Bruce Dinkins

Mike Lawson • Features • May 1, 2003

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When Bruce Dinkins moved 3,000 miles to become band director at Bowie High School in Austin, Texas, he went with a specific plan in mind for his marching band.

” I told the students, ‘A year from now, we’re going to be in the finals at the state competition.’ And they looked at me like I was an idiot. They’d been to finals once in the school’s history,” he recalls.

After hearing Dinkins’ bold announcement, some of the students even logged on to an online chat room to discuss the new band director’s mental capacity.

“They made comments like, ‘Is he crazy? We’re not going to do that in one year.’”But the new band director proved to be a man of his word. That year, the Bowie High School Band made it to the state competition and took 11th place (out of 30 bands).

Now in his second year as director of the 300-member marching band, five concert bands, a jazz band, a steel drum band and two percussion ensembles, Dinkins continues to build his students’ trust and work with them on achieving great performances. Along the way, he has come to discover the excitement of being a band director in Texas, where marching band events are taken very seriously.

Take, for example, his first football game in Texas.

“It was a home game, so we marched second and the visiting team marched first. They had eaten up almost all the time, so I said to the drum major, ‘You need to stop at such and such point to get the kids off the field because I don’t want the football team to get penalized.’ I’m thinking: it’s my first football game in Texas, and that’s just what I need. Great way to get community support – by getting the team penalized because the band’s out there,” Dinkins remembers.

But then Dinkins’ principal, Kent Ewing, got wind of the conversation and straightened him out.

“He said, ‘Wait a minute. This band will come off the football field when this band’s done. This band will perform as much as they need and you don’t worry about it. No one’s going to get penalized around here.’ The band’s a big part of the football activities in this state, and it’s wonderful.”

School Band and Orchestra: Could you please describe your overall band program and its structure?

Dinkins: I have a philosophy that I live by with the band. When I started teaching high school, I felt like I needed to compile a student handbook. At that point of my life, I was into philosophies, and I’ve never changed this over the years. In my handbook, it says, “I feel that the students should improve through regular practice. In my program, when a student has lost the will to improve himself or to make a contribution to the band” – which unfortunately does happen with some of our kids today – “he’s wasted the time and efforts of his school, his fellow students and his community by continuing in the program.” In other words, don’t stay in if you’re not happy. There are just too many people in this world who aren’t happy. “The happiest student is one who is improving through regular habits of practice and daily progress. I feel he needs to know right from wrong and he must be able to stand for his principles. Students must develop a high sense of purpose, for which they’re willing to work, and I feel like that responsibility is the focus behind any level of achievement within our program.” Responsibility as to having a pencil on your stand at each rehearsal, not losing your music, making sure that your instrument is in good repair, making sure you’re in your seat when it’s time to go and that there are no excuses for being late.

I think because I place those demands on my program – in all aspects of my program – to make a well balanced and comprehensive program, it has to be run as professionally as possible. If you do that, then those are just great habits that you’re going to have throughout your life. The overall structure of the band program is, obviously, performance-based. It boils down to how well you play your instrument and your dedication to playing in the program. I don’t really grade on playing your instrument well; I grade on your being at rehearsal and your attitude at rehearsal.

SBO: What is your approach to teaching the various bands in your program (concert vs. marching band)?

Dinkins: I don’t vary my teaching techniques. I feel like I want you to play on the 50-yard line of a football field as well as you play in Carnegie Hall. I don’t feel like there needs to be any difference. All of the teachers here strive to get the students to play beautifully with a beautiful sound, and to play in tune, to play with good rhythm and with good style.

SBO: What do you think sets your marching band apart from other marching bands?

Dinkins: I think my band plays with a beautiful sound. It has a very blended sound, a very focused sound. The band can be loud, but it’s never edgy or raucous. I think the kids take a lot of pride in that. You don’t have to play loud to play with authority. It’s not what you play; it’s how you play. We talk about that in rehearsal. If you can’t hear the person on each side of you, you’re probably playing too loud.

