When he’s fully immersed in the music, Milford Community Band Director Phil Steinhoff turns into a human corkscrew, twisting and bending as he urges his musicians on. His every movement is designed to communicate: keep in time; shorten the note; or play louder.
The goal is always the same: stay in sync. “Players see me out of their peripheral vision,” says Steinhoff. “My motion is used to show the pulsing of the beat. I do get involved and try to stay into the music.”
Steinhoff, who has directed the MCB since 1998, has been involved in music education in Delaware for nearly four decades. He was born into a musical family and later married into another. His dad was a classically trained opera singer and a choir director in West Chester public schools. Even though Steinhoff grew up in the ‘60s with the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll music, most of his musical influences were classical. He played clarinet and bassoon in high school at Brandywine, where he graduated in 1969.
Steinhoff took a slight detour from music when he attended the University of Delaware. He majored in electrical engineering, but soon changed his major to music education. “Music was my real love,” he said. He played bassoon in the UD Symphonic Band, as well as clarinet in the Blue Hen Marching Band.
While marching, Phil noticed a pretty flutist named Margaret Englehart in the band. They married in 1974. Margaret also came from a musical family. He father, Edwin F. Englehart, was band director in the Caesar Rodney School District for over 38 years. After graduating with a degree in music education, Steinhoff got a job at Dover Air Force Base teaching music in 1974. He earned a master’s in education at Delaware State College.
In 1980, he started playing bassoon in the Dover Symphony and is currently its principal bassoonist and associate director. A year after retiring from teaching, he started a band program at Saint Thomas More Academy in Magnolia. He’s also been the choir director at First Baptist Church of Dover for eight years.
History with MCB
In the mid-1990s, Steinhoff was asked to join the MCB to play clarinet. When the band director left due to health issues in 1998, MCB founder Joe Lear asked him to direct the band on a six-month trial basis. He’s been directing ever since.
“He’s very organized and technically skilled,” said Lear. “He has made the band a more cohesive unit.” The MCB owns Lear Hall in Milford, so they always have a place to practice.
Being a director, Steinhoff has to know the entire piece and know what every musician’s role is - and how that role fits into the whole. “A clarinet player may have only one sheet of music for their part, but I might have 15 sheets to know,” said Steinhoff. “I have to know when the clarinets will begin and get them prepped. A band is a team effort. Everyone has to do their part.”
All you need is love
The main reason Steinhoff loves working with the MCB is because they play for pure pleasure. “Firstly, these are 99 percent amateurs who play because they love to. We have a few professionals but we are mostly amateurs. Secondly, it’s a ton of fun, especially the rehearsals. I’m very proud of them, and it makes my week working with them. The band has come a long way in its musical skills.”
So how good is the MCB? Steinhoff doesn’t like to compare different bands because every band has a different makeup of amateurs and professionals. But in looking at how much the MCB has improved over the years, consider this: Music is graded from 1 to 6, with 1 being the easiest music to play and 6 being the hardest. Grades 5-6 are college level to professional. “We used to play music in the grade level 2. Now we readily play from 3.5 to 4," Steinhoff said.
There are some challenges in working with nonprofessionals also. “We’re at the mercy of everyone’s personal lives. They have other commitments in life and have to fit this in. We may have seven trumpets for one concert and only the for the next due to other commitments. We have to adapt to that," Steinhoff said.
Another challenge is that some of Steinhoff’s musicians are still in middle or high school. But with the challenge come rewards. “It’s a real pleasure working with the kids,” he said. “There are many benefits to playing music at such a young age. I think kids who play music are more outgoing and have more self-confidence. Music allows them to express themselves at a young age. Also, you get to use everything else you are learning at school in your music, particularly math, science and English. That’s why music class is counted the same as other academic classes.”
Steinhoff is proud to have had such talented kids in his band. Many have made all-state band and some have gone on to major in music in college. At Saint Thomas More, where enrollment is about 250, more than 20 students play in the school band, an extremely high percentage. They also just started a marching band.
Of the 80 shows the MCB plays each year, many are at area senior centers, hospitals and assisted living centers. “We enjoy playing for people who don’t get out much. Many come into the audience in wheelchairs and beds. Some can’t speak, but you can see their heads nodding to the music. After the show we go around and talk to them. It’s so good to think you may have brought some enjoyment to their day,” Steinhoff said.
“I hope more people realize the benefit of playing music. I wish more people would pull that old horn from under the bed, dust it off and start playing again.”
The Milford Community Band will perform at Milford’s Bug & Bud Festival at 11 a.m., Saturday, April 26, off North Walnut Street in Milford.