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UpClose: Justin Barr Is Getting the Band Back Together

Mike Lawson • Features • June 11, 2015

Justin BarrTwo years ago in Fairview, TN, a small town suburb 35 miles west of Nashville, the Fairview High School band program was in flux, its enrollments and participation down greatly from years before when student interest and parental support made it a very competitive program in Williamson County. Over the past few years of its decline, with changes in band directors and an ever-changing student demographic, the summer band camp program saw as few as two dozen students participate, which included a mix of middle school students participating with the high school students from the next campus over. Enter Justin Barr, recent graduate from one of Tennessee’s best universities for music studies, Middle Tennessee State University, whose passion for teaching – specifically teaching band – has helped turn around Fairview High School’s floundering band program enrollments, essentially doubling each year. SBO sat down and talked with Barr about his passion, his goals, and his plans for Fairview High School’s school band program.

Where’d you go to school? Were you on a path to be a band director at that time?

I graduated from MTSU two years ago with a degree in music education. I knew I was going to be a band director starting in high school and I never really strayed from that path. Yeah, from the very beginning it never changed. I just knew what I was going to do.

When did you first get involved in marching band as a student?

At my high school school, Hixson High School in Chattanooga, if you were in the band class, you were in marching band, so I started marching band my freshman year straight out of the gate. We were pretty competitive, but it was really not until after my junior year of high school that I started getting committed. I joined a local drums corps from Atlanta, the “Spirit Drum Corps.” That’s when I definitely knew I was going to be a band director. A few years later, I joined the “Band of Blue” at MTSU, which was an incredible experience. I finished my drum corps career at “The Cavaliers Drum Corps” from the Chicago area, which I joined with the primary purpose of learning to be a better band director.

What instrument do you play?

I’m a French horn player. I can play all the other brass instruments pretty well but French horn is my primary instrument.

Was there a band director in your past that made a difference?

The band director at MTSU, Craig Cornish, has so much heart and passion for the activity and for his students. His commitment and love really showed and that had an impact on us just knowing someone cared about us and the group to that extent. I only hope that one day I can be as positive an influence on my students.

How long have you been at Fairview High School? What was the program like when you arrived?

I’m finishing up my second year. My first year I was hired a week before band camp. It was a little weird coming in on the first day because you never know who will show up or what condition the program is going to be in. At band camp there was about 20, 22 students, and they were all really young. We have a few seniors, maybe one sophomore but the majority were freshmen and eighth graders. On the second day of camp I asked “Who has done marching band before?” and only five of them raised their hands!

And what skill levels did you find them at?

Well, it was different depending on the student and what kind of band experience they had. The eighth graders only had two band directors prior to me, but the freshmen had three or four directors during the four years they had been in band. The student ability was everywhere from not being able to read a note without assistance to being able to read and play just fine.

You came into a high school band program at band camp with not a lot of high school kids in it.

They were mixed. There was a strong senior class, mostly percussion, but the wind players were mostly freshmen and eighth graders. We had one in the guard and she was also in eighth grade.

So were you combining some of the middle school band students with the high school to come up with one band program? Is that what was happening at the band camp?

Yeah, they started doing that a few years ago to help the marching band with numbers. The marching/competition band is extracurricular, meaning it’s separate from the class, so some kids are in band but they play a sport or are in a club that conflicts with the competition band’s rehearsal schedule. Using eighth graders not only bolsters the numbers for the group, but it also creates a bridge for students to join band confidently in high school because they have already established connections and friendships to make it an easy transition.

Had you experienced that before, where you’d seen two schools have to combine programs like that in order to do that?

I didn’t know that was going to happen until I got here but many programs do this if it fits their program. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a deficit or a knock back to have them there because many strong programs use eighth graders. It is nice to have freshman who have been in marching band for a year already so they know the ropes, which makes everything move faster.

Is this your first high school out of college you’re full-time band director of?

This is my first full-time band-directing job.

What was the state of your actual class?

The concert band class had about the same number of kids. I think there were 24 enrolled in the class but they were a little bit stronger than the marching band just because they were older. I had more juniors and seniors who had been playing longer and could read a little bit better.

