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UpClose: Bill Allred

Eliahu Sussman • Features • May 19, 2014

A Small-Town Band with Big-Time Ambitions

New Mexico is the fifth largest state in the U.S. in terms of area, but has large swaths with very low population density. Near the state’s eastern border with Texas, Clovis is its seventh most populous city, with nearly 40,000 people, three junior high schools, and a single high school. For Bill Allred, director of the Clovis High School band department, these factors present some relatively unique challenges to his efforts to build and maintain a comprehensive program that can be competitive on the national stage. That’s not to say the situation is entirely bleak. On the contrary, Clovis High School has a history of excellence in its music department, evidenced by the fact that Allred is only the third director of bands at Clovis High School in the past half century. Among the program’s more recent achievements, the CHS Wildcat Marching Band has earned the title of state champion four out of the last five years, while also performing and competing with great success in festivals and competitions throughout the Southwest.

During the height of the 2014 contest season, Allred took a break from his busy adjudication schedule (and, of course, the instruction of his own students) to discuss repertoire selection, technology, private lessons, student buy-in, the critical role of mentorship in music education, and other facets of his approach to building and maintaining a first-rate band department.

 

School Band & Orchestra: What are the musical characteristics you want the Clovis High School band to achieve?

Bill Allred: My goal – and these are all goals, whether we achieve them or not – is to have a full and darker sound. I’m not afraid to explore all ranges of dynamics. I’m not afraid to play out, play with a full sound, and I don’t think anyone has ever accused our group of being reserved, careful, and in the pocket. We’re not afraid to play. But we also really value the soft dynamics and work really hard at being musical. We take chances. I love to play difficult literature and then have these kids go, “Wow – look what we accomplished together!” I’m not conservative in terms of difficulty because I love that challenge of finding a way to get inside the students’ heads so I can inspire them to achieve very difficult literature and to perform it at the very highest levels possible.

 

SBO: Where do you draw the line in terms of when you should push your students versus taking a more laid back approach?

BA: That’s something we think about at the beginning of the year. We take a look at the orchestration and estimate what our talented kids might be able to accomplish. Whatever that level is, we look to aim a little bit higher, just to push them a little bit to improve. We look at the strengths of the program, the strengths of the kids, and the strengths and weaknesses of their development up to that point – from middle school through high school, or from year to year with the returning high school kids – and then we think about what we can and cannot do. We need to put music in front of them that will challenge them, appropriately, to be better. Kids like to be challenged. They really do. If the music is too difficult or too easy, they don’t feel successful. If they’re not being challenged appropriately and it’s not within their grasp, there’s no buy-in.

I spend a lot of time thinking of those concerns, running them by colleagues and professionals, asking them, “Do you think this is appropriate or not appropriate? What do you think this group can accomplish?”

Personally, I try not to make any decisions without guidance from very qualified people. I try to make sure that I am making the right choice in this regard, because it’s so important to the success of my program.

 

SBO: What’s your method for selecting repertoire?

BA: The director needs to pick out music that he or she likes. That’s the first order of business, and it’s much more important than what the kids want. The director is the one who has to inspire, motivate, encourage the students, waking up every day excited to work on that music, from its early stages through the final product.

Number two is about the kids. Can they play it? Is it achievable? And is it demanding enough to push them to be better? And after that, will they like it?

The other factor is time: do you have enough time to achieve what you want to with the piece?

 

SBO: Where do you stand on classic repertoire versus new content, or even pop music?

BA: We do a pops concert at the end of the year, which this year includes “Stars and Stripes,” the theme from Mission Impossible, and we’ll be doing the theme from Harry Potter. We’re going to let our hair down and have some fun with that, and play some patriotic and movie repertoire. We’re finishing up our concert sight-reading material right now, which is more serious music. The more serious side of repertoire we have performed includes “Lincolnshire Posey,” Verdi’s “Requiem,” “Asphalt Cocktail,” and “Give Us This Day.” Venturing into all sorts of emotions and types of music always keeps a freshness in your program, for both directors and students.

 

SBO: When you first started at Clovis as an assistant director, before eventually becoming the head band director, how prepared were you for the non-musical elements of the position?

