David Leach’s passion for music education shines through his decades-long career
When Jason Towler was about to enter his freshman year of high school, his self-confidence was at an all-time low and he battled overwhelming depression. His first real high school experience was at band camp that summer, and it became a turning point he wasn’t expecting.
As he walked onto the field, he heard “Towler!” from the band tower, and was shocked to hear Band Director David Leach calling out to him. Out of 200 people out there, Leach somehow remembered his name.
“This simple act set in motion a journey of self-discovery, growing confidence, and the formation of a personality that I carry with me to this day,” says Towler, who is now a Special Education Teacher Consultant in the Detroit area. “I learned to be unapologetically me, all thanks to Leach’s continuous support, not just in music but in life. He showed me that he genuinely cared.”
In David Leach’s office in the music wing at Pioneer High School, walls are lined with some of the accolades he’s collected as Director of Bands for both the Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor school districts.
And as he prepares to retire at the end of the school year, he looks back on the awards with pride. But the accolades aren’t what he feels best about, and it’s not what he’ll miss most.
“The opportunities that I’ve had to see the places that I’ve had to go the professionals that I’ve had the chance to meet and conduct and work with, I mean, those are massive,” he says. “But it all starts ll starts with the center of who we are as human beings and that’s trying to teach other human beings how to be good human beings.”
“It really is all about relationship-building.”
“David Leach is often celebrated as an outstanding band teacher with countless accolades, but what many fail to realize is that his greatest achievement lies in the thousands of young lives he has profoundly transformed. His influence on me led me to become a special education teacher, dedicated to supporting students who, like me, needed someone to care. I now live my life as a teacher who cares deeply, thanks to the example he set.” Jason Towler
After 35 dedicated years as a high school band director, David Leach is retiring at the end of this school year. Leach has inspired generations of students with his passion for music education and community building during his tenure at Pioneer High School and Ypsilanti High School for the 15 years before that.
Leach, who turns 60 in March, is an Ann Arbor native who attended Northside Elementary, Clague Middle School, and Huron High, from which he graduated in 1982.
Career began at Ypsilanti High School
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from Eastern Michigan University in 1987 and began teaching band in Ypsilanti the next year. For the next 15 years, he built up the instrumental music program, directing marching band, jazz band, pep band, and more. He completed his master’s degree in 1995.
In Ypsilanti, Leach prioritized giving students agency and a voice in shaping the program.
“You need to have a voice so be a voice as part of it,” he says.
He also credits the strong Ypsilanti parent community for their robust support, noting: “The best blue-collar people in the world are in Ypsilanti and the community is incredibly supportive.”
Leach says he never would have left Ypsilanti Schools, but In 2002, Leach became the band director at Pioneer High School with the encouragement of his former elementary school teacher and mentor, Robert Allbritten.
“When your mentor asks if you’d be interested in taking one of the most highly profiled jobs in the country, you don’t say no,” Leach explains.
So many accolades
Under his leadership, the performing arts department became nationally recognized. His Concert and Jazz Bands have received consistent top ratings at district, state, and national festivals. His Symphony, Concert, and Jazz Bands have won overall festival championships at every national event entered.
Under his direction, the Pioneer Symphony Band has performed four times at Carnegie Hall, twice at the Mid-Europe Music Conference in Schladming, Austria, and performed on tour in China. In 2014 and 2016 the Pioneer Symphony was selected as a New Music National Winner in the Mark of Excellence National Wind Band Honors project.
Leach stepped down as Performing Arts Chair in 2021 after serving in that role for 15 years.
His resume of involvement in professional organizations is also extensive. Throughout his career, Leach has remained actively involved in the American School Band Directors Association and has held numerous leadership positions in the Michigan School Band & Orchestra Association. And he spent eight years as the artistic director and conductor of the Summer Music Festival Winds in Canada.
Leach lends his talents to community groups as well. He currently conducts the Ann Arbor Concert Band, providing an outlet for local musicians. He is responsible for all aspects of programming, rehearsing, and conducting these instrumentalists to perform concerts at the historic Michigan Theater.
Beyond Pioneer, Leach has lectured at Eastern Michigan University and the University of Michigan. He supervised dozens of student teachers, helping prepare the next generation of band directors. For years, he also conducted sectionals for the University of Michigan Youth Symphony Orchestra. Leach has served as the winds and percussion coach for the Michigan Youth Symphony Orchestra for over 12 years.
The honors go on and on. Leach has been included five times in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. The University of Michigan chapter of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia Fraternity honored him in 2000 with the Pendleton Memorial Award for outstanding achievement in music education. He has been nominated four times for Disney’s American Teacher Award and has received honors from the United States Marine Corps for sending his students to the Marine bands, including two to the Commandant’s Own Marine Band in Washington, D.C.
