UpClose: Julie Bounds

Mike Lawson • Features • November 23, 2014

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Building A Band Worth Being A Part Of 

Things are moving in the right direction for the Santa Teresa High School Band in San Jose, California. Under the guidance of director Julie Bounds, the opportunities for music students have expanded dramatically over the past decade, with the program doubling in membership and, in turn, new ensembles being formed to accommodate the influx of students. Santa Teresa’s current offerings include three concert bands, a competitive marching band, and three jazz bands, as well as percussion, guitar, ukulele, and other chamber-style groups. In addition, the band’s budget has gradually expanded from around $4,000 per year to over $100,000. Several years ago, Bounds started a blog titled “The Thrifty Band Director,” and she insists that the recent growth in capital hasn’t altered her fastidious efforts to maximize the return on every dollar spent, whether replacing instruments, purchasing new uniforms, or taking her band on the road. In this recent interview, Julie Bounds discusses the strategies she used to build a comprehensive program that her students feel is worth being a part of. 

SBO: What was your approach to coming into an existing program straight out of college? 
Julie Bounds: Well, I tried to learn as much as I could about the Santa Teresa band program before I got here. As soon as I moved to California from my native Oregon, I was very much welcomed into this amazing music education community. At first, I didn’t make any changes to the existing program. I kept the three concert bands and jazz band as they were, even maintaining the same schedules.

As I learned more from and about the community, I began to model my program after the local middle schools. The middle school teachers in this area have built a foundation and are really committed to the community, music, and these kids. They pointed me to which festivals to go to, and clinicians I could call on to help me.

Over time, I made more contacts and began to make some changes. I took the jazz band to a different festival or invited a new clinician in to teach a sectional. I invited a retired music teacher to not only teach a class, but to watch me teach and mentor me. Each year, I look at what works and doesn’t, and then make adjustments, not wholesale changes.

SBO: There was a fair amount of turnover in the band director position at the high school prior to your arrival. What were your objectives in stabilizing the program?
JB: I wanted to build something the kids could be proud of, that was musically gratifying, and that was musically enriching. My middle school band director was a huge influence on me. He wanted us to be independent musicians: strong players who could pick up and play any music, whether it was their band music or music outside of school. That really stuck with me. I want my students to be musicians, whether their future includes a profession in music or just playing for their own enjoyment. 

To that end, I had to develop a well-rounded program. I did not want to limit my students to a single genre. Whether a student’s love lies in jazz, concert band, marching band, or a specialty like percussion, they deserve a great music program that anyone can participate in, on any level. I have a lot of kids who choose to join only concert band: they play the traditional concerts, pep band at a few football games, and the homecoming parade. I also have kids who participate in everything, from concert band and jazz band during the day, to marching band and small ensembles after school. 

SBO: Which elements of your program are required for students?
JB: The one requirement is that all students play in the concert band program. They may add a jazz band if they choose – we have three of those: an audition-only band for upper classmen and two after school bands spring semester. Marching band is another option after school during fall semester. However, everyone learns how to march for the homecoming parade. Everybody is also included in the pep band and learns to play the national anthem. If I were to let my students leave my program without ever having performed the national anthem, played at a football game, or marched in a parade, the first question they would be asked is, “Who was your band director?” [laughs]

SBO: While not an uncommon goal, creating such an all-around program is definitely ambitious. Where do you start? 
JB: I have to give a shout out to the person who was here before me. In three years, he grew the program from something like 25 kids up to about 100 kids by the time I took over. He initiated the three concert bands we still have, even though they were small to start. One of the first things I focused on pretty intensely was retention: namely getting kids in the door and then keeping them in band all four years. My next goal was to try grow to between 50 and 60 kids in each concert band. Those numbers have kept us solid in the eyes of the school. We now run 55 to 70 kids per concert band.

SBO:What was your strategy for recruiting and retention?
JB: Visibility. We started playing all of the events that we could – back-to-school night, rallies, community events – when I first started, I grabbed every opportunity I could find. I wanted the band to be an important part of the school’s identity. To do that, if somebody asked us to play, we would.

By building our reputation, I made the program something worth being a part of. The kids want to be part of something important, to be some place where they are respected and their time is respected, not wasted. And I also brought an expectation of success. Whether we were great or not, I expected them to be great. And I cared a lot about them – I still do.

