UpClose: Mike Back

Mike Lawson • Features • March 6, 2011

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Teaching Through Music


Mike Back is the director of the band program at Walton High School, a charter school in Marietta, Georgia. The Walton bands have an impressive resume, boasting recent appearances at such notable events as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City and the Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California. Furthermore, the Walton music department is exceptionally well rounded, with high achieving marching, orchestral, and vocal ensembles. Through musical instruction, and perhaps bigger than the music itself, the Walton band program stresses “P.R.I.D.E.”: Proficiency, Reliability, Integrity, Discipline, and Excellence.

SBO recently caught up with Mr. Back to gain some insight into the factors that allow for such success, as well as the teaching philosophy and approach behind the man running the show.

School Band & Orchestra: How did you end up in music education?

Mike Back: In high school, I knew I wanted to play percussion. There was another student who was two years ahead of me and he became my private percussion teacher for a couple of years. He really instilled in me a love of percussion. When he finished high school, he went off to study at Morehead State, and it was around then that I learned about the great percussion program they had there. I applied to that program when I was looking at universities and was lucky enough to be accepted. When I got to Morehead, I realized that I couldn’t just study percussion, that I had to have a broader degree, so I decided to enter into music education. After finishing school, I played with the Spirit of Atlanta Drum & Bugle Corps and became their percussion director in 1982. During that time, I decided that I also wanted to teach high school band, which I started doing in 1984.

My first job was at a school in DeKalb County, which is another suburb of Atlanta. I found out during that year that Cobb County was opening up four positions for assistant band directors, and I was accepted here at Walton High School in 1985. I have been here since.




“Within an organization like a band program, there are so many life skills that a student can develop.”



SBO: Tell me a little about your program now?

MB: We have four concert bands, two jazz bands, winter guard, and a marching band, as well as a full orchestra. We have about 285 students in the band program.

When I first came to Walton, we had two concert bands, and it started getting bigger, so we added a third and then a fourth.


SBO: What was the impetus for that growth?

MB: That’s tough to say. We have two tremendous middle school feeder programs. Between those strong programs and those directors encouraging kids to continue playing music, as well as our efforts at recruiting throughout the years, maybe that has helped students want to join. We’ve also done things like march in the Macy’s Parade and the Tournament of Roses parade (twice). We also participate in Bands of America contests, which is an activity that really motivates the kids and something they enjoy doing. When students see us doing those sorts of things, they want to be involved.

We do recruiting every year. We stay in touch with the middle school directors and kids, we do things like – and this is pretty common – at one football game every year, we invite all the eighth graders to come out and experience what it’s like to be at a high school football game as a member of the band.


SBO: How does Walton High School’s charter status affect your program?

MB: The charter affects our program in several ways. There are a few things that we can do with respect to scheduling, in particular, that really help us. Walton has a traditional seven-period day; we’re not on a block schedule, like so many other schools. Through our charter, we’re able to offer something called “Morning Tuition School.” That gives students the opportunity to come in and take a class basically before the school day starts. Students or their parents have to pay for it, but it gives them an opportunity to take another class. That helps us because they can then keep band, orchestra, or chorus in their schedule for four years, rather than having to drop it to take another class that they need or really want.

Walton is a very high achieving school in terms of academics. There are so many AP courses offered, and a lot of our students in the music program want to take those AP classes. This zero period, or Morning Tuition School, gives them the flexibility to still take those classes and keep music in their schedule. Another thing we can do schedule-wise as a result of our charter is that on Wednesday afternoons, school is out at 12:30. The rest of the afternoon is what’s called the “enrichment block.” Students are able to go to teachers for extra help, and there are also some science labs during that time. This is also a time when many students take private lessons, if they want to. Rather than trying to schedule around other activities that normally occur after the school day, this gives students some extra time to use for music instruction.


SBO: Do many of your students take private lessons?

MB: We have quite a few that do, yes. It’s not something that we offer here at school, but we highly encourage it because it really helps. We find that a lot of our students take private lessons not only to get better at their instruments, but also to move up to a higher band. I mentioned that we have four concert bands, so they like to continue to improve, move up, and try to get into that top band.

There are plenty of music stores in the area that provide teachers, but we don’t have any affiliations with anyone in particular. We have recommendations both from students who already have a teacher and we also have a list of people who send us information about teaching private lessons which we make available to the students.


SBO: Are there any additional challenges brought on to your music program through Walton’s charter status?

MB: Really, the biggest challenge is keeping students in the band room because there are so many activities and great classes available to them, especially the AP classes. It can be a challenge for the kids to get all of the classes that they want, and also stay in the fine arts classes.


SBO: What do you do to confront that challenge?

MB: We try to have opportunities for the students in the band program so that they’ll want to be in the program, such as the big trips to the major festivals and parades. Just last month, our Symphonic Band was a featured ensemble at our state music convention. Those types of activities are prestigious, and students can look at those and see them as things that they want to participate in. The other thing that we try to do is work with students to make sure that they can still do other activities as well as band. If we can help them work out schedule issues, we certainly try to.


SBO: Would you like to have more students than you already have?