 However, they were definitely lacking in certain areas of instrumentation. Two years ago they didn’t have a low brass section at all, meaning trombones, baritones, tubas. Last year we still didn’t have any tubas and we only had one trombone. At the time, he was really struggling to read music, but his transformation in the last year is huge. He is a completely different person musically speaking. He can tear it up and he gets really excited about it. But that’s this year.  Last year it was definitely a day-by-day, one step at a time situation. “What’s your first note? How do you finger that? Let’s play it. Nope, not that one. The one above it. Oops, there it is. Great. Play it one more time with a good tone. There we go. Okay. What’s your second note? What slide position is this one?” So it’s definitely come a long way since then. Our goal is to get better every day and over the year that progress really shows.

How was the department equipped for you in terms of instruments and things that you needed to produce a successful band program?

Our equipment is in different shape depending on what we’re talking about. Our chairs and our stands are all relatively new and we’re very fortunate to have those. Our brass section is newer and in good shape as well. Our percussion section on the other hand is severely lacking. We don’t currently own a marimba or a vibraphone and those are two staple instruments in a high school band’s repertoire. They’re definitely on our list.

When your students choose instruments, are they steered toward need at this point or availability? What instruments does the school actually provide for a student that wants to be in the band but maybe doesn’t have the wherewithal to provide an instrument?

Shuff’s Music and Piano Showroom in Franklin, TN has an instrument donation program and we have been fortunate enough to get a few things through that every year. This year, we received a trumpet and a trombone. Those instruments will definitely be in the hands of a kid who’s coming up from the middle school. Instrument availability hasn’t been a huge issue, but as we grow as a program there’s more and more demand. We’re so lucky we have places like Shuff’s that give those instruments out.

Now, percentages of people who own instruments? If they’re a flute, clarinet, or alto saxophone player, most of them own their own instrument.  Once we get down into low brass, horns, or percussion, the school owns most or all of those.

What does the school do if a kid can’t afford the band fees?

We will never deny participation to a student who wants to be in band if they can’t pay their fee. Many of the students have fee waivers and either the county or the school helps to cover the class fees for those students. For other kids who don’t do that but still might need some help, we usually try to make a payment plan for them, whether it be $20 a month or $50 a month, just really whatever they can afford. We’re going to find a way. And if I can find a way to get that parent involved. . . Honestly, a great parent being involved is a whole lot more valuable than a single band fee.  They can contribute more to the program than what that band fee would. But we definitely never deny any participation.

Are you finding you have to steer any of the students into school instrument positions from time to time, either out of need for the ensemble or recognizing maybe a socioeconomic situation?

I had a few who came to me and said “I want to join the band but my parents can’t afford an instrument. Do you have anything for me?” And luckily at this point, we do. I do have to steer them in terms of, “We have an extra trumpet. So if you play trumpet, we have one of those,” or “a French horn”, or “we have some extra flutes sitting around”, etc. We’re going to find a way, even if it’s passing that instrument back and forth, or just switching mouthpieces out, we’ll find a way to make sure that they’re in, because that’s what’s most important. They shouldn’t be limited because they can’t afford it.

 Most of the bands in the county have wonderful parent programs that make sure the groups have enough resources and instruments for the year. Our Booster program has grown a lot in the past year, and we will need it for the upcoming year because we had 24 last year, 48 this year, and we’re going up to around 70 or 80 band members next year, so . . .

That’s a big increase.

Yeah. So we’re definitely going to need some more chairs and stands. And I went to my principal, and she said “Come find me in July and I’ll be able to help you out to get those things so that you can use your money on things like instruments.” So I feel like I definitely have the support from my admin and county, but I haven’t had to go and ask for anything big yet.

So speaking of parents’ involvement, what was the state of the band booster program?

When I got here, the booster program was pretty slim with 3-5 parents at meetings, but there’s definitely been a turnaround in that aspect too. All these new kids being freshmen and sophomores now, their parents have really stepped up. And we’ve had a huge increase in parent help, especially at the end of this year.

