We have only one more chance to see H. Robert Williams in action as the conductor of the Pleasanton Community Concert Band.
This Sunday (Nov. 5), he will raise his baton like a magic wand for a final time to transform the individual band members into a harmonious whole as they perform after the Tri-Valley Veterans Day Parade in front of the Veterans Memorial Building on Main Street. No magician's wand has greater power than the baton of a talented conductor -- and Bob (as he prefers to be called) certainly belongs in that category.
Bob has been the band's conductor for 39 of its 48 years. Nine days after his final appearance before the band, he will celebrate his 91st birthday.
It is fair to say that Bob's entire life has been in preparation for this concert. Many things have changed in his life over the past nine decades -- he has lived in five states, three marriages, two careers and one son -- but music has been his constant focus.
His start toward his musical career began when Bob had the good fortune to be born into a musical family in Norristown, Penn. His mother was a church organist and also the piano accompanist for the local elementary school's music classes and chorus. Some of Bob's earliest memories are of playing in the choir loft while his mother practiced for the following Sunday. His two aunts also were church organists, and his grandfather was an opera and cantata soloist, so perhaps music was in his DNA.
The next step toward a lifetime of music was when Bob began taking piano lessons at age 5 -- "It was required" in his family, he said. Then, at age 10, he began trumpet, using an instrument owned by his elementary school. When he entered junior high school, however, there was no trumpet available, so the band teacher switched him to a French horn, correctly known simply as a horn -- his instrument of choice ever since.
Fortunately for Bob, music was an important part of the public school curriculum in Norristown. His first-grade teacher played a pump organ in her classroom and led her students in singing daily. By fifth grade, Bob and his classmates had something called music dictation, where four students at a time were called up to the blackboard. The teacher played a musical phrase or rhythm on a record, and the students were expected to accurately place the notes on the musical staff before them.
"I had all the musical experience I needed by sixth grade," Bob said. "It set me up. I learned all the basics of music, then junior high school expanded what I already knew, and I first experienced serious listening. That provided me with a big repertory of known classical works that I've expanded on ever since."
When Bob was in high school, his band teacher was called away for a family emergency, and he asked Bob to conduct the band for the halftime show at a football game -- his first time as a conductor.
"It was a defining moment: I was hooked!" he said.
In high school, Bob was part of the marching and concert bands, as well as the orchestra. He also participated in chorus and drama, getting the lead roles in the ninth-grade operetta and also in his senior class play.
As a sophomore, Bob joined the local musicians union because it was a requirement for another first: Playing in the community band.
"Many performance trips and interschool opportunities made me feel accepted," he said.
A particularly vivid memory is when he was one of 1,000 high school musicians marching in a show in Philadelphia with all their instruments illuminated, as part of the Philadelphia Music Festival Band.
Slight detours from music were necessary for summer and part-time jobs. To earn money for college, Williams worked every summer for a local bank. Once they provided him with a Stetson and cowboy boots to publicize the new "Hopalong Cassidy" bank accounts for children. Other temporary positions included operating and fixing knitting machines, a steam press and a boiler; custodial services; radio disc jockey; plus janitorial and landscape maintenance at a food store.
In college, he also was a music library helper and stagehand. These jobs helped him with expenses for West Chester State Teachers College (now University) for Music Education.
Bob completed his bachelor's degree in 1954, just in time to face being drafted for the Korean War, so instead he enlisted in the Army and was sent to South Carolina as a band training unit director for the 101st Airborne Division, to train military bandsmen, with a new group of 30 recruits every eighth week. He also was the drum major for the 282nd Army Band -- both important steps toward his music career.
During this time, he met a soldier who previously had served as an admissions officer for the University of Rochester. That acquaintance encouraged and coached Bob to apply to the prestigious Eastman School of Music. He was accepted.
The G.I. Bill and a position as a research assistant in the music department fully paid for Bob's graduate education, training him not only as a professional horn player, but also as a teacher who knew how to assemble, play, clean and disassemble all instruments that his future students might have. In addition, Bob polished his skills as a conductor.
