There is a sudden moment in "MelaNoMore," a piece composed for concert band by music teacher Steve Lyons, that shifts the mood after a somber, grief-stricken introduction.
A cymbal wash clears the air. As chimes twinkle around the room, the brass re-enters, this time playing a melody that is tender, humble and hopeful.
The St. Louis Park Community Band rehearsed this section inside the Champlin Park High School band room May 1, one week before they were set to perform it in front of an audience. Lyons, conducting from the podium with a baton in hand, signaled the group to stop.
"This isn't a really good time for story time," he said, prompting giggles. "I really want you to understand these last four measures."
He then told his band of the significance of this particular transition. It's the moment, he said, when a doctor at the Mayo Clinic explained the surgery that would remove the lymph nodes containing cancer in his neck.
"This is the 'You're going to be OK' part," he said, before lifting his arms and bringing the band back in.
Lyons was diagnosed with skin cancer two years ago. "MelaNoMore" — a play on "melanoma" — tells his journey since that day, from discovery, to treatment, to remission.
It's not the first time Lyons, 55, has composed or even arranged music. He has taught at Champlin Park High since 1992, the year the school opened. He has adapted songs for marching bands since the mid-80s, and has been actively composing works for other groups in the last few years.
But "MelaNoMore" is the first time he's telling a human story — his own. On Tuesday, the St. Louis Park Community Band and some of his students will perform the piece during a showcase at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.
Lyons — dressed in khaki slacks and sporting a crisp crew cut — embodies the spirit of the high school band director. His arms sway, bounce and cut through the air while he conducts, clear for everyone to see.
Although cognizant of the personal nature of his piece, he said it would be nothing without the musicians in the community band.
"It's incredibly gratifying to have this thought, feeling, idea in your soul and have it come to fruition," he said. "I created ink on paper, and they're the ones that brought the real life to it."
Yet Lyons' band members said that the emotion stemming from the piece is all him.
"He is a melodic soul," said Maria Vogel, a percussionist in the band and one of Lyons' former students. "That's the way that he gets things out and expresses things."
'Music that tells a story'
The year 2016 was momentous for Lyons. He became a grandfather to triplets that January. The next month, his mother died from lung cancer.
Then in March, he asked a doctor to check on a wart behind his right ear, something he hadn't paid much attention to at first. He was diagnosed with melanoma four days later.
Lyons went straight into treatment. He headed to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where doctors removed 32 lymph nodes from his neck and head. He began immunotherapy in June, taking a medicine that boosted his immune system to find and destroy the cancer cells in his body.
The treatment had its side effects, including hives, rashes and a lengthy fever that, combined with his long-term exposure to loud music, led him to wear a hearing aid in his ear. "I always joke with my kids now that I have bionic hearing," he said.
There has been no recurrence of melanoma in his body, he said.
Last summer, Lyons thought about organizing a free "intergenerational" concert at Orchestra Hall that featured the St. Louis Park Community Band, which he has conducted for five years, and the Champlin Park High School Symphonic Band. He would also invite his doctor's daughter's band — seventh-graders from Friedell Middle School in Rochester — to play.
"I think my doctor saved my life," Lyons said. "How do you thank somebody? You take care of their kids."
He pitched the idea for composing a piece about his journey through cancer to the band's board. "As soon as I said 'MelaNoMore,' they were like, 'That's a cool title,' " he said.
He started writing it six weeks ago, finishing up two weekends before the big show.
"I love music that tells a story," Lyons explained. "For 'MelaNoMore,' it was simply, 'What was my experience?' Which was a time-consuming process but kind of easy to write about."
Hope for the future
Last Tuesday night's rehearsal was the first time the Community Band was seeing and performing "MelaNoMore" in full.
The band has been around since the early '70s and is made up of players ages 23 to 95, Lyons said. They've played at Orchestra Hall a handful of times now.
However, this is the first time that Lyons' daughter Corryn, is playing with the band in the venue. It's also the first time she has played one of his pieces.
"The story behind it is definitely pretty personal," she said. "But for me, the biggest thing is that I get to play his music."
"MelaNoMore," as Lyons intended, follows a dramatic story arc.
There is the intro where he learns his diagnosis, the segue where he is reassured of a treatment and the percussive tug-and-pull of recovery. The ending, a trumpet fanfare lead by the guiding timpani, symbolizes a "reality someday when there's … a cure found," Lyons said.
"Or maybe it's just the fanfare of, 'I'm still here,' " he added.
During the rehearsal, he occasionally stopped the group to sprinkle in bits of advice and band humor.
"The goal, again, is to characterize a bunch of physicians in a lab furiously working," Lyons told the band while they practiced the piece's middle section. "The pace is quick, but like a good engineer, they're going to take their time, and be picky, and specific and diligent.
"We're not laying bricks. Or is that a bad analogy?" he asked a French horn player.
"I'm a doctor, not a bricklayer," the player responded, the band erupting in laughter.
They played the piece once in full, with a few stops and starts. At the end, Lyons, smiled, quietly uttering, "Thank you."