UpClose: Jim Sammons & Page Howell

Mike Lawson • Features • March 17, 2014

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The recruiting strategies that fuel the Vero Beach (Fla.) High School Band

Located several hours north of Miami on a stretch of Eastern Florida nicknamed “the Treasure Coast,” Vero Beach is a picturesque seaside town that is home to one of the original, founding music programs in the Florida Bandmasters Association. Headed for over three decades by Jim Sammons, who was inducted into the FBA hall of fame last November, and associate director Page Howell, who has been on board for the past eight years, the Vero Beach High School band program is a model for success in a community that faces similar hurdles to many other small town school music programs throughout the country. The “Spirit of Vero Beach” includes competitive marching and concert ensembles and strives to stay on the cutting edge of musical instruction and performance, while combating challenges like a limited budget, geographic isolation, and increasing competition for students’ time from a wide range of activities available in their school and community.

With particular focus on recruiting and retention, Sammons and Howell spoke with SBO about their efforts to create first-tier musical opportunities for their students and a band program worthy of representing their community on the national stage.


School Band & Orchestra: Hi, gentlemen! Jim, how would you describe the band program when you first came to Vero Beach?

Jim Sammons: I came to Vero Beach in 1980. We were a school of about 2,000 students and we had about 65 kids in the music program. The instrumentation was on the thin side and the program just needed to be rebuilt in terms of size and numbers. The principal and the superintendent had a vision of a much larger band that was very much into a football halftime show-type band, and that was the direction they wanted us to go in.


SBO: And how has the program evolved since then?

JS: Now we have approximately 220 students. We had some rapid growth – we doubled the size of the band the second year, and the third year we added another 30 or 40 kids. Within three years we were marching about 140 kids, and had developed two concert bands and a consistent jazz band program.

We were a small town, and this was the only high school in the county. Vero Beach has a tremendous tradition in terms of band, dating back to the 1934. This was one of the original bands that was formed as a part of the Florida Bandmasters Association. We had a long history of band in the community, and band is always a part of the fabric of small town America. I was hired, along with the football coach and a whole bunch of other people, in order to bring that community focus back to the high school, to build our band program up, and to get folks excited about seeing the band at halftime. At the same time, everyone understood that at the core of the curriculum is the concert band.

However, to start, getting a larger marching band on the field and bringing the quality back up from where it was at that particular time was the immediate mission. And we had no modern marching instruments. We had two sousaphones and no pitched bass drums, as we know them today. It was very 1960s.


SBO: What were the first steps you took to get there?

JS: The first step is that people have to want that to happen. The administrators, the community, and the students all have to want it. Those are the people that empower the band director to go out and make it happen.


SBO: What was your strategy for creating excitement about your vision for the band?

JS: You have to be an enthusiastic leader. You have to tell the kids what you want to do, what you think they can do, and convince them what they’re capable of. I can recall the first rehearsal I had in my first summer. This was before emails and cell phones, so I had to go around with a piece of yellow paper and jot down the names and phone numbers of everyone who was in the band the previous year, as well as all the kids who were in band in junior high. I set up a meeting, and I can remember about 30 kids showing up in the middle of July. I didn’t start out with my ideas – first I asked them about their ideas. “Talk to me – tell me about your vision,” I said. I got some input, and then I laid out what I had in mind. I told the students that if they were committed, they would need to go out and find those kids who might be interested but weren’t at that meeting. Then I called together the parents and introduced myself to them and got them on board. You have to be credible – musically, organizationally – and you have to be excited about your vision and really believe in it. And once you get up and running, you have to produce something that’s sellable – a reasonably quality product both visually and musically – to build support. It’s very hard when things are struggling, and sometimes it doesn’t happen as fast as one might want.

I tried to get the best visual and musical presentation that we could. We didn’t try to play anything that I thought was over the band’s head. I also tried to incorporate some of the traditions of what the band used to do, while also introducing some new ideas. I don’t think you go into any situation and try to blow the thing up. You figure out what’s working, and every program will have some things that are going well, unless it’s a brand new school. Coming into a situation that needed to be retooled, like this one was, that was the approach that I used. And as far as going out, I immediately went out to the two feeder schools and spoke to the directors and their kids, did section rehearsals with the younger students, and just made sure that I was very visible in those band rooms. I can recall the first year when I had some resistance to change. A lot of people don’t like change. I understood that I was going to lose some kids because of that change – I had some issues with a few seniors who didn’t like change, but I knew that my success was going to come from the incoming kids from junior high.


