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UpClose: Tony Cox

Mike Lawson • Features • November 19, 2013

Tony Cox and the Mt. Juliet Band of Gold

The Mt. Juliet High School Drumline in costume for their Tin Man show.

Just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, Mt. Juliet is home to a band program with big ambitions. Under the guidance of longtime band director Tony Cox, the Mt. Juliet Band of Gold drumline has been a WGI World Class Finalist for three years running, complementing a marching band and color guard that have also tasted success on the national stage. “When you go into that arena and find success, it validates a little bit of what you’re doing across the board,” says Cox.

However, such accomplishments don’t come easy. Cox credits his administration with laying down expectations for excellence and achievement in all scholastic areas. On top of that, he points to the firm commitment and dedication it takes from students, staff, and band parents to fit in with the best, most dedicated groups from around the country.

In this recent conversation with SBO, Tony Cox speaks about preparing music students for the national stage, maximizing parental support, and equipping the next generation of music performers and educators.

 

School Band & Orchestra: Hi Tony. What are your goals with the Mt. Juliet Band of Gold?

 Tony Cox: We just try to make our kids the best musicians, marchers, and performers that they can possibly be. We give the kids all sorts of performance opportunities, whether through marching band, concert band, winter guard, winter drumline, mid-state band, and so on. We try to give them lots of opportunities to learn how to do what they do, whether that be playing a wind instrument or performing in the color guard. We try to play a lot and hopefully give students a solid foundation musically. Ideally that leads to students wanting to continue playing their instruments in a college band, and then for the rest of their lives.

SBO: When do you transition from marching band to concert and indoor seasons?

 TC: Once we finish our last marching band contest at the end of October, we get right into concert band. Our band class is not a marching band class. Not all of the kids in band are in the marching band, and we do concert band daily. We will do our first concert band performance before the football season is over with, so that those kids who aren’t in the marching band have a performance opportunity before the end-of-semester concert in December. Once we get out of marching band mode, we stay in concert band mode for the rest of the year.

We traditionally start moving ahead with winter guard and percussion ensemble several weeks after the marching band season ends, as well. Both of those groups are optional. The color guard is set up so those kids can have a way to continue training and performing, instead of just waiting until the next marching season. Winter drumline has turned out to be kind of the same thing. The kids wanted to keep performing and having opportunities to continue to learn to play and march better. That’s how we got into that, and it’s been really good for us. Both groups perform nationally. We play in our local color guard and drumline circuit, and for the past three years both of those groups have also gone to the WGI championships in Dayton, Ohio.

SBO: What has been the catalyst for the growth of your percussion and winter guard groups?

 TC: That really comes from trying to give our kids a great training opportunity. A big part of that is that we have a really fantastic staff that comes in to help teach our kids. Our students were curious about it and want to get better, and we have a staff that is very active in percussion and color guard. That combination of the two things led us to think, “We’re doing a good thing locally, let’s see how it would work on a regional level.”

 That’s one thing that WGI offers up – the chance to perform at a national regional competition. A lot of the feedback that we received from the judges told us that it would be appropriate for us to go to National Championships to see how we would perform. And that has also gone really well for us. That doesn’t mean we always make the finals or win or anything – it means that our kids prepare and our staff writes a show at a level such that we can go and feel comfortable that it’s appropriate to be performing at a national contest.

SBO: What does participation in that sort of event do for your program?

 TC: The individual students gain an understanding of what it means to prepare for an event that takes place at the national level. At Mt. Juliet High School, one of the messages we receive from the principal is to always have high expectations for the kids. It doesn’t matter if it’s passing math class or earning a great score on the ACT or receiving a college scholarship – it’s always a push to have high expectations and great outcomes. We try to continue that through our band program. That helps our kids to understand that they not only have to push themselves for excellence at a very high level, but also that they can achieve that. It’s one thing to go to a local sporting match or event and be successful, but when you step out of the boundaries of your state and you go to an arena where there are groups from across the country, it’s exciting and motivational for the kids. But it’s also about preparing our product – musically and visually – so that it’s one of the best in the nation.

Tony Cox with some of the drumline staff after the 2012 WGI finals.

Our kids really enjoy performing, that’s the big-ticket item – especially in front of a national audience. However, over the years the students have gotten to the point where, yeah, rehearsal and preparation can get repetitive and boring, but they enjoy that process. We don’t struggle with getting kids to rehearsal and getting them excited about it. The process of putting the program together and learning the program is almost as much excitement for our students and our staff as that big performance.

The other thing about going to WGI or BOA Grand Nationals is that our kids get to see the world-class performances of the independence groups. We get to see where the student musicians could be in five or 10 years, if they stick with the activity. When you go to those events, you can be motivated and excited by other groups. It helps the kids realize that they can keep doing this in college or by trying out with one of those other groups. We’ve always used that as a motivational tool for our players.

