Willie Wright

Mike Lawson • Features • July 10, 2012

With the plethora of opportunities available to young people these days, kids often feel that they have to choose between music and sports. The common perception is that both activities are so demanding in terms of time and focus that they are somehow mutually exclusive: to participate in one means foregoing the other.

However, that dilemma has never been a problem for Willie Wright, band director in Worland (Wyo.) Public Schools. When he was in high school, Wright excelled not only at the saxophone in jazz and marching bands, but also in sports, lettering in track and football. In fact, his athletic gifts took him all the way to the NFL, where Wright played for the Phoenix Cardinals, now called the Arizona Cardinals, and then to Europe, where he played football professionally for the league that preceded the current NFL Europe. Wright continued honing his musical talents all the while, bringing his horn with him everywhere he went, and soon after his athletic career came to an end, he began a new life as a music educator.

Now, some 14 years and several school districts later, Willie Wright has just finished his first year teaching band in the small town of Worland, working with ensembles ranging from fifth-grade general music up through high school symphonic and marching bands. Fully immersed in music, the former professional athlete spends the bulk of his time teaching, working with students, talking shop with his wife (who is also a school band director), and honing his own performance skills.

In this recent conversation with SBO, Wright discusses the evolution of his career in music education, the parallels between success on the football field and in the band room, and the challenges of learning how to create a great music program.

School Band & Orchestra: You’ve had an incredibly varied professional life. How did you end up becoming interested in music?

Willie Wright: I’ve been passionate about the saxophone from an early age. It was the instrument that I wanted to play growing up. I had a really inspirational high school band director, John Aanestad from Riverton, and he opened doors for me musically. I went in and did a lot of exploring, myself. He had a really strong jazz program at Riverton.

However, I played football at the University of Wyoming, and went on to play most of the 1992 season in the NFL. I was on the developmental team in ’91, and then in NFL camps in ’93 and ’94. And in 1996, I played in the World League of American Football, which later became NFL Europe. I didn’t have a very long career, but it was very interesting and I got to play plenty of football for five or six years.

During that time, I kept playing music, but my focus was mostly on my own musicianship. I actually took my alto sax with me to Germany when I was playing there, and I would go off in the evenings to find a room in the hotel where I was staying to practice. One time, one of the football coaches asked me why I kept playing the same thing over and over again, and I told him, “I’m trying to get right! What do you think we do at football practice?”

SBO: So you were never torn between band student and athlete?

WW: No – I was fortunate that I never really had to make that choice. I think that’s kind of the appeal of some of these smaller Wyoming towns. You can still do it all and have those different experiences.

SBO: And at what point did you decide that you would become a music educator and band director?

WW: After I did my student teaching. I was a little torn between athletics and music, because I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to be a band director. I looked into being a graduate assistant at a football program, and a good friend of mine, who’s actually the strength coach at a major university, laid out the whole scenario as far as coaching. His opinion was that that wasn’t the kind of lifestyle that I wanted to lead, and I thought about that a lot.

I took a year off in between student teaching and teaching during which time I played on Carnival Cruise Lines cruise ships. Being out there, wanting to be a jazz musician and thinking of going to a big city like New York or L.A. to try to become a player on the scene gave me a life lesson, because a lot of the guys on the ships had already done that. So I decided that that wasn’t really the life for me either. Instead, I went with the stability of becoming a teacher, and being able to play my instrument on the side, with my own bands and for my own enjoyment.

SBO: So tell me about your early teaching experiences, then?

WW: I started the band program at a charter school in Brighton, Colorado. This was my first teaching job, and I was there for four years. To be honest, it was a bit of an unusual situation because the position wasn’t very demanding. That was great because I still wanted to do a lot of playing on the side. When I first started, I wasn’t as focused on the students as I should have been. As I grew into the job and matured, I started to realize what these students needed from me, and that’s when I started to develop as an educator and make more and more time for my students. I learned a lot about patience. I didn’t start teaching until I was 30 years old, back in 1998.

SBO: And what brought you to Worland?

WW: I’m originally from here. Not native, but I went to high school nearby, in Riverton, and I was interested in coming back. The schools here are really well run, well funded, and teacher friendly.

SBO: What’s your vision for the Worland band program?

WW: We’ve changed the schedule for next year, so I won’t be working with the elementary students anymore, and I’m trying to start a jazz program. That’s my main orientation. I consider myself a jazz tenor player, and I’ve done a lot of playing out with different bands. I’m also going to split the percussion from the band, so next year I’ll have band, percussion, and jazz band, in addition to marching band and symphonic band.

SBO: How has the transition to the program in Wyoming gone so far?

WW: So far it’s been great. The community and the students have all been really receptive. It’s the best first year I’ve ever had! This is my fourth school, and as far as coming in the first year, this is the best I’ve ever had.

SBO: In your experience, what can one do to facilitate a smooth entry into a new school? 

