By Dean Westman
Some of the most rewarding musical moments that I have known have come from ensembles that never “won” a contest. Maybe it’s the fact that I enjoy the music much more than the trophy. Maybe it’s because I believe that people are much more important than placement. Maybe it’s that I was born and raised a Chicago Cubs fan, but some of the greatest groups of young musicians that I have been a part of never won a championship. Bands of America is focusing on The Pursuit of Excellence. I would like to take a minute to focus on the word pursuit. For right now, let’s call the Pursuit of Excellence the Journey Towards Excellence. Let’s talk about the journey.
I want you to take a minute to do the math on this. Roughly calculate how much time your band spends on the journey towards excellence. For a Texas high school band like Stephen F. Austin, the math is fairly simple. We are allowed to rehearse eight hours per week. We are given one extra hour before each performance and we spend one hour each day in class time. An average Texas high school band spends 14 hours per week for 15 weeks. That comes to around 210 hours of rehearsal. Now let’s add to that all of those performances that are not competitions. In Texas we call those performances football games. For some of us, it’s the best part of a football game. At SFA, we perform our show at ten football games. A typical performance day for us on a game day lasts about six hours.
We arrive early, we play often, and we are the last ones to leave.
Sound familiar? That takes us up to a total of 270 hours on our journey towards excellence.
Hopefully, all of you spend some time practicing your instrument. Many of you are incredibly dedicated to the pursuit of excellence on your instrument. I have been around students who practice three hours a day. Let’s give a more realistic number. Let’s say that you spend 30 minutes a day practicing your instrument. Do the math on that and you add around another 50 hours. That takes us up to 320 hours working towards excellence. Now remember that this is for a band that is only allowed to rehearse eight hours per week after school. Many of your programs might have a Saturday rehearsal that lasts eight hours. For some of you, your band might spend 700 hours on your journey towards excellence.
Now let’s talk about the amount of time you actually spend competing. The SFA show this past fall was eight minutes long. We attended one Bands of America Regional, BOA Grand Nationals, three levels of UIL Marching Contest, and our district band night. Counting all prelims and finals you get a grand total of 72 minutes competing. We spent 320 hours working towards excellence and one hour and 12 minutes in competition. The bottom line is that my marching band spent less than ½ percent of our total time “competing.” We spent over 99 percent of our total time in the pursuit of excellence!!!
So, what’s the point of our little math project? It’s obvious. We tend to focus on less than ½ percent of the total marching band experience. Can you imagine how rewarding and enjoyable the experience could, should, and would be if we were to really soak up the journey? Doesn’t it make more sense to focus your energy on the over 99 percent of the experience known as the pursuit? The journey is where you forge your lifelong friendships. The journey is where you truly make your memories. I would challenge any of you to take the time to ask a band director who has won the Bands of America Grand National Championship to tell you a story from that year. Ask Greg Bimm from Marian Catholic or Alfred Watkins from Lassiter. Ask Bill Watson about the 1993 season at Spring High School. I can promise you that they will not tell you what place they got in Visual General Effect. I can guarantee you that they won’t talk about the spread between their band and the band that placed 2nd.
They will talk about the journey. They will talk about the wonderful kids that were in the program. They will talk about a rehearsal in the snow or driving rain. They will talk about some funny things that happened at football games along the way. They will talk about how much the members of their programs cared about each other. They will talk about the pursuit of excellence.
This leaves us with the question of “why do we compete?” Personally, I don’t even like to use the word compete. I don’t attend Bands of America events to compete. I attend to perform! I attend because I want my students to have the experience of playing for an incredible audience in a first class facility. I attend because we get positive and constructive feedback from the judges, regardless of what place we finish. In the end, I would like to think that what drives all of us is the thrill that we feel at the end of a performance. Is there a greater feeling in the world than watching an audience stand up and applaud after you have just played your heart out? Isn’t that feeling the real reward? I know 200 students in Sugar Land, Texas who will tell you that the love of performance is the driving force in their lives as high school band members.
Maybe that is why the experience with the Bands of America Rose Parade Honor Band was so very special. We were not there to compete. We were not there to win a trophy. We were there to make new friends and make music! I have been in the competitive arena for almost 15 years, and I tell you that my week with the Rose Parade Honor Band was one of the most positively life-changing experiences that I have ever had. I made so many new friends. I saw a group of over 300 students from all over the country become a family right in front of my eyes. I got to work with the most incredible group of band directors and band members in the world, and in the end we made wonderful music together!
Enjoy the journey my friends. The pursuit of excellence is what it is all about. Instead of getting all caught up in the competition, go out of your way to support every band member from every program that you come in contact with. Don’t be a competitor, be a fan. Instead of creating a post on the forums that predicts who is going to win a regional, create a post that discusses the journey. Share those stories and memories with each other. Being a part of a high school band is something that you will remember for the rest of your life. Enjoy the journey!