Winning national awards is becoming something of an annual ritual for the Cockrill Middle School Honors Band. But, when former band members show up talking about a “bassoon legacy” and want to mentor this year’s players, you know the culture you’re building for your band program is headed in the right direction.
It’s one of the reasons Director Gary Williams gets a bit of a catch in his throat when he talks about his 7th and 8th grade Honors Band students.
“I might get choked up,” he laughs. And he does, a little.
“Last year, we worked hard. We enjoyed the journey, and it was so much fun. I almost wasn’t ready to come back this year because I wasn’t ready to let that band go away yet. I wanted to savor every minute of it. But as it turns out, this band is doing even better,” Williams says gesturing toward the students warming up in the band hall just outside his office.
Director Gary Williams and the Cockrill Middle School Honors Band
“Doing even better” is a tall order. Last year’s Cockrill Honors Band was recently named a National Winner in the Mark of Excellence National Wind Band Honors Contest for the work they submitted last spring. They stand as one of only 19 bands from across the country in their classification to receive such recognition.
As if that weren’t accomplishment enough, the same group of 7th and 8th grade musicians also qualified as a 2015 Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) State Honor Band Finalist last spring. To put that in perspective—there were about 250 CCC classified middle schools across the state last year. Cockrill finished tenth.
“We were very happy with tenth,” says Williams. “The cool thing about it is we never sat there one time and listened to our recording and were embarrassed by it. We were smiling because it was so good. We didn’t need numbers to tell us otherwise. The kids inside the four walls in the band hall knew it was a good year, and so did we [directors]. We want to celebrate our successes, and we don’t ever feel bad when somebody else is better than us. It inspires us. It challenges us. If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you,” Williams says.
As he talks, the insistent plinking of a metronome filters through the wall of his office accompanied by a wild bombardment of seemingly random notes. His students are practicing a myriad of musical pieces and parts, working individually and in pairs and in sections until they get it right.
And this speaks to the remarkable culture of the Cockrill band.
They’re here on their lunch time, having skipped the cafeteria in exchange for a quick meal and a few minutes of extra practice in the band hall.
The band hall is where they want to be, and you’ll find them here before, during and after school.
“It’s really amazing how much people care about this,” says Sam McWhirter, an 8th grade clarinet player and a member of that award-winning 2014–2015 Honors Band. “I’ve been part of many after-school clubs and athletic activities where the kids enjoyed it, but it wasn’t something that they took this much pride in and that they really cared much about. I really like the way people come up here all the time to practice, and how it’s so important to people.”
“We spend a lot of time together, and we get along,” says 8th grade alto saxophone player Carley Allen. “We have the same interests. We all kind of stick together and help each other out. It’s like we’re a team.”
Cockrill Middle School Honors Band members rehearse new material.
That stick-together attitude, that culture of support and sense of legacy has been influenced and fostered by Williams and his team which includes Assistant Band Directors Kenneth Moses and Matt Harp—but it has flourished because of the students themselves.
When Allen was a 7th grader, new to the band and nervous about possibly making a mistake, she found herself surrounded by supportive peers. “Last year, there were definitely nerves on the first day that we played,” she says, “but everybody kind of makes you feel welcome.”
She learned quickly that in the Cockrill band mistakes are welcomed as learning opportunities.
“There were a lot of people in our section that would pull us over and help us with anything that we were having trouble with. And, then there were also leaders in the band that weren’t exactly in our section, but they would help us,” Allen says.
Now it’s McWhirter and Allen’s turn to build into the younger band members. “The legacy that the 8th graders left last year really made us want to be here more,” says McWhirter. “And, now we’re trying to bring those 7th graders into that so that it carries through.”
Williams seems truly gratified when he talks about the way his students work and encourage each other and the younger students. Some serve as aides and mentor the 6th grade beginner band students. Former students will drop by after school and spend several hours working with the younger musicians. “Mr. Williams, can I help? Because I know how important the bassoon legacy is at Cockrill.” Over and over, Williams’ students are finding ways to pour into the program and each other.
Cockrill Middle School band members have built a positive, supportive culture that lends itself to great success — and a lot of laughter.
“I’ve got one kid in there who bought Jolly Ranchers, and when a kid does well, he just sneaks a Jolly Rancher to them to say, ‘You played really well. That note was awesome!'” says Williams.
That kind of enthusiasm is contagious and makes for a good time in the midst of the hard work. “This band is super fun because everyone is always there for each other,” says Sophia Giacchino, an 8th grade bass trombone player. “When you play something really cool, you look over at your friends, and they’re like, ‘Yeah! That was so cool!’ So, it’s really fun.”
“They know they’re on the same team,” says Williams. “The big thing is that the kids just challenge each other. We cultivate that culture where they just constantly push each other. It’s not unlike a sports team.” And like any sport, it feels good to win.
But, Williams is quick to impress upon his students that the most important part of band is them, the musicians. “Trophies collect dust, but the students and the memories are pretty awesome,” he says.
With her alto sax resting in the crook of her elbow, Carley Allen attempts to summarize the Cockrill experience. “Cockrill Honors Band is a family that works together, works hard—and will get anythingdone.”
Well said, Carley.
And, it’s a safe bet that when next year rolls around, there will be more accolades for this band of hard-working young musicians. And that the bassoons will sound great.
McKinney Independent School District Press Release