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UpClose: Michael Echols and Chris Moore

Mike Lawson • Features • September 17, 2014

Cultivating Grit and Stoutheartedness

Significant achievements rarely happen without significant investment. While this may be particularly obvious within the music education community, where it’s a given that quality performance doesn’t happen without an investment in time, energy, focus, and commitment, a team of educators in Springdale, Arkansas has taken the concept of investment to a whole new level.

Michael Echols and Christopher Moore are the band directors at George Junior High School, a school with some 620 eighth and ninth graders, about 500 of whom participate in the school’s music offerings. Over the past decade or so, the vibrant population in Springdale that feeds George Junior High and nearby Kelly Middle School has been struggling economically. Some parents have been put out of work, and with the many newcomers to this country in the area, – GJHS hosts a program for students arriving in the U.S. for the first time –  others did not have the standard credit cards, bank accounts, or social security numbers needed to carry on normal business practices.

Eventually, it became evident that students and their families were largely unable to purchase instruments. Faced with watching their program slip through their fingers, Mike and Chris realized that in order to keep the program going, they would have to buy used musical instruments themselves so they could then put them in the hands of their students. Daniel Hodge, the band director at Springdale High School, described their efforts as “literally putting the band program on their backs to allow the students the opportunity to succeed.”

Ten years ago, Mike began the practice using his personal credit card for band purchases. He would scour eBay and pawn shops for bargains, and then sell what he found to students at cost, courtesy of a no-interest payment plan he offered. The band directors cite this as a critical step in engaging the population. When they get their own instrument, that’s the hook that really gets young people excited about music, says Chris.

Once their superintendent, Dr. Jim Rollins, became aware of the situation, he drove to George Junior High to investigate first-hand and gain a better understanding of the students’ needs. He encouraged the directors to submit the “Historic Fund Request,” a district proposal to provide additional funds for used or new instruments so that the teachers didn’t have to dip into their own pockets. However, even with this fund established, the George Junior band directors’ have never wavered in their level of investment and dedication to empowering young people through the opportunities afforded by the study of music.

In the midst of preparing for a performance at the 2014 Midwest Clinic, Mike and Chris spoke to SBO about their students, their community, and the role that they play in “breathing music” into their students’ lives.

 

School Band & Orchestra: How did the two of you end up working together?

Michael Echols: Chris completed his student internship from the University of Arkansas under my mentor, Earl Allain at Kelly Middle School. I began at George Junior High 10 years ago when the school first opened. Chris arrived on scene the second year, and has been here since. Chris edifies extreme passion for kids, connecting with students in a special way. He is in the know and has a knack for finding out what’s going on in their lives.

Chris Moore: This has been my first and only job. I love it and I love working with Mike. He’s taught me so much. I won’t put an exact number on how long he’s been teaching, [laughs] but he’s got a great amount of knowledge, skills, vision, passion, and wisdom.

 

SBO: What are the biggest challenges facing your program?

ME: Our biggest hurdle for kids is getting them an instrument. This is most important, before instruction can begin.

 

SBO: Certainly, there are financial challenges associated with that; how do you make that happen?

CM: At our beginning program, Kelly Middle School, there was a year in which only four kids in the entire beginner band of 200 had purchased their own instrument. And so what could we do for those other 196 kids to get them in the band? That was a reality check for us. In any given year, a small number (between around six and 32) of our 200 kids rent an instrument from the music store. So, Mike started buying instruments for kids, and early in my career, I started doing it for my classes, too. If we hadn’t done that, we might not have had any kids in our music classes. At one point, Mike had up to $15,000 worth of instruments on his credit cards and paypal accounts to help kids learn music.

 

SBO: Mike was using his personal credit card?

CM: Yes, sir. I had about $5,000 myself. The students only paid exactly what we paid for the instrument. For example, a clarinet on eBay cost $208.12. The kid only owed us $208.12 back. Some kids, it took them three years to pay us back, maybe at a couple of dollars a week. But that’s how we were equipping our band. Mike and I ate the interest on the credit card. Mike took out a second mortgage on his house to have more money to get instruments. While presenting at the Arkansas Bandmasters Association Conference, I made the joke that Mike was going to be living in a van down by the river if he kept it up.

ME: Based on our own expenditures, we wrote a proposal to purchase instruments entitled the “Historic Fund Request” for $28,000. Now, students purchase instruments and pay back the fund. We continue to purchase instruments personally, but not at the previous volumes. The fund is also set up to help students at our middle schools.

 

SBO: So the majority of students at this point own their own instruments, but that also means that every year there’s going to be more incoming students whom you need to convince to spend precious money on musical instruments.

ME: That’s correct. We’re constantly purchasing instruments, and that goes on and on.

