Bands of America Grand Nationals Semi-Finalist Directors talk with Music for All
We sat down with some of the participating band directors at the 2017 Bands of America Grand National Championships, presented by Yamaha, who generously gave us a few minutes during Saturday’s Semi-Finals for interviews.
During this pinnacle competitive experience, it was striking that these respected band directors pointed to themes of camaraderie, the spirit of sportsmanship, and the life lessons students gain as among the most important aspects of Grand Nationals and competition in general.
It became clear to me that these masterful music educators view Bands of America Championships as a community of competitors; bands they are not competing against, but competing with, sharing a journey and supporting each other.
Here are some thoughts on competition, and student and program growth from some of the 2017 Semi-Finalist band directors.
The arts are our soul, our humanity. We’re providing a place for students in the arts and in a community-based organization.
To come to and participate in the Grand Nationals arena, with all of these groups from all over the country, our students can’t help but get better and think about the ways they can bring their program, their culture, and their musical philosophy to the rest of the country.
We want our students to feel a part of something greater than what they experience in their daily lives as typical teenagers. We want them to feel a part of something greater than themselves, a sense of obligation to team, and a sense of respect for organizational endeavors.
I think of my own high school band director, who literally drove the bus of students to Bands of America events across state lines. He would take us with our little ragtag group of 96 students, and we attended BOA Regionals with all of these beautiful, star- spangled bands that were 10 times our size. Those are the most unforgettable experiences of my life.
There is a uniqueness and a special quality within each of us, that may or may not make us feel different, and may or may not make us feel some sense of isolation at times. In our youth, we might not understand that whatever difference we feel about ourselves is what makes us beautiful and very special. [Our 2017 marching band] program is a narrative about that which makes us unique inside, and bringing that uniqueness to self-acceptance, self-love, and acceptance of others.
People talk a lot about the younger generation as not plugged in and not involved, but I’m here to tell you that band kids across America are striving for excellence and pushing themselves for something that is bigger than themselves. I think that builds character and a teamwork philosophy you really can’t get in any other place.
Marching band – band programs – teach our kids to give all of themselves to their peers and neighbors, to pick someone up when they’re down, to inspire someone else to improve toward greatness, and, first and foremost, to be a first-class person. You can’t be great at music without being a great person. It takes character and it certainly takes desire, and when those things are in place it allows a foundation to train kids to do things they never knew they could ever do.
I can remember vividly when Broken Arrow went to their first Bands of America event. We thought we weren’t prepared and we didn’t think we were good enough. We didn’t think we had the tools and the resources to compete with our peers; but it’s not about the competition. It’s about the experience. It’s about allowing yourself to become vulnerable, and allowing yourself to get great feedback and great instruction from world-class adjudicators in an environment that allows your kids to showcase their talents. That’s how you grow. That’s how you get better. Excellence is something you continue to model yourself after, and if it gets so good something else you know you can improve on, whether it’s as a musician, a visual performer, or as a person.
Bands are improving at a speed that is just mind blowing. You continually have to up your game and continually have to strive for excellence; that’s what the Bands of America event does. It provides an outlet for students to showcase themselves on the grandest stage, show themselves as an artful performer, and challenge band programs to excel to greatness.
The Bands of America events are part of our DNA in the Broken Arrow band program. It’s something that has been a part of our program for decades, and it’s allowed our program a vehicle and an opportunity to showcase kids on the biggest stage in America. It also provides a challenge to the designers, the students, and the teachers to keep reaching for excellence.
[Grand Nationals] is a great place to observe and gather as much information as possible. The first year we came, we followed Broken Arrow in prelims. Our kids finished the show and we hear this great applause. They look up, and it’s the Broken Arrow band, in the stands having just finished having their group photo taken. This is the band that was going to win Grand Nationals that year, and they were applauding for our kids. That changed our band program in an instant. They began to see what things could be like, what it means to be part of a community like this, and what it means to be good and work hard.
I’ve made a lot of friends personally with some of the directors that are here year after year. So I get a chance to ask them, “how do you do this,” and “how did you fix this,” and “how do you approach this sort of thing.” It’s this sort of platform for us to all have spontaneous, professional development.
Competition breeds excellence. As a director, it’s a fine line that you want to walk when it comes to talking about competition versus being the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. We are at an elite competition and you want to perform well and place well, but at the end of the day, it’s about the students knowing that they’ve committed themselves to something that’s greater than themselves. Something they can’t imagine until they’re actually a part of it. At the end of the day, it’s about giving everything they have to give.
It’s about being in the trenches together with their buddies and going to battle together and experiencing those highs and lows. It’s about learning who you are as a person, and learning how to exist, grow, and improve with all sorts of different people.
