Olathe & Southwest Joco

Olathe band director shares baton with her mentor

Ask Frontier Trail Middle School band director Sara Smitko who was one of her most influential high school teachers, and she will answer without hesitation: Charles Menghini, her band director at Olathe North High School.

So when Smitko got the opportunity for Menghini to serve as a guest teacher in her class, she jumped at the opportunity.

Menghini, now the president and director of bands at VanderCook College of Music in Chicago, offered to come work with Smitko’s students after he found out her eighth-grade band was chosen to perform at the prestigious Kansas Music Educators Association convention that starts Thursday and runs through Saturday in Wichita.

A casual comment by Menghini on Smitko’s Facebook page led to him flying in from Chicago to listen to her band run through their entire 20-minute program, which they will perform on Friday.

For Smitko, the chance for her former teacher to lend his expertise was a dream come true.

“As a teacher, you’re a mixture of all of the people who have taught you,” Smitko said. “He had a profound impact on me.”

Six music groups from the Olathe school district were chosen through an audition process to perform at the Kansas music educators workshop this year. Three of those six groups are from Frontier Trail. In addition to the band, the men’s choir and women’s choir were chosen from the school.

The Frontier Trail band and choirs were the only middle school groups selected to perform this year.

Now the hard work begins as Smitko races to polish the four songs the 67 members of her eighth-grade band will play in Wichita. And that’s where Menghini comes into the picture.

“We’ve made the cake and frosted it, now he’s here to help decorate it,” Smitko said. “I’m hoping he can take them to the next level and help them to play more confidently.”

The week before the band headed to Wichita, Menghini quietly sat in the front of the room listening to the group while Smitko energetically conducted them. Then, when the performance ended, he got to work offering his pearls of wisdom to the class.

“I’ve got to hear those eighth notes now,” Menghini tells the band.

Menghini and Smitko have come a long way since they were teacher and student during the 1991-1992 school year at Olathe North High School. Smitko was a sophomore flute player in his class. It was a memorable time for Smiko who also met a fellow band member that year who would eventually become her husband.

Smitko moved onto Olathe East High School the following year when the school opened its doors for the first time. But despite her short stint as Menghini’s student, she never forgot the impact he had on her learning.

Over the years, Menghini would inquire about Smitko when he would run into college professors and other band directors that knew her. Having the chance to see Smitko work as a teacher herself has been a gratifying, full-circle moment for Menghini.

“It’s wonderful to watch her and see her growth and watch her students react and respond to her,” Menghini said.

Menghini said that when you are a teacher, one of your greatest hopes is that a student will carry a piece of you into their life. He said he’s humbled by the opportunity to share the classroom with a former student now turned teacher.

“When you teach, the real trophies are your students,” Menghini said. “When you get a chance to watch a student have great success, that’s the real reward.”