Our kids love to watch drum corps, for example, because it encourages them to work harder to get to that next goal up from high school marching.

SBO: What lessons have you learned as an educator from your experience at these events?

 TC: I don’t know that there’s any one single thing, other than the whole process of how going to an event like that helps you see how you stack up against everyone else. We’re very fortunate at Mt. Juliet that we have a staff that stays very current in the activity so they’re always aware of what’s going on.

With both guard and drumline, both groups made finals the first year we went. So I think our biggest thing might have been that our staff, our kids, our parents, and our administration were able to see that we were doing some pretty good things here. There’s always the opportunity to train kids better and have a better product for them.

When you go into that arena and find success, it validates a little bit of what you’re doing across the board. Even though people weren’t saying that we shouldn’t be doing what we were doing, they now recognize it as a good thing and are more supportive of keeping it going into the future.

SBO: For other school programs that might be interested in doing this sort of thing, what are the commonalities you see among the groups that have the most success at the national level?

 TC: There has to be an importance on fundamentals. One of the things that you see consistently, whether with wind musicians, color guard, or percussion, is that the kids who perform at that level have a very strong understanding of the fundamentals that are required to play their instrument at a very high level, or to move at a very high level. Programs have to have a strong fundamental emphasis because you can’t build something that will be recognized nationally, or will achieve nationally, if that foundation isn’t there first. That’s one of the very important things.

The next thing is to make sure that you’re giving your performers a program that is musically and visually designed well. It doesn’t have to be necessarily perfect, but it does need to fit the activity. And by that I mean that it needs to be something that’s written so that by the time you first start performing it you can take it to the judge and he can evaluate it as a quality product, as opposed to something that will need a lot more fine tuning.

This strong product is what you want to put on top of those fundamentals that those kids have been working on.

Having strong support from you parent organization is so important. I’ve seen groups that try to go national just because the staff wants to do it. However, if you’re going to try to compete at the national level, it has to be a collective effort between the band parents, the kids, and the staff – it can’t be something that is just motivated by one part of that triad. If everyone isn’t behind it, you’re going to constantly feel like you’re dragging an anchor around.

There are a lot of what would probably seem like small components, but if you miss any of those things, that would prevent you from being successful. You always want to prepare your students so that when they do go to perform at any kind of show they can sit on that stage and feel confident in what they’re about to do.

SBO: What do you look for from your parents, and what have you learned about successfully engaging them in your program?

 TC: The biggest role of our parents here is that they’re the greatest cheerleaders we have for the band program. That is how it should be at any school. We band directors often get caught up in thinking of the band parents just as fundraisers. Really, that should take a back seat to having them be there to encourage their kids to practice their instruments, to being their in the stands at the ball games and the shows, and being the loudest people cheering for their sons and daughters. First and foremost, the band parents have to believe in your program in order to support the kids. If you can get to that point where they understand that cheerleader role, then they will start to understand the importance of what their children are doing.

All band programs will have some parents who are passive in their participation and the most important thing they do is drop their kids off at a rehearsal or performance and then pick them up when their children are done. Once we change that attitude, then we can start communicating with the parents about what specific things they can do to help support the program.

SBO: Speaking of communicating, what’s your strategy for keeping parents informed?

 TC: We spend a lot of time communicating with parents. We have an email list and we are constantly sharing information with our parents. We try to update our band website on a daily basis. We also have a band Facebook page. We’re constantly trying to engage our parents so they understand what’s going on in the program.

Once the parents can buy in a little bit, then they start asking questions: “What can we do? How can I help? What can my role be?” And once that happens, then the sky really is the limit. When you get to the point where the parents are going to you instead of vice versa, then it really changes things around. Parents will want to do this when they see the value of what it gives to their kids, and the kids as a group, not just the individual students. When you have mothers and fathers who see that value, there’s fewer details that I have to worry about and I can then spend my time teaching the kids how to play.

When those parents see their kids being successful locally and nationally, then it’s just like anything else: they are more engaged, they have more information to share, and more time to share.

SBO: Parental engagement and support seems to be a common element among most successful school music programs.

 

The Mt. Juliet Band after winning the small division Mayor Cup at the Music City Invitational competition in 2012.

TC: One of the things that I’ve said from the very beginning is that there’s a triangle: one side of that is the student performers; the second side is the band directors and staff, who are teaching the kids; and the third side of the triangle is the band parents. It’s more fun and productive when the triangle is working together. In the past, it used to be that when I struggled the most was when I didn’t let the other sides of that triangle do their parts. I try to make sure that we always have that triangle moving together, with everyone supporting each other, and no side of the triangle is more important – we’re clearly all here for the kids.

