LONG BEACH — Legends are made in bits and pieces.
Like the time, after a march at Disneyland, when Rolland Sandberg, Wilson High School music director for 24 years, succumbed to the urgings of a group of mischievous students by inhaling a balloon-full of helium. "Band--line up!" he squawked, his usual authoritative voice sounding like Donald Duck's.
Or his reaction to the renegade group of 100 musicians who serenaded his house in full marching regalia at 6 a.m. one Homecoming Day morning.
"Complete with robe and slippers, Mr. Sandberg came sleepily out of his house and just stood there," a student wrote years later in a letter recalling the incident.
The teacher had his revenge later that day when, at the end of a subdued rehearsal, he took out his megaphone and in his most sinister voice ordered those who had participated in the prank to remain in place. Then he gave them candy.
Sandberg got away with such occasional antics for two reasons. He consistently produced musical groups that were among the best in the state. And those he taught generally held him in deep respect and affection.
Some of that was evident at this year's June graduation when, standing in the middle of a field in his last appearance as director on what happened to be his 59th birthday, he was serenaded again--this time by several thousand parents and graduates singing a moving rendition of "Happy Birthday."
There will probably be more serenades Friday evening as more than 300 former students, friends and dignitaries gather for a dinner and dance marking the end of the Sandberg era.
"We think he's touched a lot of lives," said Kathy Clifton, class of 1969, who conceived the party.
Sandberg's part in that history began in 1961 when he succeeded director Nicholas Furjanick. A native of Nebraska whose father was also a music teacher, Sandberg found himself with large shoes to fill. In short order, it became evident that he would do more than just fill them.
Under the new director's tutelage, enrollment in the music program rose from 135 in 1961 to a peak of 325 in the mid-1970s. In 24 years, no Wilson band or orchestra ever received less than the best possible overall rating in a district or regional competition. And in his first year on the job, Sandberg created one of the area's first high school jazz bands.
"He legitimized jazz in the high school curriculum by proving that the same guy could have an award-winning popular music outfit and an award-winning classical music outfit," said former student Randy Kemner, a professional musician and composer.
In the early years, Sandberg said, the district so frowned on jazz in high schools that the jazz coursewas offered under the innocuous title of "instruments." Wilson jazz bands went on to capture several state championships, including one in 1981 that resulted in a widely broadcast performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival. "That was one of the biggest thrills I guess I've had," the director said.
Sandberg was named teacher of the year in 1980 for Long Beach and runner-up statewide.
There are other moments, too, that stand out in his mind as pinnacles. The day in 1974, for instance, that an orchestra under his direction received a 10-minute standing ovation for a performance at the National Music Educators Convention in Anaheim. "That was the highlight," he said later.
In the early 1980s, the mood in the schools began to change, he said, and students became harder to motivate. Home practice became a rarity; private instruction scarce. "I had to spend at least twice as much time to get the groups to play just as well," he said, attributing the demise to a general loss of dedication to artistic values throughout society.
The final factor that pushed him to retire was, however, a physical one. Last fall Sandberg missed three months of school because of a back injury. "I decided there was no way I could (ever again) be out there marching with the band," he said. "And if I couldn't do it all, I didn't want to do just part of it."
He will continue giving private music lessons, judging music festivals and directing the Long Beach City College Community Concert Band.
Taking the reigns at Wilson will be a former student. "My feeling is that I can't replace him," said Steve Fraser, who played cello in a Sandberg orchestra and graduated in 1971. "It's quite an honor."
Former Sandberg students--many of them professional musicians or music educators--seem to be everywhere. One manages a Long Beach music store. Another is a composer and drummer with two solo albums to his credit. A third plays viola in the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.
Some remember Sandberg, especially in his earlier years, as a stern disciplinarian who emphasized the musical fundamentals. "He was very intense and rarely smiled," said Kemner, who graduated in the late 1960s. "In subsequent years when I went back to see him, he loosened up a lot."