Our new president, Carolynn Remington, runs a business and has been working overtime to organize parent help. She’s put together committees and subcommittees and is trying to reach out to more parents in different ways and just get them involved. I’m really excited for this upcoming year and the changes we can make there. The difference in the parents is just like the same kind of growth that we’re seeing with the kids.

So where do you see this band in five years?

I have a few goals for the group. One of them is a play at a state convention like TNMEA. On the marching band side of things our biggest goal right now is to make the Division 2 state finals. We attended this year for the first time in I don’t know how many years but we went and definitely made a good first showing. My goal for the next year is just to sustain while we keep improving the quality of the music that we’re making and just improve efficiency on every level, whatever we’re doing. We’re just trying to get better at everything every day.

Your program doubled in one year. And it could increase by another 50 percent or more the next, the third year. What are the challenges?

Our biggest challenge right now is our upcoming need for a new uniform.  One of the big questions for next year is “will we have enough uniforms?” or “what can we substitute for a uniform?” We chose to do “Scenes from Cirque du Soleil” for our show next year, which will keep options open. We’re currently involved in a sponsorship drive and have received donations for $2,300 out of the $30,000 that is ultimately our goal. We’re just figuring it out as we go, and honestly, if they’re sounding good and they’re having a good time, that’s what really matters.

 Our primary focus, however, is outfitting the band with the chairs, stands, and music instruments needed for the amount of students involved. They are the basic tools for the music and learning to be able to happen, which is why we’re all here.

It sounds like the students just needed a good program and an enthusiastic director.

Yeah. The kids are the best thing about my job, for sure. I just don’t receive any serious negativity from them about what we do. They all are super into the activity and they’re here for the right reasons. They all are seriously connected to the band as a whole they love being here with each other. That’s what wakes me up in the morning and gets me here, right?

A band director can really have a huge influence and impact on the rest of the life of a student by how well they treat that kid or take them seriously in their dreams.

Yeah, it’s just like if you put the palette in front of them and see what they do. Sometimes that’s all it takes. You might have to show them a thing or two. I come here or to other schools I’ve worked at and you just see the enthusiasm of the kids and how contagious it is. It’s definitely motivating and keeps me interested and keeps me loving what I do, just knowing that they’re so into it as well. It makes them so happy.

Well, on the path you’re on right now, if your numbers just keep doing what they’re doing, in five years, do you think you could have enrollments of over 100 or more?

Well Lindsay Halford was hired at the middle school four years ago and has completely changed the band program there in a positive way. My freshman class this fall was her first class of sixth graders, so this growth we will see over the next few years is because of her recruitment and teaching. It definitely makes it easy on me getting these kids who have already been taught by Lindsay about great music, having fun through excellence, and how we are a family. They come up here prepared and excited about it.

 At band camp my first year we had one student show up for colorguard. Thanks to Monica Laird, the assistant band director, we have 12 signed up for this fall. She was crucial in starting the Fairview Winterguard last year, which has worked as a strong recruiting tool.

Are there still strings in the middle school level? Or is it mostly brass and woodwind?

We don’t currently have a string program, but I’ve been trying to get any kid who maybe plays bass guitar or regular guitar to join the band. We will add any instrument to the group if we can make it fit. I had a kid come to me yesterday, actually, and said “I play the accordion, do you think I can join?” She wants to learn clarinet, but we’re also going to try to give her an accordion part as part of our marching band show just to have something different and to showcase our students’ unique talents.

Any thoughts you want to leave for other new band directors coming into struggling programs that need to be turned around?

Stay focused on the kids and don’t get preoccupied comparing yourself to other people or programs. Everyone has problems and everyone is struggling with something no matter where they’re at, whether they’re on their Chapter 1 or their Chapter 20. I think for our current Fairview High School band, because of the average band student age, last year was probably like Chapter 1 and this year we’re moving on to 2. And so we’re just focused on “What can we do to make today better? What can we do to make tomorrow better?” I think as long as anyone focuses on that then you’ll see progress and you’ll get to wherever it is you want to be.

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