BA: Not very. My expectations were to learn things that I did not know, while also helping out and improving instruction. As far as the non-musical elements behind the scenes, the amount of responsibility definitely caught me off guard. That helped prepare me for where I am today, as far as boosters, fundraising, working with parents, working with students, working with colleagues, shoe sizes, uniform fitting procedures, scheduling busses and itineraries, handling money and student accounts, student discipline, which was a big challenge for me at the beginning, and all the rest of it. In fact, my approaches weren’t always correct, but I was able to learn from my mistakes and to improve. I have had a couple of mentoring teachers, who have been teaching for at least 25 years, who have been helping me out. Any time I had questions, they were always available. As an assistant director at a strong program, that was a huge advantage that I received: I had people I trusted and believed in who were able to guide and help me.

 

SBO: What were some of the things that you do differently now?

BA: One of the things that surprised me when I first started teaching was that because I had been through college, and because I was older, and because I knew how to play and how to teach, students would automatically respect me. There was a respect for the title, but continued respect (the kind needed for students to receive the information I try to give them) is something you have to earn. That caught me off guard. At first, I thought I could almost intimidate the students into learning and doing what they’re supposed to do. That was, for me personally, a difficult process. Students aren’t going to receive the information if they don’t respect you, and if you don’t give them the same respect. Once I gave students respect, and as my own knowledge and experience grew, the kids noticed that and then began receiving the information better.

 

SBO: Students also tend to work harder if they feel ownership of the ensemble. How do you encourage that with your students?

BA: The student buy-in comes when the students feel successful. And the success is not the amount of trophies or the placement or score. The students feel successful when they’re making music as a part of a team and are feeling good about themselves. They don’t have to be first chair or first part, but if they feel like they are contributing to the team and the team is moving forward, then they’ll feel good about what they’re doing. When they perform well and receive positive feedback from the crowd and adjudicators, it makes the work worth it. That’s the measure of success. The more they feel successful, the better they play their instrument, and the more they accomplish on their instrument (or in color guard). If they feel like they’re accomplishing something that is worth the investment in their time, then they stick with it.

It doesn’t matter if we win state championships. There have been years when we won state championships, but I had to be very tough on the kids and the process was not enjoyable. There were other times when we had a great journey, but did not win the trophy, and the kids loved it anyway.

 

SBO: What are the biggest challenges you face in the day to day?

BA: Private lessons are a big concern for us right now. Our private lesson program has been diminished greatly over the last six or seven years. It’s a long story, but in short, we’re not allowed to have private lessons on campus anymore. We used to have a large population that took lessons privately, but now we’re at a much smaller number. That is a big challenge for us because it hampers student progress. There are still some great players in my group, but we had a lot more depth in the past.

The other thing with Clovis is that we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s a minimum of a two or three-hour drive to anywhere. Any contest or away football game is two and a half hours away.

We talk a lot about the national programs. We want to push ourselves to be that good. And I want to be clear: we’re not talking about placement; we are talking about performance. We want our kids to perform as well as the Flower Mound and Marcus High Schools and to march as well as Phil Geiger’s Westfield bands did back in the day, or like Carmel High School from Carmel, Indiana. We just want to push ourselves to be better and better.

 

SBO: What do you to expose your students to those types of programs?

BA: We play a lot of recordings and videos. Every day in the band room, we have video running of various band programs that I feel are top notch. And that’s just showing the kids what they can do, what is possible. We also have done the Bands of America regional marching competitions, and the value of that is really in exposing them to great programs from outside our state or outside of West Texas. There are so many great programs out there. Getting the kids to watch those programs has them saying, “Oh, I see what you’re talking about now. We can be a lot better!”

We show videos of all kinds of groups – collegiate bands, military bands, and so on – but we also show great high school bands, too. Those demonstrate that kids who are the same age as our kids, in a high school kind of like ours, can accomplish great things. Our students can connect with that.

SBO: How regularly do you do that?