SBO:  And you had the backing of your administration.

JS: I was lucky that my principal understood that I needed to spend a lot of time over at the junior high school. I remember going out and buying a new blue sports coat, because that was the color of the middle school band, and I wore that blue coat to their concerts and their music festivals. I remember setting chairs and stands up on the stage and helping them set up at concert festival. The other junior high school band wore red, so I also got a red sports coat and every time that other band was out somewhere I had on that red jacket, I was on the setup crew, and I rode the bus with them. I just made myself a part of what they were doing, and then asked them to be a part of what we were doing.

 We instituted a band night where the junior high kids came and sat in with the high school band and played their music, and we still do that to this day.


SBO: What do your current recruiting efforts look like?

Page Howell: There are so many factors with recruiting kids today. We compete with so many other activities – our high school has so much to offer – that sometimes kids feel like they have to make a choice. We try to be flexible, so that kids can do other things besides band. We have varsity football players and cheerleaders in band this year, so we’ve been able to make it work.

The biggest recruiter we have is still the middle school band night we do in the fall. We have all the eighth graders come over to a football game and we do a quick rehearsal with them. We get a “stands tune” ready; I think this year we did “Barbara Ann,” as well as the national anthem. We put the high school band and middle schoolers out on the field together before the game and they play the national anthem, then the middle school kids sit with the high school band kids during the game and participate in everything we do. The high schoolers do their typical halftime show, but then the middle school kids join them on the field to stand with the kids to play the fight song and one other tune.

We also do two jazz band concerts in January, and on the second night of those we invite the middle school jazz bands to play, so it’s a shared concert. After they play, they go sit in the audience and hear the high school band play. In the spring, we actually do our official recruiting, where we send a letter out inviting all of the middle school students to come to a meeting where Jim and I talk about band. We have some of our current kids get up and speak – usually seniors and freshmen, so the oldest and youngest members of our band – for a few minutes about their band experience to the incoming ninth graders.

JS: We are at the point where a student in our band here might be our greatest source of recruiting. When our kids are turned onto something, they have siblings in the middle school, they have cousins in the middle school, if they’re a ninth grader in this band they might have friends in seventh and eighth grades down at the middle school. If these kids are excited, they’ll talk about it, and that’s huge. And it’s the same thing with the parents – they’ll network, too. I ask everyone to be a recruiter for this program.


SBO: Do you feel like you have the whole recruiting thing figured out at this point?

PH: With recruiting, you are constantly having to reinvent yourself. Every year you have to see what works and what doesn’t work. You’re not going to be able to do the same thing every year. You’re always going to have to change it a little bit. That’s the secret to being a recruiter and getting kids in your band. If you have a quality product and you have quality kids, you will attract people to your program. We have a reputation as having an outstanding band program, and we present a quality product on the concert stage as well as on the football field, and that too is a great recruiter – just having quality.


SBO: When you talk about always changing things from year to year, how do you decide what you think needs changing, versus what’s working?

PH: We look at how many kids we got at the beginning of the year, and then compare that with what we did for recruiting the year before. Sometimes we’ll go three or four years and not have to change anything, then all of a sudden we have a down year and don’t get as many kids, at which point we sit down and think about what we aren’t doing, or what we need to do differently.


SBO: What is the long-term goal for the program? Are you there yet?

