Damon Knepper is described as the “king of calm,” which he says comes from watching his favorite leaders and teachers remain strong in the face of adversity. “Remaining strong doesn’t mean ignoring the problem or brushing it aside, but rather to be the rock for your students so that they have somebody to latch onto in times of crisis,” he explains.
Knepper had to rely on this inner strength when he and his program suffered a tragic lost in April 2021 when his brother, Nicholas, who was a percussion director at Ironwood Ridge High School passed away from complications from epilepsy. “I got through this — the most tragic event I have ever faced — by being authentic and vulnerable with my students,” he says. “During this time of immense grief, I needed them as much as they needed me. If students were sad and wanted to talk, I provided a safe and calm place for them to do so.”
Knepper has been a rock at Ironwood since he completed his student teaching there in spring 2016. During this learning period, he formed relationships with students, parents and other teachers in the department, which made the transition to becoming part of the faculty as a percussion director much easier. He then worked alongside Mark Hodge as associate director bands before taking over the program this year.
“The bands culture was already healthy, but I am a believer in reinventing oneself every so often,” he says. “The biggest changes I made this first year as director of bands was a major rebranding of our music programs with a new logo and push to be more visible in our community because it’s the 20th anniversary of our school. I am only in year one of this process, but it has really reinvigorated my students about being part of something bigger than themselves.”
Knepper has brought a unique creativity to Ironwood. “I arrange and compose much of the perfomed music for my pageantry arts ensembles, including marching band and indoor percussion,” Knepper says. “The collaborative design process is one of my absolute favorite parts of my job!”
Two years ago, the show for the indoor percussion team was based on the life cycle of the agave plant. “The Arizona agave plants’ lifecycle is incredibly beautiful, but sadly, it dies shorty after blooming,” Knepper explains. They performed Bon Iver’s 22 (OVER_s∞∞n), which is about “the fragility of one’s existence and how life could be over at any moment, which resonated with our students and audiences throughout the competitive season,” Knepper says.
He also is on a constant quest to find new sounds for his students. “I am a huge fan of choosing repertoire that exposes my ensembles to extended techniques on their instruments,” he says. “Bowing metallic instruments, muting/muffling surfaces and running live instruments through filters in DAWs [digital audio workstations] are frequent occurrences in my music classroom. I want to expose my students to 21st century technology and how musicians use these tools to enhance their performances. I want my students to be able to not only record themselves, but manipulate sounds to expand their creative sound palettes as artists.”