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UpClose: David Gorham

Mike Lawson • Features • October 18, 2013

Maintaining and growing a high-caliber band

David Gorham, director of bands at Owasso High School in Owasso, Oklahoma.

The Owasso High School Bands are a familiar name to many, having participated in such lauded events as the Tournament of Roses Parades (five times!), the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, national Bands of America competitions, and the Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic, to name just a few. For the past 25 years, David Gorham has been running the band program at the lone high school in Owasso, a fast-growing suburb north of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over that time, Gorham has ensured that his bands have kept pace with the area’s booming population: in a school of about 2,600, he now has over 380 students participating in the marching band and five full performing concert bands at the high school, in addition to four more concert bands at the lower levels, two each in both the seventh and eighth grades.

The husband and wife team of Harlon and Willeta Lamkin were the band directors who sowed the seeds for something special at Owasso, building the band department up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Meanwhile, David Gorham was teaching with his wife, also a band director, nearby but across the border in Arkansas. When the Lamkins retired, the Gorhams jumped at the opportunity. (Jana Gorham co-directed the Owasso High School groups for 15 years, before moving over to head up the seventh grade band some 10 years ago.) By the time they arrived in Owasso, the band department was well established and things were in great shape, says David. “The program had a long track record of successful performances in both marching and concert and a lot of students involved in all-state band – all of these things that you’d want your program doing.” While some might find such a scenario intimidating, the Gorhams have simply continued building.

This month, SBO chats with David Gorham about the inner workings of his program, along with the philosophies and methodologies that enable the “Pride of Owasso” to further the band’s ever-growing legacy.

 

School Band & Orchestra: How has the Owasso band program evolved under your leadership?

 David Gorham: Well, the school has grown, so the program has grown. We’ve tried to carry on a lot of the traditions that were already established. In terms of marching band, our style has changed a great deal, from a more traditional style to more of a corps-style show that we do now, but that has been a gradual change. We’ve become more involved in competitive marching bands with Bands of America. We also have enough students now that we are able to make competitive bands an optional event.

 All of the students in the high school band are in a football band that performs at all of the home games, but then we have a competitive marching band taken from that which has about 250 performing kids. We go to Bands of America regionals and nationals.

 

SBO: How has the addition of the competitive marching element impacted the program?

 DG: The students are really excited about it. We perform with about 250 students, but with alternates and shadows, there’s probably more like 290 or so that participate. That’s a pretty good number, and that happens after school; during the school day we have concert band and then competitive marching band meets after school three days a week. The concert band is really the focus of the program, though. We currently have five, and they all go to contests. They are all performing groups with full instrumentation.

 We set the same standards for all five groups, they just differ by ability level. The Wind Ensemble is only juniors and seniors by audition, so we’ll have a number of younger students who are really high-quality players but are in the second or third band in leadership roles.

 

SBO: How is the band’s student leadership organized?

 DG: We have a band council, president, and representatives in each class that help take care of the day-to-day things, like arranging for gatherings and making sure the band room is in order, especially after football games. We have five drum majors, and they have a really active role in terms of making sure that rehearsals are ready and everyone ends up where they need to be. They take care of the equipment we use. During rehearsals before school starts, we have student leaders who serve as squad leaders for the younger students. That gives them some ownership, plus they help the younger students along. All incoming students get a mentor – a “buddy” – from the upper class who volunteers to help them out, to answer any questions, and keep the younger kids on track so they know what they’re doing.

 

SBO: Does that include musical support?

 DG: Anything – it can be to help get the music learned or just someone they can call if they don’t know where they’re supposed to be or what they’re supposed to bring. Someone that can check on them and make sure the younger students are ready for whatever the event is.

 

SBO: Would you mind giving a quick overview of how music is set up in the district?