Another characteristic about our marching band is our marching style. Michael Elam and Cathy Bennett, who are my two assistants here, are just sticklers about body carriage, shoulder placement and posture. We spend a lot of time on basic fundamentals – foot placement and horn angles and all those things that try to make us look as unified as possible, so we can all look like one. The style that we try to project when we move and the sound that we try to project when we play are things that set us apart.

SBO: What characteristics make a good marching band participant?

Dinkins: A kid who cares. A kid who wants to be there. My band rehearses at 6:30 in the morning – 6:30 to 8:30 before school. We do that for a couple of reasons. Number one: the Texas heat. Number two: We go to school until about 4:30, so in the afternoon the kids are tired and it’s hot and the last place they want to be is out on a football field learning drill. So we practice first thing in the morning.

What makes a good marching participant is someone who gets to rehearsal on time, someone who can have a great outlook on the morning rehearsal and be ready to practice but, more than that, a person who is receptive to new learning. Some kids, you can’t teach them to change their habits. Great teachers have to be able to mold and re-mold their students with new concepts and new ideas and new developments. That makes a great student: one who says, “Yes, change me. Help me become better.”

SBO: How often does the marching band practice?

Dinkins: Under the UIL rules, we’re allowed to practice eight hours a week, which I think is terrific. It’s a wonderful restraint. We only practice three or four days a week, and never more than eight hours. Usually, we’re a little bit less than that. Daylight-saving time hits us and we do lose some time in the morning because it’s kind of dark outside. Then we spend some more time inside.

We have a summer band camp. According to the UIL rules, we’re allowed to practice as much as we want from Aug. 1 until the first day of school, which is Aug. 19 this year. Because of the heat, we’ll start early in the morning and that varies. I can start as early as 6:30 and as late as 8, and go until 11 a.m. Then we have the afternoon off and come back at six that night, until dark. We have it right at the school.

SBO: How do you teach students marching moves and commands?

Dinkins: The student leaders teach the rest of the band. First of all, we pick our officers early, around the first of May for the following year. We have a section leader and a squad leader for each instrument. The squad leaders are in charge of the marching and maneuvering whereas the section leader is in charge of everything but they have a tendency to be more focused on the musical aspect. We have sessions where we teach the officers how we want certain things to look. Now that the kids have had a couple of years under us, they kind of understand what we’re going to want. It’s not as difficult to teach them the concept because they already have done the concept for a couple years. We teach them by visually seeing what the move is. I’ll even have one of the kid’s fathers come out and videotape rehearsals early on and then we’ll show it in class. The kids then can visually see if they’re looking like the other kids. I think that’s a real motivational tool in education. Let them see what they’re doing. We really don’t know what we look like and we don’t know what we sound like. We do one video of just their feet as they’re marching around on the field. That’s part of the unified look. The feet have to be the same. A kid usually can remember by their shoes if that’s them or not. That’s another way to see if we are indeed striving to look like one.

SBO: How do you design a field show ?

Dinkins: I don’t have a thing to do with that. I use one of the great visual people in this country whose name is Michael Raiford, and he works at the University of Texas. He helps us with the concept of our show and he writes all the drill, all the movement for us. He’s brilliant, and I really don’t have an eye for that sort of thing.

SBO: How do you grade student participation in the marching band?

Dinkins: I feel like music is such a wonderful thing and band is such a wonderful thing – everyone can do it. The only thing that ever stops one from doing it is their own self. It’s here and have a good time and do it to the best of your ability. My program is open to anybody at any level. Obviously, if you can’t step one foot in front of the other without falling down, we have to assess that. I think if you’re out there and you’re giving it your best shot and you’re trying and you’re paying attention and you’re getting better and you’re responsible for what you’re supposed to do in our program, I have no trouble with you being in the program. I think it’s great. You need to be there because you never know.

William Revelli was one of the great educators from Michigan who is probably a main reason why a lot of people are in music today. And I can remember him telling me when I was at Emory University – I had him in for a week as a guest conductor in residence – and he said to me, “You never know what a kid’s going through at home. You never know – that kid may need band. If you’ve got someone who’s acting up and acting out in band, there’s probably a reason. You need to find out what that reason is first before you make a decision whether you deny them the experience of doing band.” I’ve always kept that as part of my philosophy.

SBO: How do you generate student interest in the marching band?