It is unique in that from the beginning, families could pay back their investment customized in a way that fits with their family finances. This flexibility continues to exist today. Students this year now have instruments and we are beginning to stock up for next year. All of this is just part of the program to make music.

CM: Yes, it’s not how we like to do business, but that is how we’ve kept the band program alive at Kelly Middle School and George Junior High.

 

SBO: How many ensembles do you have this year at George Junior High?

ME: We added an ensemble this year, so we now have four: the Advantage Band, Enrichment Band, Concert Band, and Symphonic Band. We’ll do whatever it takes to teach music to each student’s level. No students are turned away. Our goal is to cultivate music with as many students as possible. Some groups perform at high levels, others simply love playing their instruments together with their friends.

 

SBO: How would you describe your teaching philosophies?

ME: We serve to zealously enlighten students with the passion music breathes into their lives. When nurtured, music will touch souls for generations. We also seek the wisdom to improve in a number of areas.

The GJHS principal stops by the band room on a weekly basis to hear the students play.

First, we try to be disciples of music. Our art form requires many skill sets, particularly being constant learners and learning at every venue and horizon. As our superintendent says, “It’s all about getting better at getting better.”

From the student’s viewpoint, we try to learn how they reason and what they are thinking. In turn, this helps us learn how to communicate effectively so we can empower them to advance.

We are in a school that has ever-changing diversity. This means we have to renovate processes each year to meet students where they are.

And, finally, innovation and creativity rule! A principal at nearby Hellstern Middle School, Dr. Todd Loftin, said, “I like you guys because you think out of the box.”

CM: We collaborate non-stop. Our conversations are never-ending to meet student needs. Every student and parent has our contact information. One of our mantras is “find out what’s going on” – student connection is key!

We divide and conquer to teach the students, splitting tasks to optimize speed and efficiency, while tackling the biggest challenges first. We also utilize versatile skill sets to cross-teach sections during the day.

 

SBO: How did the band get to where they are today?

ME: From the beginning, we have been blessed with wonderful students who care for and help each other. Many return to help the ones after them, in a peer-to-peer setting. This is where credit is due to them; we could not be more grateful! The American School Band Director Association has provided opportunities to perform in Chattanooga, Tennessee and in Biloxi, Mississippi. We traveled by school bus and the five-day trip cost per student was $99 after some contributions. The band was privileged to hold clinics with Colonel Lowell Graham, former United States Air Force Band Director, and Dr. Mohamad Schuman of the University of Southern Mississippi, as well as perform with the incredible Lance LaDuke!

 

SBO:  Has the development of the music program had a major impact on the school and community?

CM: Our principal, Don Hoover, calls our music program “a pillar of our school.” One impact I’ve seen has been less mischief due to our growing number of music participants. In the beginning, it would not be uncommon to come to school and see graffiti on the walls, in the bathrooms, and so on. Music has helped our students develop a connection with the school, even a sense of pride in their school. Kids understand that music provides safety and the band room is a place where troubles can dissipate into their music. There’s just a synergy; there’s a feeling that’s in the air here. This is my tenth year here. Over the past decade, I have seen music strengthen our school.

 

SBO: What is the larger goal of your program? As educators, what are you guys hoping that you’re giving your students?

ME: That they learn grit, become dauntless individuals, learn how to be unique, feel self-confidence and self-gratification, learn how to listen, and enjoy music. The attributes that we’re teaching through music are one day going to help lead our students to a life of prosperity.

 

SBO: Are there particular activities or exercises that you do to help foster the sense of community, as well as the students’ sense of responsibility and ownership?

CM: There are so many kids and only two of us, full-time, at this school. When we are not here, we are traveling to other schools [they both also teach at Kelly Middle School, and Chris is an assistant director at Springdale High School, as well]. Therefore, we let our students lead and teach each other, and they report back to us. If Mike asks for a phrase to be learned, that goes to their section leader, and their section leader fills us in on where they are. The eighth graders also go to the ninth graders for help.

Mike has a saying that he tells the kids, which is that he and I are not smart enough to do it all. I was offended by that at first. I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m a certified band director. What do you mean I’m not smart enough?” But it’s right. There are only two of us, and there’s so much to do. There’s a culture that’s been created in the George Band that they’ve taken ownership of, and they help each other.

ME: One of the greatest opportunities for our students to learn leadership was last fall watching the Missouri State University Band under the direction of Jerry Hoover. They came to our campus to warm up and prepare for the regional high school marching contest. Middle school and junior high students were awestruck with the fine example they exhibited. Kids still say, “Now I know – and I want to be like them.” We invite clinicians such as Richard Crain, president of The Midwest Clinic, and Dale Warren of the University of Arkansas to work with and mentor our students.