 DG: We have a sort of an unusual setup. We only have one high school in the district. Then we have a sixth grade center, which houses all of the sixth graders in the district. All of our beginners start there, in block instrument classes that meet every day. We only start flute, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, and percussion. The seventh grade center is self-contained, with all of the seventh graders in the district. That’s the first time that the students participate in actual concert bands, and there are two of them there. Same thing with the eighth grade center, which also has two concert bands. And then there are five high school bands. All seven directors teach whatever their instrument is, or what they’re best at, in all of those different schools. So Jana, my wife, works with the seventh grade bands and also the beginning trumpets. The other seventh grade band director also does all of the beginning trombones, and so on.

Everybody moves around to do whatever they are best at, for the most benefit for the students.

 

 SBO: What do you hold to be the foundation of your concert program? If you could distill it down, what are the principles that guide your success?

 DG: First of all, no program is going to be strong without strong feeders. We all keep in mind the importance of fundamentals, starting from the very beginning. We don’t have any teachers that are doing things differently from anyone else – using different systems or different books. We are all on the same page in that regard. So as students come up through the program, they’re going to have one of these seven directors who are all following the same methods. No matter who a student has, he or she is getting a similar experience – not accounting for personalities – about what we want from the program and what we think is important.

 

SBO: So there’s consistency of instruction and emphasis across all levels?

 DG: Right. We really stress fundamentals, all the time. A lot of people think they don’t have time to spend on fundamentals because they have to learn their music. But if they work on the fundamentals, they won’t have to spend as much time working on the contest material because they will have the skills in place to learn and play the music more quickly. If we sight read a lot, we won’t need to take as much time just to get through the music that we want to play. Having that strong foundation puts everything better in place. We focus on that, top to bottom – or bottom to top, I should say!

With the high school groups, as long as we’ve had three or more groups, I always work with the top group and I also work with the bottom group. I make sure that they both get the same level of attention. With the Wind Ensemble, they sight read every day, and we work on fundamentals every day. By the time contest comes around, we’re not too worried about how they’re playing, and sight reading isn’t an issue because they’ve been doing it so long, and we’ve really built a lot of confidence. Half the battle or more is convincing the students what they can do, and the other part is having them do it. If you can get them past that point of being afraid or thinking they can’t do it, you can make a lot of progress. Our kids are very used to playing alone, in front of directors, and in front of other students. It’s something they do almost every day. They get over the nerves of that every day. It’s the same thing with singing.

 

 SBO: Singing parts? Ear training?

 DG: Yep, both. We have students sing the parts on the chorale and things like that for ear training purposes.

 

SBO: What sort of in-class instructional time do most of your students receive?

 DG: Here at the high school we have a straight six-block schedule, so the students get Band for 55 minutes every day. We do have some sectional rehearsals that meet in the mornings, but that’s it. We don’t have block schedule or anything like that. The schedule in the younger buildings is seven periods, but it lines up well enough with the directors moving around.

 

David Gorham and the Owasso Concert Band at the Midwest Band Clinic, 2012

SBO: What advice would you offer to educators who might be looking to build a program similar to yours?

 DG: Focus on the quality and consistency in the younger grades. It seems that a lot of people focus everything on a top-down approach: they put everything into making the high school band as good as it can be, and if they can do something for the beginners, that’s good, but if they can’t, that’s fine, too. We really focus a lot of attention on making sure that the beginning program is as good as it should be, and then the seventh-grade and eighth-grade bands as well.

We also manage our instrumentation in seventh grade so that it’s balanced from the very beginning. We audition for percussion and take a limited number, so we start out with balance and don’t have to worry about that later on.

 

SBO: What’s your method for determining balance among the instrumentation?

 DG: Every kid wants to play saxophone or percussion. We don’t start any kids on saxophone. If a kid wants to play sax, he or she has to play clarinet first, with the idea that only some people will be switched over to sax after sixth grade. That eliminates that issue. For percussion, all students in percussion will also be assigned to other instruments as well. Then there are some auditions for percussion, and the students who aren’t chosen will end up on whichever other instrument they were assigned. Beginners aren’t usually that set on what they want to play. If, for example, you give them a mouthpiece and they can buzz it well and feel good about it, they’ll usually be good with that. We don’t have to strong-arm anybody into playing particular instruments; the numbers usually work out pretty well on their own.

