past century that has amassed a cult following of devoted fans.
That band is Phish, and that ensemble is the .
Don Binette, who has been directing the percussion ensemble and marching band since 1999, has successfully blended his love for Phish with his abilities as a band instructor to form an unorthodox-yet-successful partnership.
For those not familiar with Phish, they are a Vermont-based jam band that got their humble start at the University of Vermont back in 1983. Thirty seven years later, Phish has gone on to become one of the most successful touring acts, earning them two Grammy nominations and three Ben and Jerrys flavors named after them.
Binette has been a fan since his first show back in 1996; a year before he’d graduate from the same program he is currently teaching. Three years later, he’d return back to Naugatuck High School, however, it wasn’t smooth sailing to voice his opinion on what the students would work on.
“The shows were generally picked by the staff members who were older than me at that point,” said Binette. “Now, I have more of a hand in picking the shows; it’s kind of taken on a different form at this point, in a very positive way.”
Binette has been in band since his youth, which has allowed him to better understand the mindset behind children learning the music for class. To him, he vividly remembered learning Chuck Mangione’s ‘Children of Sanchez’ for his high school band class.
“Was I a big fan of that when I was playing it? Maybe not necessarily but I now have an appreciation of who Chuck Mangione is.” said Binette. “They’re exposed to something they probably wouldn’t have been from anyone else.”
Binette started getting the idea to blend Phish and the percussion ensemble when lead singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio began to perform orchestral concerts featuring the music of Phish in 2007.
“In more recent years, when Trey [Anastasio] started his orchestral stuff, it spun something in me that I was trying to connect my love of band with my love of Phish,” said Binette. Binette immediately took an orchestral version of Phish’s ‘Divided Sky’ performed at the shows and brought it to the former band director at the time, however, it was never picked up.
In 2017, that changed when ‘Divided Sky’ was picked up to be performed by the ensemble that year. Since then, the percussion ensemble has gone on to perform ‘Guyute’ in 2018 and CT’s own The Breakfast’s ‘The Grand Scheme of Things’ in 2019. The percussion ensemble’s performance of the latter earned them a spot at the Musical Arts Conference Championships.
This year, the ensemble is going back to Phish with a performance of ‘You Enjoy Myself’ that segues into ‘The Squirming Coil.’ The combo proved difficult at first for Binette as the song’s foundation is a “funk groove,” which is not something the band does.
“This year, I had to come up with a concoction; I wasn’t sure how it was going to work. However, for what we are doing this year, it is working well,” said Binette. “The whole tension before the funk groove segues right into the hit of ‘Squirming Coil,’ and we’re using that decayed outro, which is something we’ve never done before.”
When discussing the reason why he chose the music of Phish for the percussion ensemble, Binette explained that the music of Phish, especially a lot of the early material, is thematic in nature.
“For what we do, I think it’s the very thematic components in the songs that we do but also the complexities of the melodic lines,” explained Binette. “In listening to their original studio material, and hearing what has become of the orchestral arrangements, it is really suited to the amount of voicing we can do with our percussion ensemble.”
“You [also] have to take a bass guitar, keyboard, voicings, Trey’s guitar tone, and a drum set; and make that into a 22 piece ensemble” added Binette.
Binette also keeps in contact with Don Hart, who serves as Anastasio’s arranger and composer for his orchestral work, and will often offer his scores to help the high school band with their arrangement process.
With the ensemble’s recent buzz on social media, which has even caught the eye of Anastasio, Binette commits to making it about the kids and the music.
“What we do is for a competitive circuit, so it’s not like we are playing this stuff for a couple of concerts,” said Binette. “The ones that have been around long enough now know the possibilities with this music.”
Despite claiming he has never seen a student at a Phish show, Binette is glad to have merged these two aspects of his life, ultimately creating a unique community of his own.
“Phish is a community and it is a great one. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to bring a little part of that life into percussion, and have blended those worlds together” said Binette.
In a follow up email, Binette noted that recent outbreak of coronavirus has impacted the band's upcoming competitions, which has devastated the group. "Unfortunately, we have been hit with our own COVID-try as they have cancelled our remaining competitive performances and postponed other events," said Binette.