WW: You need to come in and not have the attitude that you’re going to change the world right off the bat. Some things should be left the same, especially at the very beginning, and then gradually molded into what you want. If you come in and just shock everybody in the program, with brand new rules exactly how you want it, laying down the law and trying to snap everybody into line, students will react negatively.

SBO: How do you gauge what’s appropriate as far as instilling your own agenda versus maintaining traditions?

WW: That’s a great question. As you get more experience, you learn how to finesse the situation. To pinpoint exactly how to do that, everyone needs to find his or her own path. One of the pitfalls I’ve experienced, and other educators I’ve spoken with agree, is that you can’t go in and say, “Okay, it is my way or the highway,” on day one. You do need to establish yourself, but you don’t want to go too far changing things or being too harsh. You’re dependent on having students in your program, so you don’t want to turn people off.

To decide how I wanted to approach the transition, I met with administrators, and I also spoke with the previous two directors here. The gentleman who taught right before me wasn’t on the job for very long, but the man who preceded him had a great career and still lives in town. I emailed these people and talked to them a few times to get a feel for where the kids were at, and even incorporated some of the things that they had been doing into my planning. I actually did that at my previous school, as well.

SBO: Now that you’ve been teaching for a number of years, looking back on it all, what are the parallels between making it as a professional football player and making it as a professional band director?

WW: The same things are at work. You have to persevere through some tough times. You have to keep your eyes on the prize and keep working to get better every day.

SBO: What are some of those things that you have to persevere through in music education? 

WW: One of the toughest things to get through is attrition. That hurts sometimes. You get a student who’s a bright student and a good player, and all of a sudden they don’t want to be in your program anymore. Luckily, I haven’t had too much of that this year, but I’ve faced that in the past, and it can be tough to get beyond that, but you have to focus on the good students that you have and the ones who stick with you.

SBO: Certainly people talk about retention as a real challenge, often because of academic demands and also the wide array of activities that are available to students these days. 

WW: Absolutely. Attrition makes you take a good long hard look at yourself and your program, and ask yourself, “What do I need to do to make my program better? What do I need to do to make it more enjoyable for the students?”

SBO: Let’s get specific, then, what are some of the answers to those questions? What are the attributes of a great program?

WW: The students need to enjoy music. You can get superiors for 20 years in a row, but if you aren’t including a lot of students – as many as you can – and there isn’t much enjoyment in it for everyone, you’re missing something. There are plenty of ways to make it fun; it’s taken a while to find some of those things for me, and I’m still working at it every day. Just little changes to your routine, different things you can do with the students on different days.

I go to as many clinics as I can to steal ideas from great educators. I’m very interested in what other directors are doing. I like to talk to directors, say, at a solo & ensemble festival or at a band festival. I’ve found that band directors are really great at being willing to talk about their programs and share things that they do. A few times a year, I like to get out and spend a day in another director’s band room. I really enjoy doing that. I feel like I have a pretty strong identity myself, but it’s great to see what other people are doing; I always pick up a couple or three new things that I can use in my own classroom.

SBO: How do you facilitate those events happening?

WW: It’s mostly from seeing other directors at festivals, and it’s usually people that I know fairly well. I’ll ask them if I can come spend a day in their band room. I didn’t do that during my first four years as a teacher, and I think trying to teach in a vacuum, you don’t get a whole pallet of different ideas on how to approach various things. Some things you have to look at and say, “Well, that really wouldn’t work in my situation,” but there are always plenty of things that you can use.

This is kind of a tangent, but another area that can be really helpful to a music program – and something that not everyone thinks about – is having a decent relationship with the coaches in the athletic department. A lot of times there’s kind of an adversarial relationship between the music people and the sports people. I’ve seen it on the educator’s side, also. Every situation is different, but trying to get along and share students is a good idea.

I still have students come up to me and say, “Well, I’m really going to get into sports, so I can’t do music.” Of course I tell them, “Wait a minute – there’s no reason you can’t enjoy both!” Just being able to work with the coaches, communicating with them beforehand, sharing schedules, and letting them know in advance so you don’t end up in some blowout argument at the last minute can be really helpful. It is as simple as two adults communicating with each other.

SBO: Is there a way to keep that from even coming up in the first place – to demonstrate that somehow before kids think they have to choose one or the other? 

WW: I think you need to change the perception to keep that from happening. Maybe I need to do a better job of letting everyone know that I have a number of football players in my band, and 60 percent of my kids participate in sporting events throughout the year.

SBO: It must help facilitate the conversations about sharing students when the band director shows up with the athletic resume that you have!

WW: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s an advantage that I have. Not a lot of music people have that type of experience. When the head football coach wants you to work with his players, it’s a definite advantage to then discuss when you might need students for a performance.

SBO: Have you been tempted to participate in the football program at your high school?

WW: I try to stay away from coaching these days because I think I need to be available for my students. When I have to run out to practice every day, it hurts my program. I’ll probably go out to the football field and work with the players on technique once a week or so, but as far as being a fulltime part of the staff, I just don’t feel that I can do it and still be a good band director.

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