ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
If band was a school sport, Gregg Walker would be the kind of coach you’d hire to turn a program around.
He’s done just that at almost every school where he’s been director of bands. Now in his first year at Hillsboro High School, Walker is determined to do the same here.
“I want to bring this program to a new level, back to where it was years ago,” he said. “I believe this community wants to be proud of its band program.”
Walker sees direct connections between a good athletic program and a good band program. In fact, Hillsboro’s standard of success in athletics was a key reason he wanted to come here.
“The kids here know success,” he said. “They have shown the ability to concentrate on a task and excel at it.”
Numbers are foundational to a band program’s success, according to Walker. One of his first tasks is to have more students join-and then stick with-the program.
Walker’s high school band has only 29 members this year. He calls their participation “an act of bravery” because they have hung in when so many of their peers have left the program.
“These kids are absolutely great, and their bravery will be rewarded down the road,” he said.
Walker knows the band program can be successful in Hillsboro because it has been in the past. Pinned on the bulletin board of his office is a postcard of the Trojan band from the mid-1970s. The members-about twice as many as this year’s band-are in full marching uniform, lined up in arrow-straight rows on the football field.
“We can get there again,” he said, “because I know this community cares about having a good band. They remember when the program was strong.”
Again, Walker refers to athletics when he makes his recruiting pitch to students.
“Unlike most sports, where you probably won’t make an impact until your junior or senior year, band allows everyone to part of the group and make an immediate impact at the ‘varsity’ level,” he said.
Band has room for students at all levels of ability, he said.
Walker’s brighter future may be already knocking on the door. The Hillsboro Middle School band has 69 members. Walker sees his task as keeping as many of them involved as possible as they enter high school.
His work is cut out for him. Aside from a declining band tradition in recent years, current class scheduling in high school makes it difficult for band to prosper-without a determined effort by students and their parents.
“It may seem that the required courses allow no room to schedule band, but there are infinite numbers of ways to include band class with some personal attention to your son’s/daughter’s schedule,” Walker wrote in a recent letter to parents of band students.
One of his primary strategies for keeping students involved in band is to help them see, and then experience, success-as a group now, but also as individual performers well beyond their high school years.
Walker has experienced both.
A club performer since age 15, he has played sax and other woodwinds with some of the top jazz groups in the Midwest and has been a studio musician in Nashville.
As an instructor, he has turned around band programs almost everywhere he has worked, both in Texas and Kansas.
He struggled only in one place, he said. There, neither the students nor the community were committed to success-in band, athletics or any other program.
Hillsboro is different, he said.
“This is a place where I can get accomplished what I want to get accomplished,” Walker said. “I’m looking forward to being here. I have a chance to invest everything I’ve done into this community.”
March is “Music In Our Schools Month.” Walker is committed to ensuring that a strong band program become a hallmark at HHS.
Participating in band contributes a lot to a student’s education process, Walker insists. It builds group identification, creative problem-solving skills and school pride and has a place for students of all skill levels.
“Band can be a great benefit to students and to a school,” Walker said. “We can achieve tremendous results.”
Band trips are another incentive for students. Walker’s long-range goal is to take the HHS band to a bowl parade. In the shorter term, he is planning a trip to Colorado Springs for May 2002.
To raise money for the trip, the band is selling buttons to “Chingawassa Days” in Marion, as well as CDs from current pop artists who have donated their talents to raise money for school music programs.