When new parents come in for their first the band program meeting, usually in May, it really is an educational moment for them to realize the role that they play in a high school band program. A lot of times they don’t really have that role as middle school parents, because it’s a different thing. At the high school level, parents are the ones who give out the uniforms, who make sure that the guard kids are dressed, who make sure that we have food for the kids, and who chaperone during events. I don’t know how in the world we could do what we do without the parental support that we have. It would be impossible. Plus, the activity is more fun when everyone is in it for the success of the group.

SBO: Changing gears for a moment, has your teaching been influenced by technology? What tools have you adopted into your classroom?

 TC: Now that so many students have smartphones, we encourage all of our players to have a tuner and a metronome on their phone. We often rehearse with metronomes, and now that kids can get those apps for free, there’s no reason we shouldn’t be using that technology. We also strongly encourage any kind of video technology that allows a student to film him or herself playing and rehearsing. They can watch themselves practice with each other, or go back and watch those videos with staff – there’s a lot of really helpful things along those lines that we have started doing.

Another new thing we’ve gone to this year is using iPads on the field. We no longer take paper drill out. We can update drill and show it to the kids on the field on an iPad, and we can then email that directly to the staff members, without having to go through the process of making copies. Those tools have worked out really well for us, and it seems to be something that allows the kids to work a little bit better together. In the process of communicating with our kids, email, Facebook, and text messaging just allows that stuff to go so much quicker.

We have not gone too heavy in technology performance-wise – we don’t do lighting with our band program, for example – but we do use electronics down front with our sound system and samples. We have the ability to control that with an iPad up in the stands, so we can adjust our volume and our mix during the show.

SBO: What does that open up for you?

 TC: We don’t have a very large band or a very big horn line, so we try to be a little more creative. When we design our show, we try to tell a little bit more of a story, and we don’t limit that just to what the winds and drums are doing. We’ll use sound effects or samples or other things that will help tell the story of what we’re trying to do with our performance. With our marching band this year, we’re doing a show based off of the character of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz. We have several different samples and loops that allow the kids to represent those sounds and help sell that character. That gives us the chance to create that environment. Not a lot of bands in the Middle Tennessee area do that yet.

We use microphones to amplify the wind section, to try boost their volume up a little bit. We also mic individual students from time to time. We try to make it a part of our package – not just to have a sample here or there, but to make our sound better. We’ve received a lot of feedback on this. Overall it’s been positive, when we do it well and it all works. That al lows us to do some really cool things that make us unique musically and visually. We don’t just do the traditional marching band show. We try to make it flow from the beginning to the very end of the show, without stopping for the traditional few-second pause. We try to have seamless transitions so it’s a continuous flowing production that doesn’t start and stop, per se.

When we do all of those things really well, it helps us stand out and be unique. With the staff that we have, our creative team, and the years that we’ve been working together, we don’t feel like we have to try to be like other bands. We’ve done it enough that we can just be ourselves and write our program and build it based on what we think will be a good vehicle musically and visually that will challenge our kids and be original. We’ve been able to do that over the past few years, and that always gets us excited about the prospect of deciding what we’re going to do in the future. If we were only thinking about music and drill, that would put a bit of a stop sign in our creative process. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about that – we have a little bit more to work with. The electronics is just another way for us to tell our story and give the kids a chance to shine. It’s never a tool to cover up or hide something or anything like that, it’s really just to enhance and promote.

SBO: After four years in your program, what are you hoping your students walk away with?

 TC: First and foremost, I hope the students love music. That, to me, is the very most important thing. I hope that we have exposed our kids to enough styles and types of music that they just love it. The next thing is I want our student musicians to keep playing their instruments after graduating high school. I don’t want anyone to graduate and say, “That’s it, I’m done.” We have a lot of kids who go to college and keep playing their instruments. We have a lot of students who go on to do drum corps, or seek out independent color guard, winter guard, and drumlines. And we also have a lot of kids who, as soon as they graduate, are looking for a group to teach. To me, a big responsibility for us as teachers is that we’re training the next group of young men and women to go out and be performers and teachers, as well. Just instilling a great love for music and that kids keep pursuing music are the two biggest goals of our program. And hopefully, in the process, we’ve created musicians with strong discipline and work ethic who can go on to college and be successful, and be productive adults once they get out into the real world.

 

Check out the Mt. Juliet High Drumline in action at the 2013 WGI Finals:

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Mt Juliet High School Bands at a Glance

Location: 1800 Curd Rd, Mt Juliet, Tenn.

On the Web: mjbandofgold.com

Students in School: 1,900

Students in Instrumental Program: 175

Director of Bands: Tony Cox

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