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Houston High School Band: A place where people want to be

Mike Lawson • Archives • March 9, 2012

By Eliahu Sussman

“The best part of doing what I do is practically everything,” confesses Jim Smith, the director of bands at Germantown, Tennessee’s Houston High School. Recently named his high school, county, and state regional “Teacher of the Year,” Smith runs an instrumental music program of about 260 students. Budding musicians at Houston High School have no shortage of musical opportunities, which include marching band, three wind bands, drum line and percussion ensembles, winter guard, and a jazz band. Remarkably, most of these groups meet during the school day.

The big numbers don’t stop at enrollment or quantity of ensembles. For example, Smith had 61 students participate in the West Tennessee All-District Band this year, 12 students in the All-State Band or Orchestra, and the school has earned 21 straight years of superior ratings at the West Tennessee Concert Festival, spanning Smith’s entire tenure at Houston High School. And this is in addition to an array of festival championships, awards, and other notable performances.

In a recent conversation with SBO, Jim Smith talks about what it takes to grow a music program, create a positive community, and meet the challenges facings the arts and music in schools today.

School Band & Orchestra: Let’s start by talking about your program.  What are some of the highlights of the Houston High School Band?

Jim Smith: We have about 260 unique kids in the music program. Everyone in the band program participates in the marching band by default, partly because the marching band pays the bills. People donate money for a marching band, but rarely donate money for a wind ensemble. We have active indoor and drum line programs that participate in WGI events – the drum line has been a world championship finalist four times. We have three concert ensembles that the kids audition for, and we have a jazz program. There are many programs of this size that have multiple band directors, but we have about one and a third. Still, between us, we’ve scheduled band so that we have unique classes for percussion, color guard, wind ensemble, and the jazz band.

SBO: All curricular classes that meet during the school day?

JS: Yes, those are all in the school day, but all of that has its own unique afterschool rehearsal time, too. One of the great things about having your percussion group during the school day is that you don’t have to force them to sit through the wind ensemble rehearsals all the time. They have to learn their wind ensemble parts after school, but that’s so much better. I was a drummer, and I know it was torture to sit there quietly while the band director would spend 35 out of the 40 minutes working out the wind line and you’re just back there trying not to get in trouble. Criminality has gone way down since we put the percussionists in their own class. [laughs]

SBO: What did it take to convince administration to make so many of these classes and ensembles curricular?

JS: This won’t help anyone else in the whole country, but that happened because the principal here who is now the superintendent of schools in the county is a good friend of mine and, more importantly, he is also a musician. He was a basketball coach – often how you get the job of being principal is from being a successful coach – but he’s also a fine singer and a fine musician and he understood the importance of what I was trying to make happen. I played sports, too, so we had some common ground. We were able to convince him that band did so much to add to attendance rates, that the smarter students seemed to want to be in band, the ones who were more academically successful wanted to be in band, and if we could just make the band program bigger, its successes would benefit the whole school and more kids would be successful academically. I convinced him that to make it more successful academically, we needed to eliminate the need to do everything after school and start doing more within the school day.

Scheduling is a problem for us, just like everyone else, but now that we can have band be a priority in the scheduling system, we can have some of the other classes work around our schedule. That has a lot to do with how successful the band program has been here.

SBO: So you sold the administration on growing the band program with the idea that it would improve the entire school?

JS: Yes, we were kind of the guinea pig on that in the county. We have seven fairly large high schools and we were the first to make any changes. The first thing we did was pull the percussion out separately. Prior to that, there were one or two band classes during the day when you taught everyone together, and the rest of the time you taught general music. When we pulled percussion separately, that aspect of the program grew and we started competing in WGI and traveling around the country. And then, of course, everyone else in the county wanted to do what we were doing. And then we pulled the guard people separately and set up a dance curriculum. That got to be successful – we were semifinalists at WGI in Dayton a couple of times – and then everyone else in the county wanted to do that.

When I first got here, 22 years ago, the program only had 48 kids in it. It started to grow and we had more kids gaining interest because there was more to do than just come in once a day and play in the same old concert ensemble. At 48, we weren’t the smallest band in the county; but now, at 260 or so on the marching field, we’re the largest band in the county.

SBO: Do you think it has played out as everyone was hoping?

JS: It has so far. Band is such an old fashioned activity, in some ways. I’m not trying to sell band short, but if you ask the average 16-year-old to list the 10 coolest things they could think of, band wouldn’t be on the list. When I started teaching, 25 or 30 years ago, wearing a band uniform was cool. Today, it’s something you have to make kids do. Traveling to a football game or a contest a hundred miles away was a big deal. Now, taking a trip during the school year that isn’t to Europe or something isn’t as big a deal.

SBO: Yet, you seem to be doing very well in terms of numbers, ensembles, and activities. 

JS: In our community, smart does carry an essence of cool. Academics are very important here at Houston. When kids are coming into the high school program, I do search out the kids who have done very well academically in the middle school and try to recruit them into the program. This year we have the valedictorian, the salutatorian, and the number three in the band program. So we’ve made this activity cool.

We also make an effort to ensure that the kids in band also participate in other activities throughout the school. I don’t want to be running a program that has 260 kids who only do my thing. My kids play sports at school, they’re class officers, they’re club officers, and the homecoming queen has been a band student more times than not since I’ve been here. Those sorts of things help make it okay to be in band.

We have a young man who plays clarinet for us who is 6’4”, 250; he also plays football. It’s easier for the little kid sitting next to him, who is 5’7” and has tape on his glasses, to know that the larger boy is his friend and talks to him in the hallway. Everyone gets along with each other well. I don’t think you’ll have a healthy band program if it doesn’t include kids who have other interests.

