By Rick Nowlin
Perhaps it's not unusual for Pittsburghers traveling to another city -- or even another country -- to run into another Pittsburgher. But Kevin Erb Jr., a 1984 alumnus of Bethel Park High School, has recently taken that further.
Mr. Erb is a senior master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force who plays bass with Full Spectrum, a brass-oriented rock ensemble out of the Heritage of America Band, a 60-piece musical organization based at Langley Air Force Base in the Tidewater area of southeast Virginia. He met two fellow Air Force musicians earlier this year who had been, like him, involved in the music program at Bethel Park.
Considering the high musical level of service bands, Mr. Erb credits the district's music program -- more accurately, former band director Dean Streater, "the guru at the high school. He was pretty much the backbone of the music program" -- for turning out such quality musicians.
At the high school, the program was structured to give students more involvement in the musical process and allowed them to own it.
"We had student leaders -- when students are empowered that makes a difference," Mr. Erb said. "It's like a family, a protege-mentor relationship. They put the pressure on the younger kids" to improve their skills. That works because, "you learn as much from the students as from the instructors," he said.
The dedication was such that Mr. Streater "had students writing part of the drill for the marching band," Mr. Erb said. Members of the high school stage band, which he joined as one of the few sophomores, "would rehearse at people's houses [during the summer] before school even started."
Mr. Erb, whose mother gave him the nickname "JR" to distinguish him from his namesake father, began studying the violin as a sixth-grader at Independence Middle School. Eventually he tired of that instrument and wanted to switch to trumpet. Told that he couldn't because of an excess of trumpeters, he was given a choice: tuba or string bass. He chose the latter and hasn't looked back.
He eventually decided to pursue a career in music, studying first at West Virginia University, eventually earning a degree in jazz studies at the famed program at the University of North Texas and, joining the Air Force in 1992.
Air Force bands are "the hardest to get into when it comes to the music program," Mr Erb said. "All the other services have a school, but once you pass the audition you go straight to the band."
In Air Force bands, one band that travels hands off its duties to the next band, and when the band Vectors, which also plays pop-rock, handed off to Mr. Erb's ensemble in May, Mr. Erb got to talking with Vector's pianist Mitch Morton. He found that Mr. Morton, who also plays with the Singing Sergeants, was also from the Pittsburgh area.
It turned out that Mr. Morton, also a senior master sergeant, was from Bethel Park, graduating several years ahead of Mr. Erb.
Another handoff took place in August, with the Celtic-oriented Blue Yonders taking over the duties in playing for troops and in embassies, and somehow he got to talking with vocalist and senior airman Megan Hokaj about the Steelers.
She, too, went to Bethel Park, graduating in 2004.
So the tradition apparently continued after he left.
"I think that's why the program was so strong," Mr. Erb said. "We [wanted] to sound as good as the last band, or better."