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06/01/2022 08:30 AM

Kevin Lam: Banding Together

Musicians in the Region 4 School District are used to working with Guilford’s Kevin Lam, but about 60 new musicians from throughout the community joined him recently to perform “Kyiv, 2022” with the high school musicians at their spring concert.Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier

Kevin Lam conducts bands. But Guilford resident and former restaurateur Kevin, the instrumental music director at Valley Regional High School (VRHS) and group lessons teacher at John Winthrop Middle School in Deep River, had never conducted a band the size of the Ukraine Benefit Ensemble, the group he recently led. The large group performed as a part of the spring concert at the high school.

The Ukraine Benefit Ensemble included some 110 members, ranging in age from middle schoolers to senior citizens. And it was for a cause beyond the simple joy of playing together.

At the concert, Region 4 Music Boosters collected donations for the Voices of Children Foundation, an organization established in 2015 that is now providing psychological assistance for children in the Donbas and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

Even the piece the band played, “Kyiv, 2022,” was about helping Ukraine. Brian Balmages, a well-known wind composer who wrote the new piece, designated funds from sales of the sheet music to go towards Ukrainian relief.

Kevin first heard of the piece at a music festival in Burlington, Connecticut.

“I thought I’ve got to get this and got to have it reach a wider audience,” he recalls.

He thought it might be unusual but appropriate to ask community members who played instruments to join the VRHS band for the performance.

“It’s a great community so I thought, ‘why not ask?’ I would probably get 30 musicians, tops,” he says.

Kevin told students to publicize the idea; he put it on social media but still he did not anticipate the response; first 40 people, then 50, and finally about 60 community members performing “Kyiv, 2022” joined together with the VRHS musicians at the spring concert.

There were so many performers that the group was too big to fit on the high school auditorium stage. Instead, the large ensemble played in the gym.

Kevin has taught at Valley Regional for 11 years. He is a Connecticut native, who grew up in Norwalk and graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in music, a five-year program. His parents, ethnically Chinese, came from Vietnam. Both came to this country as refugees.

Kevin earned a master’s degree in music from the University of Colorado and then came back to Connecticut and began applying for jobs. He interviewed at VRHS.

“I didn’t think I’d have a chance,” he recalls.

An hour or two after the interview, however, he got a call to come in for a teaching demonstration and after a meeting with the superintendent, Kevin had the position.

Teaching music, according to Kevin is about more than notes on a page.

“I’m as much a mentor; it’s not about the fingering for E flat. It’s about teaching life skills, be on time, persevere, practice and apply these skills to life,” he says. “Practice the way you want to perform and give 100 percent. If effort dwindles, that is what will happen when you perform.”

Kevin had two passions in high school, playing the French horn and swimming. He started on the trumpet and then music teacher asked if anyone wanted to switch to horn. Kevin did.

“The rest is history,” he says.

His mother noticed he liked to swim in the pool at the condominium where the family lived and got him into swimming lessons and then a swim club. He was on his high school swim team, with a specialty in the individual medley, where each competitor swims pool laps in four different strokes. He once held the Connecticut high school record for the 200-yard individual medley.

Kevin taught swimming at a country club in summers, a job that helped lead his career decision.

“I liked teaching; I liked music,” he says. “You know growing up a first-generation immigrant, when I said I wanted to be a music teacher, ‘Why not a doctor? ‘Why not an accountant?” he recalls being asked. “I was able to convince my parents a music teacher was okay.”

Kevin and his wife Xianxi Ning, who works in the Yale New Haven Health System, have three children, a five-year-old son and three-year-old twins. When they were looking through name books for their first child, Kevin liked the name Hunter, but thought the combination of Hunter and Lam would not be a good choice. Instead, he and his wife chose the name Hudson. The twins are Eleanor and Nathaniel.

In addition to three small children and a teaching position, Kevin and his extended family, including parents and sister, until very recently ran their own Vietnamese restaurant in Guilford, Vietnoms Café. It closed in April, though Kevin says it had always turned a profit. The problem was demands on his time.

“We did well and had a great customer base, but I was pulling my hair out. The family, teaching, the restaurant. It just got to be too much. We needed to sell it. I feel like a weight has been lifted,” he says.

Now Kevin can at last do something he should have done when he and his wife bought a new house for the growing family.

“I have time to unpack,” he says.

There were three rehearsals for musicians of varying performance skills to come together in the large Ukraine Benefit Ensemble that Kevin has just conducted. Coordinating playing skills, musical experience, and even schedules was a challenge. But the day after the performance, Kevin was enthusiastic.

“It was a great experience,” he says. “I became emotional toward the end of the piece as I reflected on the process we took to get here and the bigger picture of how the Ukrainian people are struggling to save their homes and lives. It was a very powerful moment I will never forget.” Checks, made out to Region 4 Music Boosters, to support the Voices of Children Foundation can be sent to: Region 4 Music Boosters at P.O. Box 76, Ivoryton, CT 06442. Venmo donations can be sent to @Reg4Music.