Saturday , 26 May 2018

Evans Middle School Beginning Band Starts Musical Journey

Submitted by TSB Community

I kept at it for 30 minutes each day for eight weeks and had the piece down pat.  No music needed.  It was so good that I could play the piece  twice as fast against my metronome as required by my band director.  After all this was “When The Saints Go Marching In”.  For the clarinet this is one of the great pieces of music, religious beliefs aside.  I worked hard over the 2nd chair part and knew I would be able to lead my group. 

Come competition day I blew through that piece, clear and strong for ¾ of the measures.  Then the  mouse hiding in my clarinet found daylight and the most gut wrenching set of squeaks that you’ve ever heard screeched across the band, slamming into the judges so hard three of the five “professionals” jerked their heads up.   Two full measures of mostly squeaks careened off the judges and strangled every spectator in the auditorium.  My life came crashing down around me.  My confidence, which I immediately realized was cockiness, evaporated like a vapor in the wind.  I wasn’t able to play the remainder of the piece in time.  Totally defeated by my own arrogance  I finished the final six and one half measures by “air tonguing”.   For the non music student that means I faked it.  The fingers moved but no air went from my lungs through the reed into that mellow 1940s wooden instrument and out the bell.   As I would find out a day later when listening to a tape my grandfather had made from the third row I was also almost 1 full measure ahead of the band from about the 10th measure in.  As our kids would say today, “Fail!  Total Fail!”  The Black Butte Union Elementary School Concert Band did not fare well that day in May of 1976.  To say the least, I was not exactly a popular person on the long bus ride home up the mountain.

This very vivid memory is seared into even my unconscious mind such that  I can recall it in full and exacting detail at a moment’s notice 36 years post event.  So many lessons have been drawn from the experience over the years and yet one sheer fact is unchangeable and inescapable.  This was my very first competition concert as a 5th grade band student. 

Recently,  I had the opportunity to follow the Evans Middle School Beginning Band to Coppell for the Sandy Lake Fun Fest.  Here they would compete with bands from all over the region.   I truly wondered what the differences would be since my days in elementary/middle school.  I also wondered what memories each student and this experience would create today?

Led by Head Band Director Lisa Smith, the Panther Beginning Band, comprised of only 6th graders, was 163 strong this year.  By contrast my entire concert band using 5th through 8th grade students barely topped 90.  What a huge difference.  Evans is the largest Middle School Band in the MISD and Smith is assisted by Mr. James Rees.  Yet as big as the program is I was surprised to learn that Evans lacks the critical third director that my small school and most ISD bands of similar size in Texas utilize.  While an additional director would most certainly be a welcome addition in the future, Smith and Rees are glad to have the assistance of Directors from both McKinney and McKinney Boyd where Evans students filter to high School.  John Wilmarth, Percussion director at McKinney High, assists in the same fashion at Evans.   Jason Myers, functions like a pivotal 6th man in basketball, providing critical part time assistance while maintaining a full teaching schedule at MBHS which includes Band and the JV/Varsity Color/Winterguards.  MBHS Director Nunez has arranged for seminars, while both Director Ken Ringel and Assistant Director Marcus Hunley of MHS have paid visits and assisted the Panther Band as well.

There have been tremendous advances in the instruments.  Teaching methods have improved as well in the last 35 plus years.  However, the new Panther members will tell you that they hardly ever play together as a band.  My curiosity now deepened.  I couldn’t imagine the difficulty of teaching so many beginning students and bringing them together as a band.  Smith explained that having the band in “Sectionals” which means like instruments learning same or similar parts by themselves, is actually the key to quick and sure learning.  “The sectionals allow the students to focus on the fundamentals of their instrument including good sound production, note reading, rhythmic reading, and technique” , noted Smith.  So confident in this method of focused, singular instruction are Smith and Rees that the band didn’t practice their Sandy Lake competition music as a full band until two weeks prior to the competition.

So which band room does a 163 piece band come together and practice in?  Try the gymnasium for size.  That first “gym practice” is often an ”A ha or so cool!” moment when singular sounds become true music for the first time.  Here they learn to listen, understand parts and begin fitting melodies, harmonies, rhythms and timing together with the goal of one broad sound that takes the listener on a journey. 

How would all this work at Sandy Lake?  As I watched the band disembark from their buses I noted that even with all the changes in 36+ years  some things thankfully do not change.  I still noticed those sweaty hands that almost dropped a flute, the one student breathing a little too quickly but not yet close to hyperventilating.  Nobody could miss the Tuba haulers, sweating with their instruments(wait til’ they get to carry a Sousaphone in high school). The woodwinds were there with those characteristic reeds protruding in various degrees from their lips.  And of course there were the  multitude of perpetual drummers.  Drumming on everything and everyone.  They were all accompanied by the nervous and chatty band parents.  And there right up front encouraging the Evans band to “Rip it Up!” was one of those “overly blessed with energy” Band Directors.  As the band moved away from the buses and toward their practice area I forced my own bad memory back down, said a quick prayer that nobody in any band would have such an experience and settled in behind the Panther “Parent Train”, listening, observing and experiencing this new “First Time” event from a different perspective.

Middle School/Junior High Students in and outside of the Dallas area have been traveling to Sandy Lake to compete for almost 50 years.  2012 has seen more participants and spectators than any previous year with students, parents, judges and onlookers from four different states making the trip.

Smith has been bringing her new Panthers to Sandy Lake for the past eight years.  I wondered if this was a “Capstone” or proving grounds of sorts for these students.  Smith was polite to point out that this is more about a well deserved celebration and “afternoon off”.  Said Smith, “The students work very hard throughout the year.  At Sandy Lake they are able to compete in a low stress environment and the park is smaller than Six Flags so they have a safe place to have fun after their performance”. 

And compete they did.  The Panther band was even and balanced through both of their competition pieces.  While there were a few characteristic squeaks and a miss here and there on rhythm or horn,  listeners heard all instruments.  The Panther band produced a rich and thick sound.  Toward the middle of their second piece I did find myself traveling somewhere through an urban jungle.  Truly impressive.  I was brought back to Sandy Lake and the present by my photographer wife, also covering this event, making the motion for me to close my jaw as it was hanging open.  I can say honestly that the Panther Beginning band lived up to the school motto and “Ripped it up!”

The judging cadre that day, most with PhDs behind their names, felt the same.  The Panther band was awarded a 1 for superior performance.  When competition was completed they also walked away with the tallest trophy on the stand for the most outstanding band in competition.  For anyone questioning methods I would say the “New Panthers” vindicated their Directors quite well.  Vindication however was never in the picture.  This is not a program about the Directors but rather the students. 

For Smith and Rees this year in band is often one of the most rewarding.  It is a year of firsts.  The opening of an instrument case, first sounds and accomplishments.  To be certain the “New Panthers” have accomplished a lot this year and deserve to be proud of themselves.  Smith and Rees will typically see an average retention rate of 75% of these students into the 7th grade year.  To see that many students continue the joy of the journey in music is a great reward. 

Congratulations new Panthers on a great beginning to your journey.  May the road be long and sweet sounding.

Post Note –

Since the interview with Director Smith, changes are underway within the MISD which will bring a third full time Band Director to Evans.  Stay tuned.

Also a big thank you to the select Evans and MHS Bands students who proofed this article and made it very plain to me that as far as those Band Directors who are “overly blessed with energy” go?   There is only one  Mr. Rees!

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