On the Beat with Mark Stone

Mike Lawson • Archives • November 15, 2012

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By Eliahu Sussman

Photos by Jose A. Fernandez

A Southern California native, Mark Stone already had his sights set on running his own band program early in his high school career. “I was one of those kids who always had a suggestion about how to do things,” Stone recalls. “Eventually, my high school band director grew a little tired of it. After I made a comment about trying something a certain way, he said, ‘Stone, when you have your own band, you can do it your way. Until then, this is my band and we’ll do it my way.’ That’s when I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I’ll have my own band some day.’”

Fast-forward to the present, and Mark Stone’s own band program at Ruben Ayala High School in Chino Hills, California is recognized as a powerhouse on the national stage. The reigning Western Band Association grand champion is a five-time Winter Guard International (WGI) world class gold medalist and five-time Bands of America regional champion, among numerous other accolades. Beyond the awards and championships, Ayala High School’s competitive indoor ensembles boast fabulously intricate and complex shows that push the frontier of adjudicated marching, percussion, and guard activities.

It wasn’t always like that, though. Stone developed the band program at Ayala from scratch, agreeing to take the job before Ayala High School had even been built, a little over 20 years ago. SBO recently spoke with Mark to learn about his process of developing a program from the ground up, the challenges and rewards of running top-flight percussion ensembles, and the evolution and future of the activity.

School Band & Orchestra: When you first agreed to build a program at the new Ayala High School, did you have any idea what it might end up becoming?

Mark Stone: Originally, when I came here, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Luckily, I was starting a new program, so I was able to grow as a director as the program itself grew. I was really fortunate that in my second semester here I picked up a percussion instructor named Ike Jackson. For the past 23 years, he and I have worked together to build this program. He’s always been a great motivator.

I’ve always had spring drum lines. Back in the day, we were doing it outdoors, kind of like a miniature field show, and eventually that evolved into the indoor activity. We got involved in WGI in the late ‘90s. Our first WGI championships were in Phoenix in 1998, where we surprisingly made finals. We felt we were successful and that that was a great experience, so we’ve gone back almost every year since. It was a life-changing experience, and a career-changing experience.

SBO: A life- and career-changing experience? How so?

MS: In California, with all due respect to my peers, things were on a different level than in states like Indiana, Texas, or Georgia. A lot of that is from the support standpoint. We have a ton of talent and resolve here in California, but we just don’t get the support that programs in other states get. So when we first left the state and saw what programs from other parts of the country were doing, we realized that we could do those things, too, we just had to figure out how. That’s when we really got started.

SBO: What steps did you take from the realization that you could do more to actually making it happen?

MS: We did a few things. We were actually in our own circuit out here. At the time, we felt that it was not sufficiently driving the activity in California. My staff and I, along with three other programs, started our own circuit, the SCPA, the Southern California Percussion Alliance. We brought out WGI judges, so we were able to get top-level input, critique, and commentary at our local shows. We have great instructional staff here in California. It’s almost like our own little cottage community of percussion instructors, and we all work really well together. Even though the programs around here are extremely competitive, all of the instructors are very warm and open to each other. The activity grew. In many ways, California is probably the Mecca of indoor drum lines right now.

SBO: How did you build the student base and awareness of the new program?

MS: We said we had an indoor drumline, and the kids just flocked to it. There are some problems with music education in the concert setting where the percussionists are often overlooked. A band director might spend 40, 50, or 60 percent of the time balancing a brass chord or working on a woodwind technical figure, while the percussionists are just sitting in the back doing very little. But if you tell these kids that they’ve got a competitive activity that they can participate in, they’ll leap at it. Especially when we started going back to WGI and the students were able to participate on the national stage, the kids really do love it. We also have a feeder program, Canyon Hills, our junior high school, which has a very good indoor drumline. That JV team feeds our varsity.

Our community, Chino Hills, actually has two high schools – Chino Hills High School and Ayala High School – and both of those indoor drumlines are extremely competitive, and our community really supports it.

SBO: Does the success and strength of your indoor program feed into your stage ensembles?

MS: It does, to an extent. The indoor percussion program is a beast: either you ride it, or it rides you. Some band directors may be a little afraid of it because it can be a bit of a beast. It takes a lot of support, time, and a lot of equipment. We just have to strike a balance. I have to communicate with my instructors and they have to be on the same page with me. I need to have performers in my symphonic band and my concert band, and they also need the right equipment for those ensembles to be successful, so it is a trade-off.

There have been times in the past when we require our section leaders to be in our top stage ensembles, but right now due to academic pressure, kids just don’t have time in their day to do both activities. I’m usually able to fill my stage ensembles with percussionists who are interested in participating in those programs. Plus, the students who are considering becoming band directors or music majors know that they have to have a well rounded musical experience. There aren’t professional opportunities for number three bass drum, but there are professional opportunities for a timpanist in an orchestra or something like that.

