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Richard Saucedo: Excellence as a Lifestyle

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 13, 2010

In many music education circles, Indiana’s Carmel High School is already a familiar name. A finalist in the Bands of America Grand National Championships for each of the past 14 years, Carmel’s Marching Greyhounds won the competition in 2005, and the high school’s orchestras have recently performed at such venues as the Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic and the Bands of America National Concert Band Festival. With approximately 600 students participating in instrumental music at Carmel High School, it may not be much of a surprise that Carmel Clay was named one of the top communities for music education in 2010 by the NAMM Foundation.

Richard Saucedo is the director of bands and chair of the performing arts department at Carmel High School, where he has taught for 29 years. Saucedo credits the success of the program to his administration’s commitment to the arts, noting that this commitment has helped spark an infectious enthusiasm for music in the community, which in turn helps boost student participation and instill a pride that drives their performance level ever skyward.

For a closer look at exactly what is going on in this prolific music community, SBO recently caught up with Saucedo, a director, educator, composer, and adjudicator, who was gracious enough to provide some insight into the approach that has yielded such consistent results. Read on as Richard discusses the basics of his program and provides some tips that every director should keep in mind when preparing a marching band for festival or competition.

School Band & Orchestra: During your own early experiences with music, what kinds of music did you gravitate towards?

Richard Saucedo: I enjoyed all of them, to be honest, and I still do. That’s something that we believe in strongly here at Carmel, that the kids should get a really well rounded experience in band. We have a pretty full program that includes marching band, four jazz bands, and five concert bands, so we make sure that the kids get involved with a little bit of everything when it comes to the band world.

I would have to say that I gravitated a little more to the marching side of things, and that’s what led me to become an arranger and composer for marching band. Ray Cramer, who was in charge of the Marching Band at Indiana University when I studied there, asked me to do an arrangement for the IU Marching 100, and it actually included the university choir, the Singing Hoosiers. Hearing that group, with the choir, perform that piece had a strong impact on my life. From that point on, I knew that I always wanted to write music, as well.

SBO: Tell me about the early years in your career as an educator?

RS: This is my 29th year at Carmel High School. I was only in my third year of teaching when I came here and, like a lot of young teachers, I thought I knew what I was doing. Now, 30 years later, I’ve realized that I still don’t know what I’m doing. [laughs] When I started out, I was ready to tell kids what to do and that sort of thing, but it was rough for me, as it is for a lot of young teachers. I was ready to teach music, but I think I really wasn’t ready to work with kids. I learned a lot those first couple years, about what works and what doesn’t work with kids, and I’m still learning a lot about those things today.

SBO: Is there anything that you think could be emphasized in colleges and universities to better prepare future music educators?

RS: I think what’s really important, and I know that Indiana University and a lot of other colleges are doing this now, is that they demand that their students get a lot of practical or outside experience when they’re in college. They did a little of that when I was a student, and they do a whole lot more of it now. When student teachers from IU come work with us, they usually have had experience with marching bands during the summer or have worked with a high school jazz band or concert band during the year. They’ve had a lot of experience in front of kids, working, teaching and finding out what works and what doesn’t. That’s the most important thing: you have to have practical experience before your first year of teaching so you don’t go into it blind.

SBO: Let’s talk a little about the Carmel band program. Your program has had great success with a wide range of ensembles, including marching, concert, and jazz. Does that happen all at once, or do you work on polishing different areas one genre at a time?

RS: For us, it starts with the concert band. Even though the marching band is pretty serious, the concert bands and orchestras here now have way more importance. As a matter of fact, when I got to Carmel, we were just starting the orchestra program, and now we have three wonderful orchestras here and the top ensemble played at Midwest last year. I think it’s because of the development of the concert band and orchestras that our marching band continues to be so strong, because of the focus on the classroom fundamentals during concert band time.

SBO: How is your department organized?

RS: There are 4,500 kids at Carmel High School, and about a third of those are in band, choir, orchestra, or drama. We have a lot of kids involved. There are between 400 and 500 kids in the concert band. Students in the concert bands are not required to be in a jazz band or marching band those things are strictly voluntary and take place outside of the school day. We’re fortunate that our administration here allows our kids to get academic credit for participating before or after school in marching band and jazz band. Marching band is first semester and jazz band happens during second semester. We have four full jazz bands, usually with more than 120 kids involved in it every year, and we have a couple of huge jazz concerts that are great successes here. The marching band has been in the top five in nationals the past couple of years, and we won the national title in 2005. We’ve had a lot of great success in different areas, but I still think that the reason the marching band is so solid is because of what we do from a concert band standpoint.

SBO: How, specifically, have you approached the concert band that has yielded such strong results that it can pay such dividends in the other ensembles?

RS: The concert band setting has to be a lab class for kids to get better on their instruments. I think a lot of time directors, and I’m guilty of this at times, as well, sit down and try to prepare music instead of trying to prepare kids. You can’t just talk to kids about the music, you also have to talk about alternate fingerings on the clarinet, remind them about the French horn embouchure, remind them about the way they use their air. At least in the high school setting, the kids have to come out of their ensembles being better musicians, not just better prepared on a particular piece of music.

SBO: Beyond music, what’s the bigger goal you’re trying to achieve as an educator?