JS: I don’t think you ever get there! I see a change in the paradigm as each program goes through its cycles – up and down, if you want to put it that simply – but things change. The kids change and I see a generational change in kids about every five years or so. Having taught a long time – my first year of teaching was 1974, I’m still at it, and I love my job – my greatest fear is what I’m going to do with myself when I reach the point of retirement. We’ve gone from 65-70 piece marching band to 220, and we’ve gone from one concert band to three, from one jazz band to four, and we have a viable percussion program, and we’ve developed an orchestra program – as well as chorus and drama. In 2005 we built a brand new performing arts center. So we have all of the bells and whistles. We’ve been hampered by budget, but as far as the curriculum and the ensembles, we are where this school needs to be. As far as the performance level, we’ve been consistently receiving superiors at both concert and marching state assessments and we have 30 something superiors in marching and 26 years or so in the state. That’s consecutive. I wouldn’t say we’ve mastered anything, but we’re consistent at getting the top ratings there. We’re now looking beyond that.

Last year we had two concert ensembles and a percussion ensemble that performed at the Music For All National Festival up in Indianapolis. That was a huge boon for us. We learned so much about what was going on north of the Florida border, and west. We heard phenomenal bands that had an incredible level of performance. So what we’re looking at now is how we, with our strengths and our limitations, can become an even higher performing ensemble. Having been exposed to that national festival, it was really an eye-opener both for us and the students. The feedback we got from the adjudicators was awesome. As a result of that, we’re doing some revamping of our curriculum and our teaching direction. We’re really trying to build the depth of each individual player.


SBO: Presenting those types of musical experiences must help with both recruiting and retention, too.

PH: The key to retention is that kids have to feel like you respect their time. As a band director, you’ve got to come to rehearsal with a plan. You need to rehearse efficiently, have a schedule and a calendar, and stick with that plan. If the kids don’t feel like you’re respecting their time, they’re going to find something else to do.

The second thing is that kids need to feel like they’re important. We work hard to make every student feel like an important part of this band program. If they don’t feel like they’re making a difference, they’re going to go elsewhere. The way the world is now for teenagers, they need to feel like they’re part of something, they need to feel like they’re cared for, and they thrive in a family atmosphere. The band needs to foster that.


SBO: What are the biggest challenges your program is facing?

JS: We don’t have a private lesson program. We have a few retired professionals here, but this is a pretty isolated community, so we’re pretty limited in terms of private teachers. Even if we had all the money in the world, we still wouldn’t have the private teachers, unless we flew them in or drove them over from Orlando or Miami.

And we’re trying to fight isolation. Florida is surrounded on three sides by water.


SBO:  How do you combat that isolation?

JS: In 1981, we started our own marching festival here. One of the things I noticed was that we weren’t seeing enough bands. Our kids did not have role model bands. So we wanted to bring some really good bands here to Vero Beach. So we started the Treasure Coast Crown Jewel Marching Festival in 1981, and last fall we had the 32nd consecutive year of the festival. That brings good bands to town, which educates the community, educates the administrators, and lets the kids see what other bands are capable of.

Now we’re also trying to bring in clinicians of national note to work with our kids. We try to bring in artists to perform with our kids. And we want to have our kids experience as many different performing venues as we can get them to.

Going forward, what we want to do is really develop our individual players and to advance their level of musical achievement. A few years ago when Yamaha developed the Harmony Director, we got one of the early versions and we’ve been using that for probably seven or eight years. That continues to be a huge tool. We started a pilot class in SmartMusic several years ago and last year we fully implemented it. We see the benefits of that for the kids and we’re using it even more this year. We use a set of electronic tuners that students clip on their horns and other instruments – that’s something we started last year. We’re constantly looking for anything we can use to make our program better. We use Finale and Pyware, and we’ve reached out to some of the best designers in the country. We’re tying to go first class.


SBO: Any advice for directors who might be trying to build a comprehensive band program like yours?

JS: First of all, and I can’t stress this enough, no one does this alone. I’ve been blessed to work with great associate directors and auxiliary staff and supportive administration and parents.

One mistake that some people in our profession make is that they view the football halftime show as the dress rehearsal for the next contest. All of their material and effort is put into pleasing adjudicators instead of thinking, “I’ve got to be my school’s band first” and “I’ve got to be my community’s band first.” Yeah, we want to have something that will interest the adjudicators during the eight minutes at halftime, but we’ve also got to get people whistling that tune and tapping their feet. We want to make people decide that if they’re going to get a hot dog at halftime, they’re going to see the band show first and then go get that hot dog. That’s key in keeping things going strong – and keeping band programs alive.

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