SBO: How do you go about setting up your competitive indoor ensembles?

MS: It’s really just a continuation of the marching season. We believe that the marching band sets up winter indoor, and that winter indoor sets up marching band. We’re always looking towards the next semester.

Generally what we do is move the marching percussion section into the indoor ensemble. There are always going to be some adjustments we have to make. For example, this year we have seven snares and seven cymbals on the field, and we’re not sure we’ll take that many on the indoor ensemble. There are some students that choose not to do second semester, due to the time commitment. Also, due to the travel – sometimes the expense keeps kids out, too, even though that’s something that we work to prevent all the time.

SBO: What are the particular practice demands for your percussion groups?

MS: During indoor season, the marching group goes Monday and Wednesday nights, with Wednesday afternoons being sectionals. The concert group goes Monday and Friday afternoons. So a student who does both is probably in rehearsal for about 15 hours a week.

SBO: And that’s extracurricular?

MS: Yes. That is in addition to a percussion class, which works on all of that material, depending on need. It’s a serious commitment. What I’m really proud of is that not only do these kids commit all their time and effort, they’re also extremely academically successful. The average GPA of my group during the peak of the marching season, which is the most difficult time, is usually around 3.5, and that’s without weighted grades. I’ve had valedictorians and salutatorians come out of my program all the time.

SBO: How does that schedule work for students who also play sports or have other interests in addition to music?

MS: In the marching band and concert bands, I have virtually every athletic team represented. Second semester, that becomes very difficult because of the time constraints. We do have some student athletes who participate in indoor ensembles, but it’s not as common as it is in some of my other ensembles. And that is, by the way, a reason that some percussionists will choose to be in the symphonic band rather than the competitive indoor ensemble.

SBO: When did the idea of competitive events first become appealing to you, and how do you use that as an educational tool?

MS: I’ve been in the competitive arena with percussion ensembles since I was aware that it was possible. When I came to Don Lugo in 1985, they already had an outdoor winter drumline, and I just continued that. There, I learned to appreciate what it did for the kids and I just always continued it. One of my philosophies is that all of the kids in the program are equal, whether it’s a piccolo player, a snare player, or a trumpet. They’re all important, and I need to make sure that they get the best opportunities they can to reach their potential.

The other thing I discovered once we became successful was that it really was the motor that drove the program, in a lot of ways. Due to the success, achievement, and opportunities for the drumline members, we felt that it was important that we also give the marching band the same opportunities, so that’s when we started competing nationally with the marching band. Color guard was right along there with the drumline. It’s easier to start along that path with the indoor, because it’s easier to compete. Getting the marching band on the same competitive level as schools like Avon, L.D. Bell, and Broken Arrow is very difficult. Whereas because of the local atmosphere here, we were able to pretty quickly reach a level where we could compete in the percussion ensemble.

For the kids, competition is a great motivator. You have to be very careful with it, though. We take competitive arts very seriously here, but we never talk about the competition. We never talk about what other schools are doing with their programs. We focus on the kids and we focus on the process. If we do that, the success will come. The students’ job is to be a performer. My job is to be a competitor. I’ll give them a great opportunity for success, all they have to do is try their best to reach their potential. When the kids know they’re gunning for the top spot or the top-five or whatever the opportunity is, that’s a really great motivating factor. It also gives them the opportunity for the kids to work together as a group, set goals as a group, and evaluate their progress and successes – it gives them life skills.

SBO: Sure, as does sharing a stage with and hearing other outstanding musical groups. How have these activities evolved since you’ve been a part of it on the national stage?

MS: Color guard had already evolved significantly by the late ‘90s or 2000, but the drumline was still in its infant stage. In the past 10 to 12 years, I like to think that the activity has evolved tremendously. I like to think that we have been a part of the vanguard of evolution. There are other groups involved, also, of course, but we like to think we’re a part of it.

SBO: Where do you see the activity going? 

MS: One development is the use of technology. When we got started, the use of PA systems was very limited. Now it’s not unusual to have complete digital sound systems, along with remote access and remote control. The use of lighting has been changing over the past year, and that’s going to keep changing for a while – I don’t know where it’s going to settle in. We used video monitors in both concert and the marching group. The use of video is going to be very interesting. I’m not sure if it’s going to be an asset or a hindrance, but it will be interesting to watch its evolution.

We learned some things about using the video with our concert group last year, and we’re going to utilize it in a different manner this year with the marching group. It’s about bringing in the new technology, learning how to apply it to the program, and using it as efficiently as possible.