RS: The bigger goal is to develop great people through band. That has always been our biggest goal. In the front of our band room is a sign that one of our drum majors put up at the beginning of the year that says, “Excellence as a Lifestyle.” That’s what we try to teach, and not just in band, but the entire performing arts department. When you’re in the classroom, in the rehearsal hall, out in the hallway, at home, or out in the community, you practice excellence. As tough as society is these days, and as competitive as it is, you have to think that way. You don’t want to slide through the cracks. You want to be a person that really participates in life and gets better at everything you do. That’s our number one goal: developing people that are going to contribute. Of course, we hope that in the process of doing that, the kids will be a performer of some kind, and if not, at least be audience members with an appreciation for the arts.

SBO: Seeing as we’re in the middle of the marching season, can we talk nuts and bolts about marching band? What’s the one element to marching band that students are generally not prepared for, which you try to hammer home?

RS: Quality of sound. That is definitely number one. I’m probably as guilty as any director, but a lot of times we’re willing to sacrifice quality for volume. I think if we’re not careful, kids get the wrong idea of what their instruments should sound like on the marching band field. A trumpet should still sound like a good sounding trumpet. A flute should sound like a good sounding flute, and a snare drum should still sound like a good sounding snare drum. That shouldn’t be any different just because you’re in marching band. Of course you have to play louder, but that’s probably the thing that I’m most critical of when I judge around the country, and I know a lot of my colleagues feel the same way. No matter where we go, we just find that everyone, including ourselves, can do a better job of making sure that our kids play with better sounds on the marching field.

SBO: Has the quality of sound problem gotten worse as field shows continue to become more dynamic?

RS: Definitely. That’s one great thing about the Bands of America activity. The judges in those competitions are great musicians and very knowledgeable. You can’t get away with playing poorly if you compete in the Bands of America events. When we come back from a BOA performance and listen to the directors’ tapes, we learn so much. People can’t always say that about contests or festivals that they go to. I give Bands of America a lot of credit for the quality of sound improving and just the quality of performance improving when it comes to marching bands.

SBO: Carmel High School won the BOA Grand Nationals in 2005. What did that do for your program?

RS: You know what? I tell people this and they think I’m crazy but the year that did the most for our program was the year after we won, when we finished eighth. In 2005, we had a very experienced group. If that group hadn’t finished in the top two or three, they would have underachieved. In 2006, we had 80 new members out of a band of 200, so about 40 percent of the kids were new to the group. When we finished eighth with all of those newcomers, we felt like that was almost a bigger accomplishment than winning the year before, and that’s still the year that I’m most proud of.

SBO: How much of the performance and that whole experience is about the results?

RS: Everyone likes to win. But for us, as instructors, it can’t be about that. It just can’t. It has to be about more than that: it has to be about the experience and the development of the kids in the program. If it’s not about those other things, then every band but one is going to walk away disappointed. It just can’t be about the placing. Of course our kids want to place as high as anybody, but what’s more important to our kids is that we sound good and that people think we’re really good. They want people to walk away thinking, “Wow, Carmel was great today!” The students are very proud of that; even before the announcements are made about the placing, they want to impress people. And when kids want to do that, they’re more worried about the process than the actual results. Our kids are like that and I’m really proud of them being that way.

SBO: Do you have any other tips for marching band directors who may be preparing for marching band festivals and competitions as we speak?

RS: Yes, I do, and it’s very simple: don’t do it all by yourself. Even if you are the only music teacher in your school, find someone in the county who’s more experienced, call a friend, call a college director in the area, and have them come out to watch a rehearsal. Have them make comments and put it together in a list of things to work on. One of the things that we have found to be very beneficial is having two or three people whom we consider to be experts especially towards the end of our season when we think things are just the way we want them come in and watch us and write up ten pages of notes of areas that could use improvement. Of course, we might get a little depressed about the list right when we see it, [laughs] but in the long run, we find that we get ten times better again when someone else with a new set of eyes and ears is able to come in and give feedback to our program. Especially for young people, I think it’s really important to get experienced people into the rehearsal to help you along. I think that’s really important.

SBO: What’s the secret behind all of your program’s success? Do you see it as the culmination of 30 years spent building a solid musical foundation?

RS: I think it came together a long time before I got here, to be honest. It started with the administrators in Carmel-Clay schools. Since I’ve been here, we’ve had four different superintendents and three principals, and all of them have been super supportive of the arts. They all recognize that the arts are important. Whether it’s band, choir, orchestra or drama, we get a lot of support in the community for the arts, and that’s one of the reasons that Carmel thrives the way it does in music.

SBO: So it all starts with administrative support?

RS: Because of that, the parents are more supportive. They see that the school believes in the program, so they believe in the program, too. And once more parents begin to get involved, then more students become involved in the program, too, and all of a sudden it’s this huge family of people believing in these common goals. And that’s really neat in this community.

SBO: What can band directors and music educators in general do to help build that support if it isn’t already there?

RS: One of the things that band directors have to work at is really becoming a part of their school, not just a part of the music program. They have to be willing to be willing to play pep rallies or at basketball games or wherever. A lot of directors would rather do other things than play at athletic events, but we do it because we want to be supportive and we are a part of the school. Probably the biggest way band directors can get support for their programs is by going out and supporting other parts of the school. This holds especially true for young band directors.

SBO: Last question: Where would you like to take your program in the next few years? Where do you set your sights after already having achieved so much?

RS: I’d like to see our program get to the point where every kid, no matter what their ability level is, loves the experience. To do that, we’re going to have to continue to make sure that kids are taking private lessons, we’re going to have to make sure that we’re playing varied literature, we’re going to have to make sure that we’re teaching in a manner where our kids will enjoy coming into class every day. My number one goal for this program is for all of the kids who come through here, when they eventually leave Carmel High School, to miss the performing arts as much as they miss any other part of the school. My goal is really for kids to just enjoy the process.

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