On the same sheet of music
CHAMPAIGN — At home and at school, John and Jennifer Currey take a divide and conquer approach.
Married for 18 years with 11-year-old twins, they live in Savoy and work together at Central High — he as director of bands and she as his assistant.
"Pretty much everything we do we know that's a Jen job or a John job," she said Tuesday, two days before school would begin.
At home, she plans and cooks all the meals. He mows the lawn and washes the dishes.
"She's a very good cook. I don't mind doing the dishes," he said.
Wives are going to love this — John also does all the ironing.
"I'm anal about ironing," he said.
"If he has the time to turn on something he's TiVoed, he can iron for hours," she said.
The one thing lacking in their partnership — the typical end-of-day spousal question "Hi, honey, how was your day?"
"We pretty much know the answer to that," John said.
An early start
Their school day begins early — at 4:40 a.m., they get out of bed and while exercising discuss their plans for the day.
John's first to leave home, at 6:30 a.m., to head to the Central High band room to work with jazz band students, starting at 6:50 a.m.
Jennifer's home, feeding her twins, Kathryn and Matthew, and later dropping them off at Edison Middle School — they both play piano and are members of the school bands.
Jennifer meets up with her husband again at Central around 7:45 a.m.
As band director, he does most of the teaching and conducting of the marching band, while she does the organizing, takes attendance and does "groundwork" later with that ensemble.
They split the teaching of the other ensembles, making them basically co-teachers.
Over the course of a day, the couple deals with 450 music students altogether who filter into and out of the small band room.
Each afternoon becomes what John calls a logistical nightmare as the couple prepares for marching band rehearsal at a practice field at Centennial High School.
"At 2:30, the 192 marching band kids file in from the hallway, grab their instruments and get on MTD buses," he said.
Some of the Central senior band members drive themselves to the practice field, further gumming up the works.
John tries to leave 2 minutes before his students so he can set up field markers and do other prep work.
Jennifer remains for a while in the Central band room, on the northwest corner of the Central High building.
"He's the first to go and I'm the last one to leave," she said. "I lock up here and go to Centennial to take attendance."
At the field, she also teaches the Marching Maroons marching techniques and attends to any injuries they might have on the field.
"I hover a lot between the drum line and the majors, correcting timing as issues arrive," she said.
The Curreys get back home around 5 p.m. If John has school-related work, he likes to return to the band room to do it. Jennifer prefers working at home.
"I'm more connected to email and people know that so they email me all the time and they know I will respond," she said.
It all works out.
"I love being the assistant and I wouldn't want his job and he wouldn't want my job," she said.
"It's nice because we can cover for each other," he said.
"We get substitutes when we need them, but it's nice to know that the other can handle certain things," she said.
Though they are together more than most working couples are, the two don't feel as if they spend too much time together.
"I would say we both genuinely love what we do," she said.
They do a lot.
In addition to her band duties at Central, Jennifer is the fine arts content chair at the high school and teaches band at South Side Elementary School, typically four hours a week through the school year.
Overall, work is pretty intense for the two so they always feel ready for spring break and other time off from school.
They try not to schedule anything in July, leaving it open for family vacations. Even then they are sometimes unable to get away because of their twins' activities.
This fall, for the first time, the Central administration provided the Curreys an assistant to help with marching band and concert band: Central choral director Stephen Larson.
"Overall, we get a great deal of support from the Mellon Building and Central admin," Jennifer said. "It really does feel like they value the program and its worth to students and families."
Several students who are drum majors and section leaders also help run the marching band, the biggest of all the Central ensembles.
"We're grateful for the parents and the kids and the community and the way they step forward," John said.
Just then a Central student enters the band room, offering to help sort sheet music.
"I put out an email at 1:20 today," Jennifer explained, "saying any bored band students out there — we need help. Within 6 minutes, we had a band student walking through the door. Four others showed up shortly thereafter."
Parents also offer aid almost immediately. If Jennifer asked for bottled water, a truckload would probably quickly arrive, she said. Once she asked to borrow a folding table. A parent gave her one and told her to keep it.
"If we need something fixed, they'll do it," John said.
"This definitely wouldn't be a success if we didn't have parents' and band members' help," she said.
The parents, in turn, appreciate the Curreys.
"Their lives revolve around this, between marching band in the fall and jazz band in the spring," said G. David Frye, a jazz band parent coordinator.
"I would say there are kids in here that think of Mrs. Currey as a spare mom, sometimes when they don't want a spare mom."
And, Frye said, the Curreys work with "half of what they need on any given day," in terms of instruments and money.
Even so, the Curreys — he's been at Central 17 years and this is her seventh — have built the band program into an award-winning one.
For his work, John received the 2012 Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation Cupcake Award. It recognizes teachers whose exemplary service, extra efforts, enthusiastic attitude and innovative ideas benefit their students.
Other teachers nominate peers for the Cupcake Award.
"Mr. Currey's band program is one of the most robust programs in the whole state of Illinois and serves as a beacon of excellence among all instrumental music programs," wrote the person who nominated John.
"Under his direction, Central High School's instrumental music program has flourished into three talented concert bands, three award-winning jazz bands, three jazz combos, the largest marching band in school history, the largest string orchestra in decades and a crowd-energizing pep band."
Under the Curreys, Central's top Jazz Ensemble has been a finalist three times at the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition and Festival in New York. John's big goal this year is for the Jazz Ensemble to return to Essentially Ellington.
He also took the Jazz Ensemble to the 2007 Next Generation Jazz Festival in Monterey, Calif. And in 2011 and '12, the Jazz Ensemble was one of 12 bands that competed in Swing Central Jazz presented by the Savannah Jazz Festival.
In 2012, Central's Stage Band, the school's second jazz ensemble, was selected to compete at that festival as well, making Central the only school to have two ensembles in the festival.
Nearly every year over the past 16 or so, John and now with his wife have taken the Central Wind Symphony to the Illinois SuperState Concert Band Festival, a showcase for the state's top middle, junior and high school bands.
John, who turned 45 on Saturday, grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and New Jersey. He has a bachelor's degree in saxophone performance and music education from the University of Massachusetts.
He was an award-winning student there and at the University of Illinois, where he obtained his master's in music education.
Jennifer, who's 41, is from Farmington near Peoria. She was an award-winning French horn major in her junior year when the two first met, as players in Tom Birkner's traditional jazz band at the university.
Jennifer Toohill was the only female in the ensemble.
She admitted she planned to scope out the male graduate students who would join.
"I saw him and thought he looked nice," she said. "At first, we didn't like each other very much. Then we started dating six months into the program. He asked me if I wanted to go get a Coke after a Wind Symphony rehearsal."
That was their first date, in February 1994. They married in June 1996, after John followed Jennifer to Maryland, where she obtained a master's degree in music education at the Johns Hopkins University Peabody Conservatory of Music.
It was in Maryland where John started his teaching career 20 years ago, at a "tiny school." He learned a lot but turned down an offer of a job at a bigger school in that state.
Even though public schools out East are well-funded, Midwestern schools tend to have larger band programs, he said. And Jennifer's family lived in the Midwest while his relatives were spread out from Atlanta to New Jersey.
"We were like, 'We're going back to the Midwest,'" he said.