Some of these non-musical elements can help tell a story. In some ways, our concert group last year acted as a soundtrack to a video. That might not have worked out perfectly, because it may have drawn away from what the students were doing as performers. We just need to be a little smarter about how we utilize this – whether we just use it as a color source, or if we’re going to use it as a visual effect. Other people are using lights in their drums and all kinds of other creative applications. And then there’s the use of the PA system, different synthesizers, and looping. We don’t loop, but we sample. Now we can use songs with words. You can’t record it and it can’t be looped, it has to be signaled with a sampler, but that’s an entirely new skill and activity that we do really well here in California. That’s just one of the skills that through the camaraderie of our local instructors, they’ve been able to adopt.

SBO: Sounds like quite a sophisticated show. 

MS: The sophistication and investment in time, effort, and design is amazing. It’s amazing what is done to put 30 kids on the floor for about eight minutes.

SBO: It sounds like a great opportunity for your students, but also one that is really challenging to put in place. 

MS: I think a lot of it is first the decision to do it, and then to have a vision for where you want to go. Obviously, when we started this, we had no idea where we were going to end up. It was just an evolution from year to year where we got better, we got smarter, and we did more. For any new director looking at getting into it, there are a couple of things that it’s going to do for your program. It’s definitely going to build the skill set of your front ensemble. My mallet players are on a level that I never would have imagined before. And the same thing with the battery – but the marching band is already doing a lot of that stuff.

We have been really helped by corporate support, sponsorships and so on: implements, heads, and instruments. We’re being sponsored by Tama right now and we’re R&Ding their drums for them. I have many sets of drums right now – I have more than I can use! Some of them are at different stages of development, and some of them we’re not going to use, but just to have all the equipment for the kids to play is great. Also, the students got to interact with the engineers and designers of the drums. The owner of Tama and the engineer of the instrument fly in and talk to the kids and give them a chance to make suggestions on what will make the drum better. Then, when we see the next generation of the drum, the kids suggestions are right there in it. That’s an irreplaceable experience for my students.

If I were young and going to start this again, my suggestion would be to start with a concert percussion group. It’s more like what happens in the concert band and requires less investment. You don’t have to have a big floor or props; it’s simply musicians performing music. Bring up the level, and if the marching activity looks attractive, then make a move in that direction. The marching activity is where you need the visual designer and the props, and that’s a whole other portion of the job.

SBO: With all of the challenges among public school funding in California, how are you able to afford the staff that it takes to put together such a complex show?

MS: There was a day when I ran this program on fundraising. We were always broke and never had everything we needed, but we just did our best. In 1996 or so, our district office said, “Hey, why don’t you just charge fees?” So I set about establishing a fee system that went in conjunction with the fundraising. Eventually, the parents just said, “I don’t want to fundraise – I’d rather just write you a check.” That’s when we moved to a system built around donations. In my community, we are not allowed to charge fees, only charitable donations and right now donations are doing fine. Also, when parents donate to our program, there are a lot of matching donations from corporate sources. Because we are a non-profit entity, it’s a tax write-off. So if an employee makes a donation to a non-profit, some employers will match it. That has been a great source of revenue for us.

SBO: Any other thoughts on percussion ensembles and the impact they have on your students and your program?

MS: Competitive percussion groups are a viable activity that is great for the kids. At first it’s intimidating. It’s scary to see how good – and how big – the top groups are. But you don’t have to be on that level, say, with five or six marimbas. The students are going to get the same experience whether they’re in first place in World or last place in Scholastic A. The only real difference in the experience between first place and last place is the five minutes during the award ceremony.

At any level, students go to rehearsal and work to achieve something with their friends and peers, and they get that opportunity to perform in front of the audience. That’s the important part – it’s not about winning, it’s about competing and performing well. Most states, where appropriate, have an indoor circuit, and if you’re happy there, stay there. And if you start to achieve at the highest level and outgrow that circuit, then try out for a regional competition. You don’t have to start at the top. Start at the bottom, work your way up, and see how it fits into your program. Make sure that your instructors are on board with the idea that it’s all about the full program. Just be careful that the indoor activity doesn’t take over the band program. That can happen, because you get percussion people who are totally focused on their activity. But it’s the band director’s job to make sure that they fit into their niche of the overall program. If you use that focus to enhance the rest of the band program, it’ll be a real help to all of your ensembles.

Ayala Band Program At a Glance

Location: 14255 Peyton Drive, Chino Hills, Calif.

On the Web: www.ayalapercussion.com

Students in Band Program: 250

Students in School: 2,300

Director of Bands: Mark Stone

Recent accomplishments 

  • Six-time Sothern California Percussion Alliance (SCPA) World Class Gold Medalists
  • Five-time Winter Guard International (WGI) World Class Gold Medalists (concert and marching)
  • Eleven-time Western Band Association (WBA) Championship Finalists, current WBA Grand Champion
  • 2004 Bands of America (BOA) Grand National Championship Finalists
  • Two-time BOA Grand National Semi-finalist
  • Five-time BOA Regional Champion

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