SBO: By an expectation of success, do you mean a degree of accountability?
JB: Yes, and also just sounding great. I expect us to be the greatest musicians we possibly can be, to sound as great as we can, and to execute the music at the highest level that we can. Sounding great is the number one thing for me, because it defines success. It is also what will win at band festivals, if you’re into trophies. 

You also have to look professional, so we added a concert dress requirement. It was not anything expensive – white shirt, black pants – but we matched. And that added to the growing sense of pride amongst the kids. They were proud to be in our program. Then I took them to the CMEA band festival in our area for the first time. Some of the students had been going to the festival in middle school, so they expected to attend. When they came to the high school, it didn’t happen. I had actually had that same experience in school myself, when I was younger. CMEA is now an every-year event on our calendar.

SBO: So in a way you are the perfect person to realize that vision.
JB: Yes, there are a lot of similarities between how I run my high school programs and how I was taught in middle school. As we grew our reputation, we slowly got more successful. My first year, I took just the wind ensemble to CMEA band festival. We got a Unanimous Superior, which here means each judge at the festival gave us a score of 90 or above, a Superior rating. The school had not done that ever, as far as I knew. This was an example where if we – the kids and I – work really hard for something, we can achieve our goal.

SBO: With such a large and growing program, how do you handle the challenges associated with preventing burnout?
JB: That is a challenge that we are all working on. I was just talking with a mentor of mine, who is a college professor. She noted how we give so much of ourselves in all of the things that different people need (students, school, parents, music colleagues, and so on all have different needs) and pointed out that band directors are also administrators.
We must balance the administrative piece with the music-making piece, for example, registering for festivals while also writing curriculum. I have to schedule time to not be working, and I have to schedule and prioritize time with my friends and family. 

At least I work with a lot of my friends – they all are my band staff and the staff at my school. I almost have to force myself to make time for non-band friends.

Somebody once told me that in this job, you will never be finished. If you go to work thinking that you will finish everything and then leave, you’ll never make it home. You have to let that expectation go.

SBO: How do you draw the line between your ambitions as a director and your desire to not go completely insane?
JB: Well, I rarely work from home anymore in the evenings. I set a time for when I need to be going home and then I leave, no matter what.

SBO: And then you are gone.
JB: Yes. And I don’t take my work with me. I actually bought a different laptop to use at home that has no work stuff on it. I leave my work computer at work. 

One thing I do on Mondays is make a list of everything that needs to happen in the program for the week, and then I prioritize the list. I’m constantly reevaluating that list as the week goes on. 
For example, if we are going to take a trip on Friday, I need to make sure I confirm that the bus is ordered.

SBO: Yes, for example. [laughs]
JB: You need to finish the big items, and then some of the other things can go away. Lately, the other big thing that I’ve been doing is delegating. I asked my booster club to hire my staff members to help me do things like update the locker room or check out instruments. I also use parent volunteers regularly. For example, my brass instructor just pulled all the scores we are using and a parent volunteer came in to copy them. Now, when others come to teach sectionals, their scores will be ready.

SBO: Organization is so important. So I also want to talk about your blog, the “Thrifty Band Director.” Where did you come up with the title?

JB: I really enjoyed my time in the music education program at Northwestern. While academically challenging for me, it was also incredibly inspiring. I decided then I wanted to contribute to the profession, to have a place where I could share information. A blog was easy to do and kind of fun. And I am a bit of a storyteller. Hilarious things happen to me in my job, so I wanted a forum for those stories. But the name came to me from questions, like, “How did you go from having a budget of $4,000 to having a budget of over a $100,000?” Or, “How did you raise $10,000 last week?”

SBO: Okay, well, on that topic, how much fundraising do you have to do relative to your district budget?
JB: I’d say 99 percent of our budget comes from fundraising.

SBO: So are you fundraising constantly, or what is the approach that you have found to be most successful?
JB: We have a lot of people that donate either items, time, or financially to the program. For example, we have a business sponsorship program spearheaded by one of our parent volunteers. The first step is to get parents to be in charge of fundraising, not to do it all yourself. 

Next, we thought about businesses that might want to sponsor the program or provide a service or item we might need. For example, last year, we needed CO2 cartridges to use for the marching band props. We looked for a business that supplied CO2 and happened to find a band parent who worked for the company. If you don’t ask people, if people don’t know that you need something, they won’t give it to you.

