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UpClose: Joni Perez

Mike Lawson • Features • June 18, 2014

Inside the methods that fueled The Woodlands High School’s run to the BOA Grand National Championship

“A group can win a contest or be second or tenth or maybe not even make finals,” says Joni Perez, director of The Woodlands High School (TWHS) band program. “At the heart of it, though, the kids need to be learning what it means to be a good person through the process, along the road that leads to success.” Perez has seen an awful lot of success since taking over the head director position in the suburb just north of Houston in 2010. Since then, she’s brought concert groups to the Midwest Clinic, seen her department awarded the Sudler Shield for marching excellence, had one of her wind bands named the National Wind Bands Honor Project winner, and her marching band is the reigning Bands of America Grand National Champion, having outscored the likes of Carmel (Ind.) High School, Avon (Ind.) High School, and Marcus (Texas) High School in Indianapolis in November of 2013.

Perez is quick to dole out credit for these accomplishments, noting the stellar development of the program by longtime director Brett Johnson (who led The Woodlands Bands for the last 18 of his 28-year teaching career), the dedication and commitment of her staff, and the will of her students to be great. “To a degree, we let [the students] decide how much we are going to push each other, and whether or not we stay the course,” she says. “Years when you go to Nationals are very long, and you need to know that your group is going to be focused and committed over the long haul. The students need to want for themselves to be great more than the directors want them to be great. I feel like we had that group this year. Our kids wanted to be amazing at what they were doing. That desire was something that you could see in the group throughout the fall, from start to finish.”

The daughter of musical parents – her father has a degree in music ed, grandfather was the local church music instructor, and her uncle was her first band director – Perez began her teaching career at The Woodlands as an instructor and technician in 2003, while completing a degree at the University of Houston. In 2005, she was offered a position as an assistant director, and then five years later landed the head job, marking a trend in which more and more women have been leading – and finding success – at prominent competitive school band programs.

In this recent conversation with SBO, Perez talks about the steps she took to help her group find success on the national stage, her method for continual improvement, and how respect for the process is the key to both development and achievement.

 

School Band & Orchestra: When you became the head director at TWHS in 2010, did you come across any major surprises?

Joni Perez: There haven’t been many surprises because when I was an assistant, the head director gave me a lot of responsibility and allowed me to take ownership of some major aspects of the organization. We were obviously a team and all shared in those responsibilities, but that was a good training ground if you’re aspiring to lead a program at any point.

The head director is responsible for a lot of the behind-the-scenes operations and dealings, and I had some experience with that, as well, going into the position. It’s so important to try to get to know your parent base and your kids on a personal level, work along with your administration and do everything you can in the public eye to support the school and organization. As you step into a lead role, it’s just more intense, because the buck stops with you. So you delegate as much as you can, and you surround yourself with a really good team of people to help you in that endeavor.

I knew what I was getting myself into. I was prepared for all of the responsibilities that come with the job. I also tried to learn as much as I could from Brett Johnson, who was here before me. Without him as my leader and mentor when I was an instructor and later an assistant, I wouldn’t have been able to step into the role as easily as I did. He was a huge part of that learning experience and just helping me be prepared to step into his shoes – which were very big shoes to fill.

 

SBO: What were your objectives when you took on the head role?

JP: Every director, no matter how long they’ve been in a program, should constantly be looking at ways to improve, to make things better, and do things smarter. You should always be learning and looking for those opportunities. While I was an assistant, the staff would get together and talk about what we could do the next year in order to be better than we were the previous year, and look for ways to improve the process and the quality of the program over time. When I was given the head position, my biggest concern at first was to at least maintain the quality of the program. That was my first priority because it had been led by such an amazing person for so long and it had such a rich tradition of family and excellence.

I was also looking ahead to how we could continually improve the process, inspire our kids in different ways, and push the envelope in what we’re trying to do on the marching field, in our concert band program, with our winter guard, and with our percussion program.

I didn’t look for big changes to happen, so much as to look at what was working – what’s been really good for the program – that we should continue and build on, as well as the areas where we might consider doing things a little bit differently in order to do them even better.

Over the past four years, we had been tweaking and tweaking and tweaking, providing oil here and there – loosening up the joints and tightening up the screws – and it has paid off in a lot of ways that we didn’t expect. But it’s been great!

 

SBO: Considering that your marching band was named the Bands of America Grand National Champion last fall, you were clearly doing something right. What would you point to in the development of The Woodlands band program that led to that achievement?

JP: It wasn’t just in one area. We’ve been focusing a lot of effort on aspects such as our color guard program and its contribution, the students’ level of demand – both musically and visually – and our overall approach to design. We have also been really trying to improve our movement program for the past several years: the way that the kids march and the way that the color guard moves and the way that they carry themselves. That has been a big point of emphasis, doing that at a high level.

 

SBO: Specifically, how did you go about improving that?

TWHS during their championship-winning performance at the BOA Grand National Finals in Indianapolis in November of 2013. Photo by Robert Van Cleve.