"I learned that conducting was the ultimate position of 'teaching,' and the technique was a direct result of knowing and feeling and expressing all in the motions of directing," he said.
Before coming to Oakland Unified School District (and moving to Pleasanton) in 1972, Bob taught music in multiple grade levels in Lancaster, Penn; Webster, N.Y; and Albuquerque, N.M., inspiring hundreds of young students along the way.
When music education was being reduced in Oakland schools in 1979, a fellow band member, Bob Butler, helped Williams jump into a second career, at the GE Vallecitos Nuclear Center as a nuclear materials study technician, a post he held for 18 years until his retirement -- quite a change from his teaching career.
He didn't stop his involvement with music, however. The Pleasanton Bicentennial Band was formed in 1975, and Bob joined as a horn player. After the bicentennial, it became the Pleasanton Community Concert Band, and Bob became its second conductor.
"The concept of the community band is to demonstrate patriotism and history," Bob explained. "Many of my programs are based on an historical view of some sort of music, plus an element of patriotism. Community bands are a way of continuing America's heritage."
"It used to be that everyone who worked in town also played a musical instrument and participated in the community band. You'd have the butcher playing flute, the barber playing tuba, and so on," he noted.
Pleasanton Community Concert Band members all are volunteers who fit into their schedules 48 weekly rehearsals and 12 to 20 free concerts per year. Most of them have full-time jobs, and some are high school or college students. All share a love for music.
"Our community band attracts experienced players who want to continue the positive, rewarding experience they had in high school or college," Bob said.
The band's library -- housed in Bob's home -- contains the sheet music for 2,000 musical numbers, with 75 parts per number, each sheet carefully filed away for fast retrieval. The band performs about 150 selections per year.
Bob has taken pleasure in selecting the right pieces for each audience, and, in his memorable voice, he draws upon his studies of music literature to share with the audience information about the composer and the piece that is to be performed. Each concert has been a condensed music appreciation course.
Since he was a teenager, Bob has performed in many ensembles, bands and symphonies. "I gradually realized I enjoyed leading and improving group experiences more than playing in groups," Bob said. "Being a good music reader with an acceptable voice aided many of my experiences in music. Acting experiences in plays and dramas help in conducting movements."
Locally, he joined the Livermore-Amador Symphony Orchestra in 1972, playing horn until recently. Working with former drama teacher Adele Denny, Bob conducted the annual musical shows at Amador Valley High School. He also was the first conductor for the Pleasanton Playhouse. In 1995, he played horn for the Valley Dance Theatre, then became their conductor for 22 seasons of winter Nutcracker productions as well as their spring recitals.
Last year, Bob was recognized for his service to the community with the Ed Kinney Community Patriot Award.
Bob's come a long way from Pennsylvania, sharing passion for good music with students from elementary schools through Army recruits and as a performer with many bands, symphonies and ensembles.
"My life always has been intertwined with music," he said. "Music is my heartbeat. It means I am alive and well."
One of the ways this musical legacy will continue is through the H. Robert Williams Horn Scholarship that he established in 2013 at the Eastman School of Music. That first annual scholarship became an endowed scholarship after five years, when Bob pledged $10,000 per year that was matched by his former employer, GE.
"I had freedom from the worries of having to take out a large loan and repaying it for years to come as today's students often do," Bob said. "I wanted to help others experience that same feeling."
So far, nine student horn players have benefited from his generosity. The music continues!
Bob Williams' musical training, talent and experience will be on public display for the last time on Sunday after the parade. When the final note has been played, Bob will hand off the baton to Mark Aubel, who will become the band's fourth conductor.
"In Pleasanton I found a place where I could do all I wanted musically in a congenial community: Happily. Contentedly. Comfortably," Bob concludes.
Bob Williams' final concert as band conductor
What: A tribute to military veterans
When: Sunday, Nov. 5, after the parade (approximately 2 p.m.)
Where: In front of the Veterans Memorial Building on Main Street in Pleasanton
BYOC: Bring your own chairs