Leach was named the 2006, 2010, and 2022 MSBOA District XII Band Teacher of the Year, and in 2014, 2017, and 2022 was a GRAMMY Museum’s Music Educator of the Year quarter-finalist. In 2015, School Band and Orchestra Magazine named Leach one of the “50 Directors Who Make A Difference”.
In 2016 the Michigan Chapter of the ASBDA presented Pioneer High School Bands the Award of Excellence award for its continued commitment to excellence.
The Pioneer High School Music Department has earned GRAMMY Signature School honors during Leach’s tenure there. In 2004, 2005, 2010, and 2015 the department achieved GRAMMY Signature School Gold status as one of the top two public high school music programs in the nation.
In 2006 and 2011 the Pioneer Music Department was named the National GRAMMY Signature School as the top public high school music program in the nation, making it the first program ever honored twice by the GRAMMY Foundation.
All about community
AAPS’ Director of Fine Arts/Special Areas Robin Bailey says Leach since 2002 has upheld the long tradition of quality and repertoire in the Pioneer Bands, searching for and performing diverse music from around the globe.
“David builds community in his band program and often receives emails from his former students and their parents about how their experience in his band program has set them up for success in whatever field they choose to pursue,” says Bailey. ” If you happen to walk past the band room at lunchtime, you will find various students having lunch, connecting with their band friends and Mr. Leach.”
“I am grateful I have had the privilege of working alongside David in my role as the Fine Arts Director for the past 16 years and consider him one of the best colleagues and friends I’ve ever known.”
Over the past 22 years at Pioneer, Leach has continued imparting core values to students through music education.
“I use music to teach discipline, integrity, follow-through,” he says. “There’s no more microcosm of the world than music because in order for anything to work together, we all have to work together. For that sound, we all have to do our part equally at the same time together with the same common ending.”
Even when students strayed, Leach says he disciplined them with care: “I always made sure I took care of them and showed them that humans make mistakes and let’s forgive, forget and move on.”
Alexandra Bourdeau was a member of Leach’s third graduating class during his tenure at Pioneer and can relate to that “discipline with care” philosophy.
“Mr. Leach not only taught me how to march in a band, or play in a symphonic concert band, he taught kids how to live a life where you believe you deserve good things, and that you hold the power to improve your own situation,” said Bourdeau, a middle school Resource Room teacher at A2 STEAM. “When I had made some poor choices, one of which was skipping his class one time, he was the teacher that pulled me aside and spoke to me directly about not only how I shouldn’t be skipping, but that I was needed by the band and had let people down. He held me accountable—and in the best way—by showing me I belonged somewhere and that I mattered. This is the center of my teaching practice today: the belief that every child matters and it’s a huge part of our job to be a clear-eyed person who reflects our students’ light.”
Bourdeau met with many other alumni who gathered to honor Leach by marching one last time in the homecoming parade last month, where Leach was honored for his many years of Pioneer band leadership.
This is the fourth year Associate Director of Bands Erin Lilliefors has worked directly with Leach, whom she says leads with empathy.
“He’s one of the nicest people in the world; he’s very kind,” Lilliefors says. “I think a lot of people are intimidated by him because he goes very fast, he’s very direct and he knows what he wants. That shows in the way that he teaches and it shows in the way he works with others. He’s one of the most empathetic and kind people in the whole world, and I know that about him because I’ve been working with him for years, and I absolutely have loved working with him.”
“He’s one of those people who is first to notice if something is wrong with a kid when they need help; when they need emotional support; when they need anything that is beyond with we do with the band.”
Lilliefors recalls a freshman who was “scared to death” of him, noting: “She would walk on the other side of the hall when he’d be walking by to avoid him.”
Three years later, Lilliefors and Leach were in the office when the same girl walked in looking very upset.
When Leach asked her what was wrong, she said: “My boyfriend just broke up with me! Can you please talk with me?”
“With Dave, it’s students first,” Lilliefors says. “The first thing we take care of is their health and safety. We have a great program, and our success is due to that philosophy. It’s always health and safety of the students first, and making sure they’re OK. From there, the program takes care of itself.”
“I’m going to miss working with him a ton.”
Pioneer Director of Choirs Steve Lorenz says he appreciates Leach’s tremendous pride in the history of excellence within the Pioneer music department.
“David takes great joy in celebrating the successes of alumni and faculty who came before, and consistently uplifts the current students and faculty to maintain and build upon the tradition of excellence,” says Lorenz.
Sophomore Tova Weiss says Leach’s teaching style is unique.
“I like the way he’s more personable with the students and really fun,” she says. “He’s tough, but in a way that I love. Personally, I’d much prefer a teacher who’s going to be friendly but also yell at you than a teacher who’s going to give you side eyes like you did that wrong, but I’m not going to tell you.”
“When he announced that he was going to leave, the entire band basically burst into tears. I know a lot of my friends spent the day crying off and on.”