JP: We introduced a more refined marching style four or five years ago. Just by osmosis, that starts to become more consistent as your kids do it for several years in a row. We’ve learned to be more specific, articulate, and demanding in what we’re asking the kids to accomplish, and how we’re asking them to control how they look on the field. We’ve been more attentive about explaining to them what we want people to see, what the idea is that we’re trying to convey, and helping them understand what it is that might make it look easy or feel easy. We gave them a lot of information, and then we did a lot of repetitions: information and repetition, over and over.

Something that’s really helped us is to let the kids watch each other. We tell them what the task or goal is, we do it all together, then we split them up into two different groups and have one group watch the other group perform, learn by watching, and then give feedback. Then they switch, and the group that was performing takes a turn watching the other group perform. Having them take turns and really see each other doing what we’re asking them to do is so helpful. We’re usually the ones who are always watching them and giving them information, but when we let them see themselves, they can start to connect what they’re hearing out of our mouths with what is actually happening on the field. That also gives them an opportunity to critique each other in a positive way. That really had a number of benefits: it gets the kids more involved in the rehearsal, and it helps them feel like they have more ownership of the process.

We have also looked at a number of different ways to improve the strength of our color guard in the fall. We implemented some new recruiting practices that have been beneficial, and we saw the fruits of that, especially this past year, and we should be seeing that again this next year. With a band as big as ours, you need to have a big color guard to support that. That was an aspect that we’ve been putting a lot of focus on, as well as, of course, the overall technique, performance quality, and look of the color guard.

 

SBO: Sticking with the field show for a second, what were some of the thematic elements you wanted your kids to understand as they perform, or that you wanted the audience to walk away with after seeing TWHS band perform?

JP: First, let’s talk about the show design. The show design lends itself to the kids’ potential. We’ve been trying to showcase the kids and let their strengths be expressed, but also not overtaxing them or asking them to do something that they’re never going to achieve. There’s really a fine line there.  You want to be really creative and you want to be really exciting and do things that are demanding and impressive. But you have to remember that you’re working with teenagers, and it’s not drum corps. Here in Texas, you have a total of eight hours a week, and that’s what you get. We’re competing with dozens of bands that have more practice time than that, so we had to make sure that we’re being really smart about what we’re asking the kids to do and what we’re trying to express in these productions.

 

SBO: What’s your technique for evaluating efficiency, as well as where to draw the line in terms of pushing your students?

JP: You learn from what you did the previous year and look at the students you’re going to have. You always have to be aware of the class that you have versus the class that you’re going to have the next year, and what your strengths are now and what will be at a higher level next year (because you put so much emphasis on it in your instruction the previous year). It’s almost trial and error, in some cases. Having a group march at 190 BPM for more than a minute and a half or two minutes is a mistake that you don’t want to make. You just have to learn the hard way, sometimes, what may be unrealistic. You just have to be smart about the abilities and realistic potential is of the kids that you have, and what it might be the next season. We have really honed in on doing that better as a staff and as a design team: not biting off more than we can chew, but certainly getting right to the point where we’re demanding of the kids to push themselves to achieve really impressive and exciting ways of performing music and movement. We have had a strong senior class that has led the way for each of the last four years, and it’s so important to have a good group of student leaders.

That was another point of emphasis of mine: I tried to put more responsibility on the student leadership. I tried to get them to take more ownership of what was going on, to be the decision makers, and to establish what the rehearsal was going to be like and how we were going to conduct ourselves.

Our kids wanted to be amazing at what they were doing. That desire was something that you could see in the group throughout the fall, from start to finish.

It was really cool to see the how the leaders among the students really stepped up and took ownership of the process. The process is what makes you great. The process is what makes you reach your absolute potential. If you can teach a group of kids to respect the process of learning, then they are going to reach the ultimate goal and potential that you know they have. If they don’t understand why you’re doing something or how you’re going to do it, then they are not going to buy into what you’re doing. I think that those are things that we explained and instructed really well this year.

 

SBO: Were there particular activities you did early on with your student leaders to get them engaged?

The TWHS Band 2013-2014 officers and staff at the 2013 Officer Retreat.

JP: We had a preliminary leadership seminar in March of last spring, and we made it required for any students who were interested in a leadership position. It was led by Mr. Scott Lang, and we brought our kids to one of his seminars at a local school. He got the kids to really think about what it means to be a leader. Every kid says that he or she wants to be a leader, but they don’t always understand what that really means. There was a preliminary testing ground in that seminar that got them thinking about what is required of leaders in order to be effective. That helped quite a bit.

We also tried a different officer training camp approach. Instead of bringing them onto the school campus, we went out to a campsite by a lake, and made it a little retreat. Being out of the band hall and out of the school made it very personal, and it made it a special experience. It was inspiring, and that helped the students start forming that special bond that you hope that your group of leaders will have throughout the year. Those couple of days alone were a big part of those kids getting excited, inspired, and encouraged about what it is that their band can do. You want your leaders to be excited and ready to go. That excitement drives them to do a good job for their peers.

