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It's elementary for Brawley band instructor

March 30, 2001|By DARREN SIMON, Staff Writer

BRAWLEY — A student walks into a Hidalgo Elementary School classroom here moments before the start of his music class with teacher Larry Viau.

The student, 10-year-old Ricky White, reaches for a golden trumpet and starts to belt out a song that fills the room with jazz.

"You sound like Miles Davis over there, guy," Viau says to his student.

Viau, who has spent the last hour sharing the story of his life with a reporter, can't help but grab a trumpet and join Ricky and together their trumpets echo throughout the school.

Moments later other students — trumpeters and drummers — start to play, carefully reading their musical notes and listening to Viau's instruction. On the chalkboard to the right of the students is one simple word — "practice."

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That is an important word to Viau, who for 11 years has taught and inspired students to read and play music as the Brawley Elementary School fifth- and sixth-grade band teacher.

"I love teaching," Viau, 66, says in a voice that can rise and fall like the notes he plays on his trumpet. "Right now I'm the happiest man in the world and I'm not burnt out."

He adds, "I don't want to retire yet. I want to teach these kids as long as I can breathe."

Viau was interviewed at Hidalgo on Wednesday. He divides time between Hidalgo and Phil Swing Elementary teaching music.

With pride, he said people in the community have told him his band of fifth- and sixth-graders sounds as good as a high school band.

On April 6 Viau and his band will play at a Brawley Chamber of Commerce "taste of cultures" event to showcase the city's downtown as the 500 and 600 blocks of Main Street will be blocked off from traffic.

He said he enjoys seeing his kids play for the community and the way the community reacts to the band. He said it is important for the young people to see that kind of positive support.

"My goal in life is to make a child feel good about himself or herself," Viau said, adding, "People get in trouble because they don't feel good about themselves. You will never have trouble if you feel good about yourself."

He said music was the inspiration that helped him through a rough time in his life and he wants to show his students that it can have the same effect on their lives.

Viau was born in Cincinnati in 1935 and grew up in what he called a broken home not knowing who his father was.

His family was poor and as a youngster Viau worked odd jobs.

He found music when he joined the Boy Scouts. Viau said he was a big kid and as a result he was asked to play the bugle in the Boy Scouts.

Viau then saved his money and bought a beat-up old trumpet.

He didn't know how to play but he made himself learn. He didn't have money to afford lessons, but went to the YMCA where a man — he can't remember the name — had formed a band and Viau had a chance to play in the band.

"I would practice until my lips turned blue," he said.

He said of that first experience, "It started me out. I found something to believe in."

Viau started to get a formal education in music in middle school and he continued to learn while attending St. Bernard High School, from which he graduated in 1954.

In high school he had two loves — music and football. Viau said he was offered a football scholarship but instead of going to college he chose to join a band and hit the road.

The band was made up of older men and Viau said the experience didn't last long.

"I couldn't stand those old guys … so I jumped the band and joined the Navy," he said, adding today he sees himself like those old men.

That was in the summer of 1954.

Viau continued to play music in the Navy. He did a tour in England, where he met the woman that would become his wife, Elsie Thurston. They were married when Viau was 21 and have been married for 44 years. They have six children.

After the Navy, Viau attended San Francisco State University and earned a bachelor's degree in music in 1963.

After receiving his degree he taught at the elementary, intermediate and high school levels in the Bay area. During that time he was the lead trumpeter of the Oakland Park Band, founded the Golden Gate Brass Ensemble and was band master for the Concord Municipal Band.

He performed in Leonard Bernstein's Young Audience, a national organization which sent band ensembles to perform in communities throughout the nation.

Viau said he takes pride that during that time he started the project to build the Concord Pavilion, an indoor-outdoor theater.

He played with Dizzie Gillespie on the French Riviera in 1964.

He spent the late 1970s and the '80s in Las Vegas and touring as a musician.

He played lead trumpet for musicians such as Harry James, Ray Charles, Jimmy Dorsey, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., K.C. and Sunshine Band, the Pointer Sisters and more.

Viau toured Europe with Ray Charles in 1982 More recently he played with Tito Puente before the famed timbales player's death last year.

In 1985 and 1986 he played lead trumpet on the cruise ship the Royal Princess.

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