Only in Lawrence: Bob Foster has been Lawrence City Band’s face for two decades

Bob Foster looks out to the crowd gathered for the Lawrence City Band concert at South Park on Wednesday, July 8, 2015.

Heading into college, Bob Foster had to choose between playing football and chasing a career in music.

The now 76-year-old south Texas native grew up in a musical household. At an early age, his father, a band director, taught him to play the cornet, and he learned to appreciate a wide range of music.

At the same time, Foster recalled, he was athletically inclined, especially when it came to football.

In the end, the choice came down to a self-assessment of his skills.

“I had choices between football scholarships at second-level schools and music opportunities at major universities,” he said. “And I decided I was a better trumpet player than a football player, and that’s what it came down to.”

Earning a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Texas and a master’s degree in education from the University of Houston, Foster soon began working in the musical world.

Moving around between Texas towns and eventually heading to Gainesville, Fla., to work as band director for the University of Florida, he held a number of jobs before Lawrence flew across his radar.

Though Foster did teach trumpet, he quickly gravitated toward directing. Both his father and “significant” role models in college led him further down that path, he said.

The responsibilities of a band director change with the band they’re directing, Foster explained.

Bob Foster conducts the Lawrence City Band during their concert at South Park on Wednesday, July 8, 2015.

“It depends on the program and the nature of the job. It depends on how much help and assistance they need,” he said. “If you’re working with sixth-graders, you’re teaching them how to hold an instrument, how to hold a note. You’ve got to select the music they’re going to play, then you have to teach it to them and teach them how to play it.”

Early in his career, Foster said, a constant drive to excel and improve kept him moving.

“My first job was (as) a junior high band director, but I wanted to be better than that, so I became a high school band director,” he said. “I wanted to be better than that, so I became a college band director. Then I wanted to be a director of bands where there’s a major school of music in a first-rate university. The University of Kansas was those things.”

David Bushouse, then Kansas University’s French horn professor and interim assistant band director, still recalls Ken Bloomquist’s exit as the university’s band director in 1971 and the search for his replacement.

Applications flew in from around the country, Bushouse said, but one stood out above the rest.

“At the time, (Foster) stood out,” he said. “The fact that he was very successful in the college and high school fields and his connections with the University of Texas and Florida were all great credentials.”

Bob Foster conducts the Lawrence City Band during their concert at South Park on Wednesday, July 8, 2015.

Later that year, Foster was hired and moved his family to Lawrence, quickly adding his touch to the program and expanding the school.

“He certainly put the band on the map,” Bushouse said. “Especially the concert band. They got around the country quite a bit. He got them on some major conferences and they took some good tours.”

Upon Foster’s arrival, KU’s band program consisted of a marching band of around 120 people, a top concert band, second concert band and a basketball band, Foster said.

He soon grew those offerings to include a jazz program and 11 separate bands involving more than 400 students, he said.

“He’s very much interested in people,” Bushouse said. “Whether students or colleagues, he always worked for the best in people. He was personally involved with helping people as much as he could within his position, and he really dedicated himself to the whole program.”

Over his 44-year career at KU, Foster said, he never had a reason to leave the school. There was always something left to improve, always a challenge or a goal to reach.

In May, he finally tendered his resignation at the university, and since then he’s been transitioning into retirement.

But for as long as Foster worked at KU, he’s been a part of the Lawrence City Band for nearly as long, he said.

“I started playing in the band in the trumpet section in 1971,” he said. “And there was a conductor here already, but as he got older and as his health was not good, I started conducting more and more and he got to the point where he couldn’t continue.”

In 1992, Foster took over completely as the director of the city band, which is made of over 50 professional musicians from around the area, he said. Different from the university’s bands, the city band is largely recreational and boasts many seasoned musicians.

Between May and July, the band holds weekly concerts in the William Kelly Bandstand in South Park, 1141 Massachusetts St. Each week Foster is responsible for many of the concert’s logistical details, as well as rehearsing with the band for a mere hour before the weekly concerts, which is what he considers a “bare minimum” amount of time.

“That reflects on the quality of the group,” he said. “They play very hard literature and they do it very very well and with about as little time as needed to do it.”

Having played euphonium in the city band since the early 1980s, and having studied under Foster for his doctorate in 1972, Marion Roberts has been able to see Foster’s career develop over the decades.

Foster’s responsibilities with the city band include arranging music, composing, writing notes, teaching, raising funds and scheduling concerts, Roberts said. Although Foster’s wife, Becky, often helps shoulder some of the duties, he added.

“He’s been the real captain or admiral of our ship,” he said. “Everyone in the band looks up to him because of his experience and his credentials as a teacher.”

Not only is the city band a great recreational activity, but it also represents a significant portion of the town’s history, Foster said.

“(The city band) started when the first settlers got here,” Foster said. “There have been band concerts by the citizens of Lawrence for the citizens of Lawrence ever since there’s been a Lawrence.”

For 23 years, Foster has directed the city band, sharing his talent and leaving his mark, Roberts said. And while some of the pieces performed by the group were composed by musical giants like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky or John Philip Sousa, others were crafted by Foster himself.

“Bob really is an incredible composer,” Roberts said. “Many of the works we perform on the stand are arranged by or composed by Bob Foster.”

Continuing further into his retirement, Foster said the city band’s concert this Wednesday, the last of the summer, will be his last as director.

Likening his exit to an athlete who can no longer perform at a top level and chooses to step down, Foster said he’s sure he’ll miss both the university and the city band, but he’s looking forward to enjoying future concerts as a member of the audience rather than a participant.

The city band’s Grand Finale concert and Foster’s last as director will begin at 8 p.m. Wednesday at South Park. The event is free and open to the public.