Our biggest sales fundraiser is a coupon card that has photos of the bands on the outside. Our newest fundraiser is a huge event in the spring called the Music Marathon. If you’ve ever seen a telethon or participated in a walkathon, you can guess the musical twist we’ve put on this fundraiser. We also sell a few other items, but as these two fundraisers grow, we hope to minimize other sales.
Another big source of donations comes from parents working at our local pro football venue, Levi’s Stadium. Parents can get involved by working a concession stand at the stadium, and their “pay” goes directly to support the band program.

Fundraising is critical, not only for the day-to-day operation of the band program, but to ensure that all students, regardless of their financial resources are included in all parts of the program they are interested in.

SBO: So you raise funds to help offset costs for those students that have financial difficulty – as in scholarships?
JB: Exactly. We want to make sure that we have the funds to include everybody. That being said, we do not constantly sell items. Each fundraiser is scrutinized for how much work is involved and how high the profit margin is. We don’t want to do anything labor intensive, and the profit margin needs to be high – like $25,000.

It’s funny because I sometimes joke around that I am the “thrifty band director,” but my budget is really big now. But at the same time, I keep a very detailed budget. We don’t overspend – it’s a constant game to come under budget, and I’m always trying to find alternative ways to fund things. Even now with the big budget that we have, I scrutinize every expenditure to make sure that we are as cost effective as possible.

SBO: As well you should, I suppose! So where do you see your program going, and what are you hoping to do in the future?
JB: We are in an interesting situation right now. One of our middle school band directors recently retired, and in a couple of years, a second teacher will be retiring, so there will be some new blood coming into the area. It will be interesting to see how numbers and situations change as new teachers come into the mix. Our program has been growing a little bit each year, but middle school changes could mean new opportunities to expand our recruiting and programs, and possibly hire a second full-time teacher or another part-time teacher. We are bursting at the seams in the concert band program, so we are going to start making a shift to a fourth concert band.

The marching band continues to be a lot more competitive, and as our successes grow on that front, we are able to do some really innovative things. 

For me, musically, we are continuing to expand and improve, which enables me to introduce more difficult material. Even just the improvement in the sound quality of the ensembles really excites me. Those might be what every band director is excited about, but it’s true. 

Honestly, I’m also waiting to see where we go next, because we’ve accomplished so much. For the first part of my career, the things I wanted most for this program was to have a stronger budget, to consistently have strong members, and to start updating our instrument inventory in a big way. We bought a timpani and new sousaphones, but I always had a dream of getting new marching band uniforms. Last year that dream came true. So, as an organization, we are starting to look around and ask, “What do we want to do next?”

We have reached the end of our 10 to 12-year goals. Really, the future looks bright at this point. 

SBO: As a percussionist, what are your biggest challenges running a comprehensive music program?
JB: Every percussionist who is going to be a band director needs to learn how to play a wind instrument – at least one – and how to play it well. I started playing flute in sixth grade. When I switched to percussion, I stayed on flute and even continued taking lessons. I started playing the trombone in high school and I was constantly learning new instruments. A band director once gave me some advice: to focus on a new instrument for a year, every year.

For example, last year was a flute year for me, so I played with my students in their flute choir and sat in when we had sectionals and a workshop with a professional flute player. A lot of your skills on the wind instruments transfer, so if you’re a native trumpet player, you understand a lot about being a woodwind player.

As percussionists, we bring the great skill set into the classroom of playing in time. I’m constantly a student of the wind instruments, and it’s challenging because a lot of my kids are really good. I might not be able to check their techniques as much as I might like, but I can check their musicianship.

SBO: There has been a ton of innovation in tech tools for music educators – what are you using in your classes?
JB: We use Noteflight, Charms Office Assistant, and I have an Apple TV in my classroom. The school uses School Loop, which is a lot like Blackboard (used at many universities), and I use Remind, a text message program to stay in touch with students and parents. We also use Spotify to build playlists of the material we’re considering. We have playlists of all the music the jazz class is playing, as well music the kids are listening to or studying. Although we use a variety of tools, I don’t have computers or a lab in my classroom, so I have to be really creative with where we go and how we use technology.

SBO: I see. Anything else you’d like to share?
JB: To other teachers out there, you need to spend a lot of time with other people. In a profession like this, you need to listen; there are a lot of people who have already done this. There are a lot of mentors in the music education community. 
Also, get involved in your local music education organizations. If you’re not happy with them, you can’t change them if you’re not part of them. 

I sat on music education boards and I listened to people talk about the programs that they had. If you do that, you can ask them about their strategies of how they solved problems you encounter. Then you learn, and you go on from there.


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