Even as beginners, our kids are given the opportunity to see DCI groups, Doc Severinsen, Rafael Mendez, Canadian Brass, Chicago Symphony, and many more artists via DVD and YouTube. We utilize our set of Japanese Band video performances and instructional videos for our students to learn from, as well. As we show these phenomenal groups, they become role models. We plant the seed, “You could be like this person,” or “You could do this, too.” We also have parents here from all over the world. Their desire is for their children to experience a better life than they had.

CM: Also, local professionals come on campus to work with the kids. We promote a Dinner and a Concert Night, where we might go to the University of Arkansas, or Fort Smith, University of Central Arkansas, or Arkansas Tech University. Our link to getting into the literature that we want to see them get into is that, first, they’ve got to see others doing it. And YouTube and SmartMusic really help. Second, they have to hear it live. And once they hear it, they want more and more. Then, they are hooked.

 

SBO: To what do you attribute the success of your program?

CM: What’s worked for me is loving who you work with. If Mike treated me differently, I might be looking for a job somewhere else – anywhere. My title is “assistant band director.” During my first day on the job, Mike told me, “You’ve earned your degree; you’re a band director and I’m a band director.” He leveled the playing field on the first day.

We’re blessed with a principal and a superintendent that support music. They often step into our rehearsals listen to the kids rehearse.

We’re blessed with wives that let us do what we do. Our collaboration is non-stop. We talk about the kids and what we need to fix in rehearsal. It’s not uncommon for us to text at 2 am, then talk in the car on the way to school to finish the conversation. We have to stop and remind ourselves to talk about other topics such as scuba diving and sports, because we just eat, sleep, drink, and breathe music.

That might sound crazy. We wish we could work smarter; we are still learning, but we do the best we can. We’re trying, and this is where we are now. If you want to call something the “secret to our success,” it’s hard work and knowing how to use your time. Mike gave me a book my second year titled The One-Minute Manager, which is all about the philosophy of efficiency. If you have one minute at the beginning of the period that you’re talking, that’s one minute you could’ve been playing; it’s all about time on task.

ME: We don’t really have many tricks. We put kids first in all we do. Around here, music is a way of life. We were discussing strategies one day, when Janice [Bengtson, Kelly Middle School band director] exclaimed, “Ah! I know what you all have been doing. You are teaching grit.” When we embrace the essence of music at its deepest levels, it reaches through our heart to our soul. In the students’ world, we see this “grit.” It is sheer courage and determination to grasp a challenge and take it to the end of its journey. It becomes a fearless moral fiber that later will transfer to thousands of successes in our students’ lives.

 

SBO: What are you hoping to do with your program in the future?

ME: Our high school has incorporated specialized academies to help students focus their career path. In the future, I envision a music academy which would begin in junior high and continue through high school. Music students pack a variety of skill sets that make them great candidates for the workplace. Music students should receive credit, as well as recognition for learning extraordinary musical skills.

In addition to that, our ongoing goals are to: help students learn how to serve others; to cultivate true grit and stoutheartedness in our students; to help students become outstanding citizens in our society; and to help future generations learn the secret code of success: music!

 

George Junior High School Bands at a Glance
 
Location: 3200 S. Powell St, Springdale, Arkansas
On the web: georgeband.org (under development)
Instagram/Twitter: @GeorgeBandRox
Facebook: “The George Junior High School Band Page”
Number of students at George Junior: 620*
Number of students in band program: 225
 
Ensembles, with number of students in each:
Enrichment Band (37)
Advantage Band (41)
Concert Band (74)
Symphonic Band (73)
 
*GJHS also hosts a preschool program & new arrival program for students moving to the U.S. for the first time.
 
Recent notable accomplishments and events
 
2011
Performance, American School Band Director Association Regional Conference, Chattanooga, TN
“Best in Class” Worlds of Fun, Class AAAA
 
2012
Most Outstanding Performance of the Day,
Magic Springs Festival Performance
2013
Recipient of the Support Music Merit Award by the NAMM Foundation
Most Outstanding Performance of the Day,
Magic Springs Festival Performance
American School Band Director Association Regional Conference, Biloxi, Miss.
Back to School In-Service Performance for Springdale Public Schools for 1,800+ Teachers, Administrators, Parents
 
2014
Recipient of the Support Music Merit Award by the NAMM Foundation
Back to School In-Service Performance for Springdale Public Schools for 2000+ Teachers, Administrators, Parents
 
Upcoming (at time of publication):
October 2014
Presenters, National Association of Music Educators, Nashville, TN  (Janice, Chris, and Michael)
November 2014
Performance & Clinic, Arkansas Music Educators Association Conference
December 2014
Performance at the The Midwest Clinic
 
Numerous: Arkansas Sweepstakes Awards, Superior Ratings in Concert and Sightreading

 

 

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