When it comes to competition, you hope they are recognized and rewarded for all they have done to reach down deep and persevere. But at the end of the day, that’s not what it’s about. It’s what you’ve given. It’s what you’ve received. It’s what you’ve accomplished together because that’s what’s priceless and what – years down the road
– they will remember. They remember the accomplishment, the pride, the success, and the camaraderie. They remember believing in themselves to create something that’s so
awesome and special, and they can take it with them for the rest of their lives.
We’re always striving for that next level. We always have our kids watch other shows, so they can see what other groups do, realize there’s more than one way to do something, and everybody that’s here is very good at what they do. I think sometimes it’s easy to get in your own bubble and not realize what’s going on outside. Coming to a place like Grand Nationals, realizing you might not be the best, and there might be somebody out there that’s better than you, I think, is a good learning experience.
The Bands of America Grand Nationals experience, to me, is all about family. Our kids get to be together on stage. Any time we walk past another band in the parking lot, the kids in the bands high five each other as they pass. All these kids and all these bands support each other. You don’t see that in other competitive arenas where the groups who are competing against you are high-fiving you as you’re going on the field. That’s something I’ve only ever seen with band. I think that’s one of the greatest things that we get to experience here.
I have 210 kids [in marching band]. I’m not creating 210 professional musicians, or 210 band directors, but hopefully we’re creating people who understand and appreciate art and include themselves in that list of artists you know. When they go to the Art Institute, when they go to a concert, when they keep playing their instruments in the community band, they always will consider themselves as artists, whatever their profession.
As band directors, we always have to keep the perspective of thinking about the kids and their experience. Remember the kids on the field are the reason we’re here. It’s really easy to be seduced into trying to be the winning band, or trying to be the band that everybody talks about. None of that really matters, what really matters is the hearts and minds of the kids on the field.
It’s a small fraction of our students that actually go on to teach music. The lessons you can learn from this activity are far bigger than that: the ability to set goals – long, short term, and mid-term goals – and make sure you’re working hard toward those goals.
Time management is crucial for our kids as they’re trying to balance incredible academic workloads along with what we’re expecting of them. The ability to work passionately toward something and create emotion in people as you perform for them are skills you can use throughout life. I love it when I get kids coming back to me five, 10, 15 years from being in the group and talk to me about their life. Very few of them are in music, but all of them are successful. A lot of them attribute that success to lessons they learned in the ensemble, which makes me feel incredible.
[Avon’s 2017 show was designed around Mr. Webb’s “Brick Wall” speech.] The Brick Wall speech is a talk I’ve given for many years, that was given to me when I was marching years and years ago. I’ve passed it along because it’s about teamwork, commitment, dedication to others, and what you commit to and sacrifice. In my teaching career, about 10,000 kids have heard this speech. If 10,000 people would share that message, the world would be a better place. It’s kind of what I’ve always felt like is my job. Everybody wonders where you fit in the world, and I think part of the answer is in these messages of commitment to excellence and dedication to yourself and your teammates.
I first tried to get into Bands of America Grand Nationals in 1995. It was my third year at Avon High School. We were on a waiting list and couldn’t get in. In 1996, we got into the first Grand Nationals for us, and I forget what place we came in – in the 50s somewhere. We were so excited to be part of it, it didn’t matter what place we got, we just wanted to be there and I always built my program like, “Where’s the best competition that we can find?”
We have built our program with these goals: “Let’s stand next to the bands that are out here and be the same as them, proud of them, and be as proud as they are.” It’s been an incredible growth process. Twenty years ago, Avon was a little farm community but it has grown. At the same time, the band has grown, too. (Editor’s note: Avon H.S. is the 2008, 2009, and 2010 Bands of America Grand National Champion.)
Competition allows our kids to benchmark themselves against the best bands in the country. I think if you don’t do that, it’s hard to know, not just how to get there, but where to go. I think our kids seeing these other great high school marching bands helps them realize what they’re capable of, and helps them push themselves to greater levels of achievement.
If there are bands afraid to compete in Bands of America because they think their programs aren’t strong enough, I think one of the ways you get your programs stronger is to educate your kids, your parents, and your community about what other programs are doing. I think the idea that one can only do Bands of America competitions if you think you’re going to be a finalist at Grand Nationals is, perhaps, flawed thinking. Just experiencing a Bands of America event provides all those positive things we already talked about, like the camaraderie that maybe doesn’t exist in other competitions.
Being in Tulsa, we come from an area rich with incredible band programs. It’s great to be a part of a community that kind of pushes each other. One band ups their level, and the others then up theirs.
As a director, after a performance, you look at your phone, and there are a dozen text messages within five minutes congratulating us on our performance, and a lot of those are often coming from our fellow competitors.
It’s just a long haul, and this is why I really believe in the activity. Many kids don’t really want to be involved in long-term projects these days. They’ve got short-term, quick answers on their phone. To get students to invest for three, four, five months in a project to get this far is just incredible; and, it’s hard.
I want students to learn, not only can they receive a life-changing experience, they can pass that onto somebody else. In the long run, we all need to be world changers if this planet is going to be a better place to live.