SBO: It certainly boosts the overall image of a band program when you have kids from a wide range of other activities. 

JS: We give kids freedom. It’s become almost a clubhouse. People will come to the band room before or after class just to hang out.

My job may sound like Disney World compared to other band programs, and I’m not complaining.

SBO: What sets your program apart? What have you done to achieve this atmosphere where students have fun, but also focus and buckle down when there’s work to be done?

JS: The first thing that might be different about our program is that we don’t have any auditions to join. Any student that wants to be in the band program can be in the band program. They just have to come see me about what it is they want to play, and they have to have good citizenship.

SBO: What do you mean by “citizenship”?

JS: Behave. Don’t be disruptive. Listen when I speak. Try hard. Take care of the people around you. All of my kids follow those guidelines. We don’t have a very strong feeder program, and I don’t really have any access to that program – that’s just how the county is set up. Of course that’s fluctuated over the past 20 odd years.

When we do our recruiting each year, we have people come in and say, “I’m interested in band, but I’ve never played anything.” Well, we put them in lessons over the summer and then get them right out onto the marching field the next fall. If they want to do band and they’re good children, we’ll take them. And some of those kids turn into all-state players by the time they’re seniors.

I have a lot of friends who run band programs the opposite way, especially if they have a large feeder program. They audition and take the most talented child they can get. The most talented child isn’t always the best behaved, and that makes a big difference over the course of the four years that you teach them. The other thing is that you can’t predict which kids who join your program will turn it around and become the best players in your program. Don’t we teach? Isn’t that our job? A lot can happen in a few short years.

While we do set first chair positions, those are the only ones we set. If you’ve got, like I do, 40 clarinet players, if you designate somebody the 40th clarinet player, he or she is going to quit. Then someone else is the last chair player, and he’ll quit, too! You can’t hold on to people if you start designating someone as the worst of a large group.

SBO: What do some of the smaller ensembles add to your program? 

JS: We set the jazz band program up and got it into the school day under the argument that it was as good as any place to learn how to sight read, learn theory, and that sort of thing. The smaller group allowed us to spend a little more time with the kids and do a little more intensive work. Because we had so many kids who wanted to take the class, sometimes the instrumentation isn’t standard. For example, we have eight saxophone players sitting in the front now. I think there are seven trombone players, and two or three guitar players. Sometimes they all play, and sometimes they have to alternate tunes. Every child in the jazz band is also in a concert ensemble and in the marching band. The jazz band allows kids to learn a second instrument, and to learn skills that we just don’t have time to teach in a larger ensemble setting.

We do the same thing with the drum line. I have a few kids who are wind players and have joined the indoor drum line, sometimes as a mallet player, but more times than not as general percussionist in the battery. Sometimes they do it because they have friends in the program or something, but when he goes back to his woodwind instrument, he counts better. He plays better than when he went in. Anytime a kid is playing anything, as long as an instrument is in front of him and he’s going through the musical process, he’s going to be getting better. All of these offerings allow us to have an opportunity to advance the cause.

SBO: Speaking of “the cause,” what’s the primary motivation for you as an educator these days?

JS: I like children. I enjoy the process where they go from thinking, “I can’t do much” to “I can do something!” These days, I have learned to enjoy the interaction with children every bit as much as I enjoy the music. My biggest struggle in rehearsal is making sure that fun doesn’t break out. Fun doesn’t get the tune taught.

SBO: Really? You try to keep the fun out of the rehearsal?

JS: It can break out at any minute here! We have a lot of fun, and I think that helps with the retention.

SBO: Looking back on everything you’ve been through in the past few decades, what really stands out to you?

JS: It’s not anything we’ve won, even though you can hardly get in the place here because of the trophies. I don’t need trophies anymore. In fact, when I retire, I could open up a discount trophy store and make a mint off what we have around here just left over! [laughs]

I’m proudest of the fact that kids who graduate from this program come back and visit, and that happens a lot. Our office has turned into something of a shrine, with picture books and stuff hanging all over the walls. On any given day, I could walk in and see a 33-year-old who has two kids who might turn and say, “Mr. Smith, it’s me! I was in your band (whenever)!” People come back and visit all the time.

We have created a community amongst our alumni. We’ll have alumni reunions where 100 or 150 people will sit around and talk about “Hey remember when…” The kids who are around in band now will see that. I like to think that we’re providing some sense of community that our students will always have a connection to, even later in life. I’m proud of that.

SBO: And on flip side of that, what do you see as the biggest problem facing your program?

JS: Scheduling, and its impact on retention. Even though the administration is great about it here, with the state increasing graduation requirements and the impact of standardized tests, it’s a real challenge. Generally speaking, schools are really concerned about the number that English generates and the number that Math generates, and how those numbers compare to other schools. It might get them onto a list, or off of a list. It might get them in trouble with the state… but band doesn’t do that. While we stand here and try to convince people of all the good things that a band program does for the school, you hope it doesn’t come down to a question of, “Do we schedule another class during the day that will get our value-added scores up by .5 percent or do we leave band in the curriculum?”

SBO: Is there anything that band directors can do to be proactive about keeping band from getting pushed aside by the bean counters?

JS: Publicize their successes. If, at the end of the day, band directors aren’t also public relations people, then their programs will dry up. You have to be a really strong advocate for what makes band unique, and, here, at least, band is the one thing in the middle of the day that everyone involved really wants to be a part of. So, I guess the other part is to make sure that you keep your program a place where people want to be!

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