Once the students sign up for beginning band in fifth grade, we travel around to the elementary schools and test them for which instruments are best for them, and try to balance instrumentation then and there. If they have trouble with the instrument they start out on, we help them out and get them situated in a place where they’re going to be comfortable and have a chance to succeed. Later in the year, usually after spring break, is when we start having students get into the other instruments. We start out the year with all sixth graders on just the five instruments, but by the end of the year we have full instrumentation.

 

SBO: You are also a very active composer of concert band material. When did you get started writing music? And what are your thoughts on the current state of band literature for school ensembles?

 DG: I’ve been writing ever since I knew how. I guess I started back in junior high. My first published piece was in the mid-‘80s. There’s been about 30 years of writing music and running a high school band program at the same time.

There’s a lot of stuff out there. I hear a lot of things I like and I hear a lot of things I don’t like. That’s probably the case for everybody. There’s some great stuff being written, and also some material that’s more generic. There’s a place for everything, though.

 

SBO: Are you noticing any larger trends in band repertoire?

 DG: We’re seeing a lot of variety in the pieces available. It’s a lot easier for composers to get themselves out there through self-publishing. You might not have the wide audience that you would if you had the advertising from the publishers, but at least in name there are a lot of composers out there on their own who are really successful. We played at Midwest last year, and anytime you are able to do that you basically see everything the publishers are putting out. There’s also a lot of material that the composers who are self-publishing send out, and then there are the pieces that are available online. So there’s a whole lot of stuff out there. You might not come in contact with it except through word of mouth. Some people are kind of down on what’s out there right now, but I would say there are some really good things on the market.

 

SBO: How do you personally try to find lit that you want to introduce to your groups?

 DG: I go to concerts, and I listen to the recordings that publishers send out. I’ve encountered a lot of people that I might not have heard by checking out recordings online and seeing what’s available. I like to perform some new material. But I also feel like there’s a lot of older repertoire that’s really great and that the kids need to be exposed to. While we do play some new stuff, we do a mixture. I’m not the kind of person who has to play the latest thing that’s come out. There’s a lot of older material that is still really just as good as it ever was. Our kids are going to have played the whole Suites and so forth, even just for the experience of reading them.

We sight read every day. We have a lot of things in the library, new and old, and pass out one or two new pieces every day just for reading – for exposure and experience. We cover a lot of ground. We may read something one day that’s 50 years old and then the next day something that’s brand new that I just discovered.

When it comes to contest, when you can only do three pieces and you spend a little more time on them, we have to be a little more selective about what music we’re going to play. Generally, we don’t play something fresh off the press, unless it’s something that I really like. The older pieces tend to be more beneficial for us to spend more time on.

 

SBO: Tried and true?

 DG: Right. And we always play a march. All of our groups play a march. I like them, and I think their place in our history is important. We always play a march in marching band, as well.

 

SBO: Last year the Owasso bands performed at Midwest, and the year before it was the Rose Parade. Do you have anything exciting lined up for this year?

 DG: Next March we’re going to Dublin for the St. Patrick’s Day parade. We’re talking about 300 kids, and I think there will be another 150 parents and friends going along. It’s always interesting having the marching band out there in the middle of concert season. Fortunately, though, that will take place partly during spring break, so the students won’t have to miss too much class time for that.

 

SBO: With both you and your wife being long-time school band directors, is it ever problematic trying to escape the band room once you get home?

 DG: Burnout can be an issue, but because we both work at the same place, we don’t have to talk too much shop over the dinner table because we already know what’s happened that day. We enjoy what we do and we’re in a good place to do it, so we don’t spend a lot of time moaning or bellyaching about what the situation is. When we do discuss work at home, it’s usually more of a positive conversation.

Owasso High School Bands at a Glance

Location: 12901 E 86th Street North, Owasso, Okla.

On the Web: prideofowasso.com

Students in School: 2,600

Students in Instrumental Ensemble: 380

Staff: David Gorham, Chris Harris, Jana Gorham, Chris Barber, Shawn O’Kelley, Steve Workman, Cindy Craft

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