Dinkins: People want to be in anything that’s successful. If I’m going to be on an adult basketball team in this town – I may have to practice 15 hours a week – but I want to be on a team that has fun, is successful and gets the job done in the shortest amount of time possible. I think the main thing that our students like to know is that they’re having a good time and that it’s worth their time, the effort, standing out there in the hot sun, spending all those hours on Saturdays. Is it going to pay a dividend to them one day? I think that they know that, and they feel that, and their parents are supportive of that.

SBO: What is the most challenging aspect of directing the marching band?

Dinkins: It’s generally the components of marching band that don’t directly deal with marching band. In no particular order: late charter buses, parents who don’t follow guidelines and directions, parents who feel that their child can do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. Unfortunately, in an organization, you can’t have that. Those are some of the challenging aspects.

The aspects that make it rewarding, of course, are when you have a wonderfully supportive community, a wonderfully supportive band booster organization, and your colleagues at your school are supportive of what you’re doing and your administration wants a successful program. That always makes it so much easier. I have all of these things. That’s why I moved 3,000 miles two years ago.

SBO: What are your goals for the marching band?

Dinkins: I have goals. I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you I came to Texas with a plan. I remember starting that plan off by talking to the kids the first few days and telling them, “A year from now, we’re going to be in the finals at state.” And I can remember, like it was yesterday, them looking at me like I was an idiot. They’d been to the finals once in 13 years. They thought, “Oh, come on, man.” And then they would get on the Internet and make comments like, “Is he crazy? We’re not going to do that in one year.” And we were there. We made it to state this year. They took 30 bands and we were 11th.

I bring that up occasionally to the students that, “Hey. You’ve got to believe in me. The day you really give yourself to me and my objectives is the day they’re will be no stopping this program. You’ve got to trust me.” And that’s hard for kids today, especially with where we are politically, with the war and 9/11. Trust is something that is very slowly but surely leaving our vocabulary. And that’s what education’s all about. You’ve got to trust that what I’m telling you is right because you don’t know anything.

I think my goals are not for the marching band; they’re for education. Those goals are to build their trust, and I have to earn their trust – they’re not going to give it to me. I think one step at a time with the various things we do. Last year, I took them to Tennessee, and you should have heard the cackling before I took them. Well, let me tell you – those kids had the time of their lives. We all have a tendency to complain about the unknown, and that’s just human nature. When I took them to the National Adjudicators Invitational, it was more of the same thing. But when they heard how people responded to the way they played and how they were so respectful of them and their ability to play, once they realized that, their own expectations improved. It’s really not what I want for the program, it’s what do the kids and the community want for the program? What can I do to guide them there? I know that we need to do this parade, or we need to do this competition or this concert festival. I know professionally what I need to do. But what’s also important is their personal interjection of what they want and how they want it.

SBO: Do you have anything to add about your program or music education in general?

Dinkins: I think if anyone is reading this article who is having any doubts about being an educator, they need to reconsider and know that if we’re going to continue the greatness of what we have in our country, it’s going to have to be incurred by the greatness of the teachers. And that’s not only in band; that’s in everything we do. If you’re going to teach, do it to the best of your ability. Know that you’re never going to get rich but the rewards that you’re going to get are going to be worthwhile. Teachers can make a difference.

Bruce Dinkins has been teaching music for 26 years. This is his second year at Bowie High School in Austin, Texas. His undergraduate degree is from the University of Tampa. His master’s degree is from the New England Conservatory in Boston, Mass. He also did some musicology course work at Harvard University. From there, he went to the Juilliard School to complete the performance certificate program and studied with the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic.

He started his career as a clarinet and music theory instructor at a music college in Jacksonville, Fla., where he also played second clarinet in the Jacksonville Symphony. Then he went to Florida State to work on his doctorate. Following that, he served as the director of instrumental music at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., for five years.

At that point, Dinkins decided to pursue teaching at the high school level. His first high school teaching job was at the Center for Performing Arts in Atlanta, at Avondale High School, where he taught for three years. His next job was at North Gwinnett High School in a suburb of Atlanta, for five years. Before coming to Bowie High School, he taught for eight years at Irmo High School in Irmo, S.C.

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