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Positive Reflections: Brian Covey of Lockport Township High School

Mike Lawson • Archives • October 6, 2008

In recent years, the Lockport (Ill.) Township High School Concert Band has performed at MENC, the Illinois Music Educator Conference, the Illinois Superstate Concert Band Festival, and the Bands of America National Concert Band Festival, where they share the record for most appearances by any one school. Under the guidance of Brian Covey, director of bands, the ensemble is in the midst of preparing to play at the upcoming Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic in Chicago.

Brian’s own story is rather unique: his parents worked overseas during his childhood, so he spent much of his youth abroad. First introduced to music as an eight-year-old in a curricular classical guitar class in Holland, it was several years before he would experience playing in an ensemble. When tragedy befell his guitar it was accidentally knocked over and broken Brian picked up the other instrument in the house, his father’s trumpet, and never looked back.

Seventh grade brought Covey to the United States, where he attended junior high school in Naperville, Illinois. There, Brian joined into a very strong program; his school fed into Waubonsie Valley High School, which had and continues to have a well-established and accomplished band one that, incidentally, has largely served as the model for Brian’s Lockport program.

After junior high school, circumstances took the budding musician back overseas, this time to Egypt, where he participated in a small scholastic ensemble of “suspect and inconsistent” instrumentation. Most students there took private lessons and found performance opportunities outside of the school, and Brian was no exception, performing as a sub with the Cairo Symphony through connections formed by his private trumpet teacher. Looking to return to the US as he finished high school, Brian matriculated to the University of Illinios, where he became enthralled by the school’s marching band. His experiences at “U of I” and at the Smith Walbridge Band and Orchestra Camp, where he worked during the summers, propelled him towards the world of music education.

Upon finishing his undergrad, Brian started his professional career as the assistant director of bands at Lockport Township High School. After his first year teaching, the fledgling teacher realized what a great opportunity he had joined into, so he entered a master’s program at Vandercook College of Music, received his degree, and subsequently took over the position of director of bands.

Now Brian is in his the sixth year in that function, his eighth at the school, and as previously noted, under his watch, the Lockport bands have already garnered significant acclaim. SBO recently spoke with the young director, who shared his approach to the process of achieving and maintaining a world-class band.

School Band & Orchestra: What was the Lockport Township High School music program like when you came on board?
Brian Covey: It has always been a strong program. The tradition was established when Ernie Caneva was the director (1927-1957), and it runs pretty deep in the community. There was a director before I came on that had the program performing at a high level, and they were attending national festivals, such as the Bands of America National Concert Band Festival. Lockport was involved in the first of those events. Having that level of performance and expectation already in place made it easy for me to come in and say, “Let’s take those standards, and make them a little bit higher.” There’s always been great support from the community and the school administration.

SBO: It must be great to step into a program that’s running smoothly, but how do you go about raising expectations in a program like that? What kind of goals did you set for yourself?
BC: When I took over the program, I evaluated what was going on and saw that we had drifted away from what I considered to be the state level. We set down these benchmarks and communicated them directly to the kids, saying, “Look at the opportunity you’re going to get. This is the standard that we as the directors are setting, and we have a certain duration of time that we have to get there, but we want to get there the right way.” The standards we laid out were enforced in the University of Illinois Superstate Concert Band Festival, Bands of America, and even smaller events, such as our spring break trips.

The first trip that I took with the kids was to Texas. There, we rented out the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas and did a private concert of just Lockport High School. We invited some of the local high schools to come out and be in attendance. We had raised the bar, told the kids about the quality that we were expecting, and gave them every opportunity to meet our goals. It was just literally the standard that we demanded, in terms of character, integrity, and performance.

SBO: How is your program organized?
BC: There are five ensembles, and we have two campuses: a grades 10-12 campus (East Campus), and a freshmen campus (Central Campus). The Central Campus has a freshman band that plays together for a year. After that first year, we break it apart and split students into the upper level ensembles. We currently have 11 different feeder schools that feed into Lockport, and they’re each in their own district. So we have to spend that first year acclimating everybody and standardizing the skill sets getting everyone up to where they should be. Then, everything else is ability-based.

Lockport Township High SchoolOur top two ensembles have, in addition to the daily 55-minute rehearsal period, 25-minute sectional rehearsals. So the students in those groups get roughly an hour-and-a-half of curricular music classes every single day.

SBO: That’s substantial. Has it been difficult to maintain that amount of class time in the face of national standardized testing pressures?
BC: It’s been something that our school has just decided that will be the standard. By us having the opportunity and utilizing it properly, and the results that we’ve been able to produce where we’re able to attend MENC or Midwest and those types of events the administration has been backing us all the way. It has never come under question, and I think that’s a testament to how we are able to use the time intelligently. It’s clear that what we’re doing is all for the kids, and they’ve been completely supportive of that.