MB: We have a good number right now, around 285 in our total program. Sure, I’d like to have more, because there are always kids – especially coming from eighth grade to high school – who don’t join the band, who don’t even try it. I often wonder how many of those students could have become really great musicians or really would have benefited from being in our band program. So in that sense, yes, I would definitely like to have more students, just to see what some of those students might have been able to accomplish.


SBO: Does that tie into a broader teaching philosophy?

MB: Perhaps, in a sense. I am fully aware that the vast majority of students who participate in our high school music program are not going to major in music in college or have careers in music. I hope that, through what they learn here in our program, they will enjoy music and realize all of the great benefits of music – not just in class, but in all aspects of their life. I hope that they become and remain supporters of music. Music education is so important in our schools and hopefully as our students become adults, they’ll be the next generation of supporters of music education and the arts in general.


SBO: Has music ed changed significantly in the past 15 or 20 years?

MB: The reasons for having music in schools are the same now as when I first started teaching. Within an organization like a band program, there are so many life skills that a student can develop. These are really important as kids go into college and out into the world. They’re so beneficial and helpful. Some of those life skills are more important than the things they learn about music.

Some of these are really basic concepts, like learning how to work and get along with others. It sounds elementary, but it’s so very important. Learning how to respect others. Learning what it means to be dedicated and committed to something, and the value of that. And, also, like most band programs, we have a leadership program where the students can learn about leadership and become leaders. They have that opportunity in our program, and we all know how important that is in college and out in the real world. Hopefully we teach them the basic tenets of leadership and teamwork that will serve them the rest of their lives.


SBO: What are your thoughts on the key to creating and maintaining successful career in music education?

MB: To be successful in this job, you have to be willing, first of all, to spend a whole lot of time at it. This is not a standard nine-to-five occupation; you have to know that upfront because of the demands of what we do. So it’s really important to find a balance with your family life. The other thing about being a band director is that there’s so much about this job that is not about teaching music. It’s really almost an administrative type of position. There are so many administrative things that you have to manage to run your program besides just teaching music. There are so many skills to be learned about how to handle all of the additional tasks.


SBO: Do you have any advice for handling all of those administrative responsibilities?

MB: A lot of it is just on-the-job training, where you’re faced with a situation and you have to figure out what to do in order to move forward. But I would definitely suggest that any time a young band director has a chance to go to a state music convention or other similar conferences or events, where there might be a clinic on the administrative aspects of music education, he or she should leap to do it.

The other thing that has been very valuable and helpful to me has been being able to call on colleagues. I teach in an area where we have great music programs in our county. The directors are very willing to help each other. It’s been invaluable to be able to pick up the phone and call the band director who’s a few miles down the road and who has gone through this experience before me, and ask, “how do I do this,” or “how do I do that?” To have those people around to help out has just been awesome. I would encourage any young band director to not be afraid to get out there and talk to other people.


SBO: While obviously running a music program is a considerable time commitment, what do you do to prevent burning out?

MB: [laughs] In my situation, I happen to have a wife who is very supportive and understanding of what I do, so I’m very lucky. But there are some things you can do. We don’t have band meetings or activities on Wednesday after school or Wednesday evenings – that’s me time, or that’s family time. As you’re planning your schedule, you have to keep in mind that you also need time for your personal life.

If you can find time for yourself and your family away from all of this, it will help keep you fresh. Time away from school is important to stay rejuvenated. Anytime you can focus on time for yourself or time for your family, that’s beneficial.


SBO: What is it about teaching music that gets you out of bed in the morning?

MB: I’ve been at this for a long time, but I still really enjoy working with teenagers and watching them improve. As a band director, we’re in the unique position of being able to watch our students develop over four years, both as musicians and as people. It’s really rewarding to see how they grow over that time.



Walton High School Band at a Glance

Location: 1590 Bill Murdock Road, Marietta, Ga.

On the Web: www.waltonband.org

Director of Bands: Mike Back

Students in school: 2646

Students in instrumental music program: 285

Performing Ensembles (& no. of students)

Symphonic Band I (69) Symphonic Band II (73) Concert Band I (68) Concert Band II (48) Jazz Band I (18)

Jazz Band II (21) Winter Guard (14) Marching Band (192)


Recent Highlights

1996 – Boscov’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (Philadelphia, Pa.)

1998 – Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (N.Y., N.Y.) 1998 – Members of the Walton Band participated in the Olympic

Band for the Centennial Olympic Games (Atlanta, Ga.) 2001 – Scholastic A “World Champions” at the WGI

Championships (Milwaukee, Wis.) 2003, 2010 – Tournament of Roses Parade (Pasadena, Calif.) 2005 – Waikiki Holiday Parade (Honolulu, Hawaii) 2005,  2006 – Bands of America Grand National Championships semi-finalist (Indianapolis, Ind.) 2009 – Recipient of the Sudler Shield by the John Phillip Sousa Foundation. 2011 – Georgia Music Educators Association In-service Conference (Savannah, Ga.)


On Deck

Music for the next Walton HS Symphonic I Concert: “Xerxes,” John Mackey (pub. by John Mackey) “Vesuvius,” Frank Ticheli (pub. by Manhattan Beach Music) “Dance Of The Jesters,” Peter I. Tchaikovsky (transcribed by Ray Cramer, pub. by Curnow Music)




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