BA: It is sporadic. For example, if we’re working on a piece of literature, I don’t present a recording of that piece until after we’ve worked it out. I don’t want my students to play by ear; I want them to be able to read music, and to be able to transfer their interpretations of what they see. Then, after that, I play a recording for them to enhance that interpretation. That’s important to me, to never play a recording before we begin reading it. And then once we do that, I give them recordings, CDs, or a YouTube link to go listen to the song, a section, or a particular part. It all depends what we’re trying to accomplish.

 

SBO: In addition to online videos, what other technology or tools have you brought into your classroom and integrated into your instruction over the past few years?

BA: Every day in our middle schools, we use Rhythm Bee, which is a progressive rhythm-reading tool. The tuner has been around for a long time, but we use pickups and tuners that clip on the instrument. However, it’s important that we use those the right way: students need to learn to tune their ears not their eyes, so that comes down to how we present and incorporate those tools. They’re great, though.

 

SBO: How about music apps?

BA: I would say 80 percent of our kids have smartphones and are able to download applications like tuners, metronomes and so on. [Multi-purpose music ed program] TonalEnergy is another application that we use a lot.

 

SBO: How do you make sure that the kids who don’t have smartphones don’t feel left out?

BA: When we use TonalEnergy, we’ll also have that projected on a screen in the band hall nearly every day. All kids can see and use that, even though it doesn’t quite give the individual feedback. The kids are very good at sharing that application in class with one another. Regular tuners can still accomplish the same thing.

We also use SmartMusic extensively. It’s not only great instruction and information, but also accountability. What I hear a lot from young teachers is, “Well, I told them to do it.” Telling them can be very different from getting students to actually receive the information and then holding them accountable. We have to make sure that they are doing what they need to do, not just that they have been told what they need to do. That’s one thing that we stress in our school system: accountability for each student. We’re not perfect, but we’re working to improve that daily.

 

SBO: You mean for students to be accountable, but also for the staff to be accountable for each of their students.

BA: Yes, absolutely. Because we only have one high school and three middle schools in this town, it’s a special situation where I can talk to and coordinate with all of the directors. All the schools feed into one high school, so we are in control over the vertical curricular alignment, aligning the instruction so that all kids progress from level to level learning the same material. We’re working at getting better at that everyday. We want to make sure that the fundamentals and values of the program are being taught in the same way.

 

SBO: What are the most important lessons you’ve learned over the years as an educator?

BA: There are lots of epiphanies that I’ve had in my career. One thing that is crucial is bringing in as many qualified people as you can to do clinics, hear your groups, and provide feedback. Then you have to be willing to receive the feedback on what your kids are doing, as well as on your instruction and your curriculum.

A lot of young band directors lock themselves up in the band room and they feel like they are all by themselves. With today’s communication – emails, texting, Skyping, and so on – there’s no reason for that. It’s so easy to send a recording of your band out, and there are so many people out there who are willing to help.

 

SBO: Where do you recommend that people go looking for these resources, such as people willing to give feedback?

BA: You can go to All-State conventions. Your alma mater is a great resource – your college director is always going to be more than willing to help you. Area colleges will help, too: they want to recruit, so asking them for help is something that they’d welcome. Even high school and middle school directors who have a proven track record of success, whose work you admire – send them a recording and ask them questions. Whenever anyone’s ever asked me for help, I’ve always given it and I’ve never asked for a penny (even though some pay, but that’s not why I do it). I have done a whole bunch for free and I know there are a ton of other people out there who are willing to help. Go online and look at great programs and send them an email. Even if they don’t know you, if you email them introducing yourself and asking for some guidance, I just can’t imagine that there would be people out there who would refuse your request. At the very least, they’ll set you up with someone who can help you.

One other important thing that I have learned: it’s okay to admit that you don’t know everything. It’s awful to remain ignorant about things, though, so seek that information out.

I was recently adjudicating a festival that had 55 bands. The common question among the adjudicators was “Has this group brought in anyone to help them?” Or, “Have they sent a recording out to anyone?” The answer I kept hearing from people in that area was “No, they never brought anyone in.” And that’s just unfortunate for them and for their students.

Find people to help. It’s an easy thing to do; you just have to let your pride down a little bit. Don’t be afraid to ask. In fact, you should be afraid to not ask!

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