Teaching through the decades
How has teaching changed over the years? According to Leach, the core challenges remain the same, even as the tools and contexts shift. While the perceived laziness of students is a constant refrain, today’s youth face new pressures from social media and constant connectivity, he says, noting that digital traces create new social anxieties.
“My kids are facing challenges that I never faced,” he says. “I don’t have to review online every day that I wore the wrong outfit or that I look fat in stripes, and then on every anniversary, that wrong outfit shows up on my Facebook posts.”
Leach tries to set expectations around phone use, though consistency is a challenge. Ultimately, he aims to help students navigate between their digital and real-world lives, and says having children of his own—Marisa, 25, and Tyler, 28—have helped him figure out how to do that.
AAPS music program benefits from the University Musical Society
For decades, Ann Arbor’s music program has been the flagship music program in the state.
“Music has been a priority in our public schools long before any of us got here,” he said, noting that every fifth grader in the district chooses an instrument to learn.
He credits proximity to the University of Michigan and the “ferociously generous” University Musical Society for added perks, including the fact that AAPS kids are exposed to visiting top orchestras and jazz groups, and meet celebrated musicians. Between the festivals and touring theater troupes, Ann Arbor students are exposed to amazing arts and culture right at home, he says.
“You look at what our kids have the opportunities to learn and see,” he said. The Royal Shakespeare Company comes to London, New York City, Los Angeles, and Ann Arbor.”
He says that performing around the world has been worth the effort if only to show the world a look at American teens they might not expect.
Perhaps the most exciting event of his career was performing “Stars and Stripes Forever” at the Great Wall of China.
“That was a miraculous moment that may never happen again based on the relationship between our two countries right now,” he said. “But to be on that space, surrounded by those people clapping to the “Stars and Stripes Forever” was pretty phenomenal.”
Another highlight: Performing that same song at the first national GRAMMY Signature School concert at a Hill Auditorium filled with proud band and orchestra families, when the entire audience erupted with pride, knowing what the award meant to them, the greater Ann Arbor community, and the state of Michigan.
Benefits of music education
According to Leach, music is like a “secondary language” for developing minds. Recent studies support this view. Gavin Bidelman is a former Band student of Leach’s who is now a neuroscientist. He has published research on the effects of musical training and found that musicians tend to be better at learning foreign languages compared to non-musicians. He theorizes that musical training enhances auditory processing abilities that are useful for decoding language.
Leach’s experienced perspective adds further weight to a growing body of scientific evidence from the World Health Organization and others highlighting the far-reaching academic and cognitive advantages of musical engagement. Beyond language skills, music education has been linked to improved cognitive abilities in areas like reading and information retention.
Jason Towler says that Leach introduced him to the beauty of music in all its genres and granted him opportunities to explore the world through hard work.
“He had a unique way of motivating us, striking a balance between the fear of disappointing him and the assurance of his genuine care, which pushed us to give our all,” he says. “He taught us the value of hard work, a lesson that has stuck with me throughout life.”
“I am just one of the many students whose life was forever changed by Leach,” says Towler. “He didn’t just teach us to lead successful lives; he taught us to lead happy lives. He is not just an extraordinary teacher; he is an extraordinary human being. I can only hope that my son is fortunate enough to encounter a teacher like him, but I know that he will always carry the small yet profound life lessons that Leach imparted to me every day.”
As he looks back on his career, Leach credits the many mentors who shaped him, naming Roger Lund (Clague Band); Hunter March (Clague Choir); John L. Whitwell (Huron Band Director); Ruth Datz (Huron Choir Director); Richard Ingram (Huron Choir Assistant and eventually Director and Huron High School Department Chair prior to his retirement).
Now, Leach prepares to pass the baton to a new generation of band directors, while leaving a lasting legacy in the many lives he has touched through his commitment to community and the transformative power of music.
Retirement: not leaving town
He and his wife, Mary, a first grade teacher in Dexter Public Schools, live on an acre in northwest Ann Arbor. Though he will miss the daily interactions with students, Leach is looking forward to new opportunities in retirement. He will continue teaching Japanese jujitsu, teaching at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in the summer, cooking, working out, and traveling with his wife—without a band along for a change.
“I’ve lined up things that I’m doing in retirement so I’m not just sitting at home looking for something to do,” Leach explained. “I’m not leaving. I was born and raised here and love this town. It’s my favorite place to hang out.”
While he has plenty of plans, Leach will deeply miss watching his students grow over their four years at Pioneer. Leach cherished being a mentor students could confide in during their transition to adulthood and is grateful that many former students still keep in touch years later.
“I am luckier than most because I am a teacher!” he says. “The relationships that I have with my students pay dividends well beyond our years together in the classroom, on the concert hall, or the marching field. When we reconnect—whether as Band Camp counselors or just dropping by—I learn about all the incredible things they have done post-high school graduation, and the amazing adults they have become.”