 

SBO: Is that retreat something that you think you’ll try to do every year?

JP: It’s something that I would like to do as regularly as possible, because it was effective. At the same time, we don’t want to stagnate. You want to make sure that you’re keeping things fresh. You may not necessarily want to do the exact same thing the next year, because you may have a third or half of the same kids going through that leadership program again.

 

 SBO: Where do you go after a season like the one you had last fall?

JP: It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to go to Grand Nationals or just performing at a football game: you should always be trying to pull the best out of the kids, and you should be trying to provide the best possible opportunities and experiences for the kids every year. We don’t know what the future holds. We had a banner year, and we’re fortunate to have experienced that, but you can’t count on that to happen, especially considering how competitive and successful so many band programs are becoming each year. Fortunately, with all of the strong programs we see in Texas and across country, we’re all pushing each other, and it’s very possible that another group will step into that position next year, and then everyone will be chasing them. You always just try to do your best, and that should be good enough. That’s what we set out to do this year, and that’s what we set out to do 10 years ago – it doesn’t change. As long as your kids are experiencing a positive learning and team environment and growing from that, and the teachers are also learning and growing, that’s all you can ask for. If you end up also winning at contest, then that’s just the cherry on top.

 

SBO: What about communicating the metric of success, as you just outlined it?

JP: There was hardly a time at all when we talked about judges last fall. We know that our kids want to be the best at what they’re doing. We know how competitive they are, and that they have a desire to go out there and be the best group on the field. There’s no need to put more pressure on them, from our perspective, in part because the experience they’re going to have is up to them anyway. We talk about what our potential is, and what kind of journey we want to have, and about staying committed all the way to the very end, and working to earn what we would like to see happen. You have to be smart about the way that you motivate your kids from a competitive standpoint. It can’t be all about winning because you don’t have control over that. And the second that a director or a student feels that they have some sort of control over results, you’re setting everyone up for disappointment. It has to be about pursuing excellence, staying the course, being committed, being a team, encouraging each other through the thick and the thin, and trying to create the best possible memory and experience possible as you work towards the end of your season. Our kids really responded to that, and it fueled them. We never talked about winning.

 

SBO: What is it that you hope your students take away from their journey through your program?

JP: I hope that the students come out of this knowing that if they put their minds to what they want, then they can accomplish their goals. There’s a method to being successful, and you have to respect the process of what it takes to become your best. You need to learn how to be supportive and love each other through that process, and learn how to use the positive qualities of the people around you to become successful. It doesn’t matter how good you are at something if that process of improving at an activity doesn’t also help you become a better person.

Making smart choices and good decisions, developing and following good habits, being respectful of the people that you work and learn from, being an example to each other and other people in our school, and to other band programs – trying to be a positive example of what you do – those are the keys to what we’re trying to achieve in our band program. A group can win a contest or be second or tenth, or maybe not even make finals. At the heart of it, though, the kids need to be learning what it means to be a good person through the process, along the road that leads to success. Being consistent with yourself and with consistent with good practices are just some of the many things that you learn through band. All band directors know this, but it’s so true: it cannot be about winning; it’s got to be about the experience that the kids are getting through the process.

 

The Woodlands High School At a Glance

Location: 6101 Research Forest Drive, Spring, Texas

On the Web: www.twhsband.org

Students in School: 4,200

Students in Band Program: 315

Ensembles (and students in each):

•  Concert Band (65)        •  Symphonic Band II (68)

•  Symphonic Band I (72) •  Wind Ensemble (69)

 

Recent Program Highlights

 

2013-2014

•  BOA Houston Regional Champions

•  BOA San Antonio Super Regional Champions

•  BOA Class 4A Grand National Champions

•  BOA Grand National Champions; winner of top Music and

   General Effect

•  Percussive Arts Society International Convention (PASIC)

   selected percussion ensemble

•  UIL Sweepstakes Award for Superior ratings in both concert

   and marching band

 2012-2013

•  BOA Houston Regional Champions

•  UIL Area F Marching Contest Champions

•  UIL Texas State Marching Finalist

•  2nd place at BOA San Antonio Super Regional marching
   competition

•  Midwest International Band & Orchestra Clinic featured ensemble

•  WGI Southwestern Regional Champions

•  UIL Sweepstakes Award for Superior ratings in both concert

   and marching band

 2011-2012

•  2nd place at BOA San Antonio Super Regional marching
   competition

•  4th place at BOA Grand Nationals

•  UIL Sweepstakes Award for Superior ratings in both concert

   and marching band

•  National Wind Band Honors Project Winner, awarded by The

   Foundation for Music Education

 2010-2011

•  Recipient of the Sudler Shield from the John Philip Sousa  
    Foundation

•  UIL Area F Marching Contest Champions

•  UIL Texas State Marching Finalist

•  UIL Sweepstakes Award for Superior ratings in both concert

   and marching band

 

Here are some highlights of the Woodlands High Schools’ BOA Finals-winning performance:

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