SBO: Approximately how many students are in your program?
BC: About 230.

SBO: And in the high school?
BC: Between the two campuses, we have about 3,800 students. We’re low in where we think we should be. I’m kind of old fashioned in that I’d like to see at least 10 percent of the population in the music program, but we’re very happy that of the 230 that come in, there’s a very strong commitment to the program. There’s about a 95 percent retention rate between the Central campus and the East campus. And there’s another 95 percent between the junior highs and the high school itself. So even though the overall numbers are a little low, as long as we can continue providing the quality instruction that the kids entering the high school have already started receiving, we’re pretty happy.

SBO: Obviously it’s easier when you already have administration on board, but what advice would you give to other band directors who are trying to foster that internal support?
BC: The biggest thing I would say is communication, and I’ll give you an example because I know that that is kind of a stock answer. I have found with our administrators that they aren’t always aware of what we do. They understand the importance of the program, in my case, but they don’t understand the process. Since I have been here, Lockport’s budget has grown, so the opportunities have grown. When we talked about the Bands of America National Concert Band Festival, our administration understood. They saw the word “national,” and we were able to explain its significance, but they didn’t necessarily understand why we would need three days out of class.

For our upcoming Midwest Clinic performance, the two days we’re going to be down there performing are the two days of our final exams, and our administration is actually allowing the participating students to skip finals. They were obviously hesitant in coming to that decision allowing students to make up those tests but what we did was communicate how it will be beneficial for the kids, not how it might be beneficial to us, as teachers, or make our lives easier, or further our careers. I think that’s a big distinction that directors need to make. We need to step back and take a look at the way in which we approach things. We often know why certain opportunities would be good, but we don’t always do an effective job communicating why they would be good for the students. We sometimes get caught communicating why we should go do something, but not necessarily what value the experience will have for the students in terms of their education and personal development.

So, in this instance, we were able to take our administration down to the site of the Midwest Clinic. There, they saw the sheer magnitude of the event, learned about all of the attendees, and about why people are traveling from across the country to be there. Out principal, assistant principal, my department chair, and our director of curriculum spent the day with us, watching us work and seeing what was going on. The experience allowed them to see how the experience will be great for the kids and how it fits into the curriculum and the structure of the program.

SBO: So it’s about transparency, in some respects.
BC: It’s all about how it’s presented. As long as we’ve presented ideas with the kids in mind first, I haven’t experienced resistance from my administration. As long as we can illustrate how something is related to the progress and growth of the children, then that seems to be able to sway administration and work things out.

It was the same thing when we were looking at budget cuts and spending money for repairs: we were able show how there were kids who wouldn’t have instruments in their hands, that the cuts were taking opportunities away. It meant that we couldn’t follow our curriculum and teach the material unless we had those instruments they are our equivalent of textbooks.

SBO: Specifically, what are you hoping your students gain from those special performance opportunities you and your administration are providing?
The musical maturity, the character maturity, the overall life experiences and growth from these events are all remarkable. It prepares kids to go off to college and into the real world. How the kids grow through these experiences is astonishing, and it snowballs because it allows them new opportunities in life, and they can take charge and be a little more responsible.

SBO: What’s your take on competition in school music?
BC: We do competition in the concert band, jazz, and marching settings. In each of the endeavors we undertake, for example, even the Bands of America Concert Festival, while the festival itself is not a competition, the actual process of getting there is because bands are competing to get in. We take it as a bettering process for us. Wherever we go, any time there’s competition involved, I just want feedback for the kids. We aren’t as interested in where we end up in the standings, so long as we get valuable feedback and are able to use it as a learning experience.

Brian Covey When we do our marching competition, we always take time to look at the comments, not just the scores that are given. Of course, the kids always want that material success to be shown that they’ve accomplished something but there are other ways to show them exactly how they’re improving. And it’s up to the director to be intelligent enough to articulate how and why these are positive growth experiences.

If we’re competing just because we want to win, then there’s something missing, and the overall product and longevity of the program will suffer because of it.

SBO: What do you hope that someone who goes through four years of your tutelage walks away with?
BC: I think growth and character. We want our kids to be responsible citizens not only in the music world. We want our students to have integrity in life. And we aim to accomplish that through the medium of musical performance. I’d like to provide the students with memories they can reflect upon, and to understand the process behind how that event occurred. Even with our second, third, and freshmen ensembles, we find opportunities for them beyond our home concerts, so that they can develop that perspective and growth.

Of course, every band director would love to see each of his or her students continue to play music for the rest of their lives, even recreationally, but I think that goes hand-in-hand with the character growth we’re trying to instill in our students. We want our students to reflect positively on what they’ve done, understand what they’ve achieved and how they’ve achieved it, and be able to make intelligent decisions for themselves as they move forward.

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