Rebuilding the band begins in early grades, directors says

How do you take a group of fifth graders who barely know the difference between a clarinet and a flute and make them into a band capable of winning “I” ratings at state music competitions?

Gregg Walker, director of bands at Hillsboro High School, believes he has the formula.

When Walker came to the Hillsboro school district in 2000, he found a band that wasn’t living up to its full potential.

“There were a lot of good signs but it just wasn’t happening,” he said. “One of the things I saw was the potential in all the kids that were here-and their parents and the administration.”

Walker said the Hillsboro band program had been very successful in the past, but had lost momentum in recent years.

“A band is a very fragile thing,” he said. “A band program can die very quickly, and I have been told it takes eight to nine years for it to come back. That is a long time.

“We’re into our 4th year,” he added. “It is not 100 percent yet, but the kids that are in the band are great kids and have great potential.”

Walker likes the challenge of working with a program that needs the type of boost he can provide.

“I am trying to build pride in what we do,” he said.

In his tenure with the district, he has watched the high school band grow from 12 to 44 members.

Walker said he was careful not to push the band to compete before it was ready. The band received all I’s in a state music contest last year, he noted proudly.

“Now we’re ready,” he said. “People often don’t realize what it took to pull it together.”

As with a good sports team, when it all comes together, it seems effortless. But that may be where the similarity with sports ends.

“A band program is much different than coaching,” Walker said. “Basketball and football coaches have their own personalities that they bring into it, but the game is the same. In music, there are so many ways you can go that your personality is reflected in it.”

One challenge is specialization.

“In football, you may have two or three kids who can play quarterback,” he said. “In band, you can’t tell a flute (player), ‘You’ve got to step in and play tuba now.'”

For a group of individuals to be a band, Walker said they have to realize they each person is important.

“Each instrument has a different voice to express in a different way,” he said.”It is an individual thing, but I am also hoping they gain a sense of what it means to work together in a unit. The heights they can achieve are endless. There is no end to artistic achievement.”

Walker hopes his passion for music will rub off on the students in the band. He has been a band director for more than 15 years and is also an accomplished musician who has played in professional bands since he was 15.

Walker also has done studio work and been a backup musician to various artists, including the rock group Kansas.

“I love to play my instruments more than anything,” he said. “I play for the kids and try to inspire them. I try to show them, ‘Hey, you can do this. Some of you are going to be more talented than others and you should be proud of it.'”

Walker said he tries to give students things that are exciting to do to keep them interested and motivated.

“You have to do things the kids really like, but you also have to do things that are difficult,” he said. “You have to mix the medicine with the cure.”

Walker likes the size of the Hillsboro school district because he has the opportunity to teach musicians at all levels of their musical careers. In larger school districts, he often had to delegate the teaching of the younger students to assistants.

“Sometimes the kids wouldn’t get taught the things you think are important,” he said. “This is a better setting because I can give a broad scope of what we are doing and why.”

Walker said he notices the talents and interests of individual students and tries to get them involved in areas that will build on their talents and get them hooked on band.

“Some kids are more perfectionist,” he said. “They become the classical performers. The other kid is the creative kid who is always making noise.”

He said these the latter kids often lean toward jazz. To them he says, “You can do anything you want within this framework.”

“You have to give them challenges but draw people along,” he said. “I try to balance between some enjoyment but give some artistic accomplishment.”

Walker said the band program emphasizes three types of music- concert, jazz and marching.

“I have to get each of those developed,” he said. “Marching band is the hardest to develop, because they have to learn to move and play. Some kids have a hard time just walking and chewing gum.”

Walker said the band will be working on marching drills in the new few weeks.

“I get the kids moving and marching early because it gives them some kinesthetic motion,” he said. “Eventually, we will get to musical painting-drawing things on the field-so that it sounds well and shows a picture.”

Walker described such a program he created at a school in Texas where they did a patriotic show and “painted” the crown and torch from the Statue of Liberty.

“It is as involved as what some people put into a musical,” he said.

According to Walker, the formula for a band’s success lies in building a level of pride and excitement in the program that will translate into excellent performance.

He is hoping to capture some of those performances with audio and video recording equipment available at the high school.

“I want to provide something concrete for the kids that they have done,” he said. “Music is not like something you paint-it disappears as soon as you perform it. So one of my goals is to make CDs of the kids. I would love to take video and audio from the beginning to the end.”

Parents and grandparents would no doubt love that too.

Walker said family members can make a big difference in a child’s musical career.

“Listen to the kid play,” he suggested. “If you play an instrument, get the same book and sit down and play. Try to encourage them to do something new. Praise them. See what you can do to help.

“If you can’t listen to your children, have them sit down and practice with a tape player,” he said. “Listen to it in the car on the way to work. You want to let them know it is safe to play and there is room for mistakes. The joy is in learning to play.”

Walker sees music as “one of the greatest gifts to share with other people.”

“The gift is not just any gift; it is a gift from God,” he said. “It can reach people that nothing else can.”

Walker tells the story that when he was growing up a woman from his church found out he could play and asked him to go with her to play music. She would play music in places where other people didn’t go-that were run down or desolate-and she wanted him to accompany her.

“I went in there with her,” he said. “She would open a hymn book and I would play along with her on my sax. She said, ‘You are not doing this for you, you are doing this for others, so remember that. What is simple to you is enjoyable to them.'”

One day, he went with her to a nursing home to play Christmas carols.

“There was an older man sitting in a wheelchair,” Walker said. “He started to sing real loud. A crowd gathered of people who worked there, and they were clapping.

“This man had had a stroke and hadn’t spoken in five years. Music has a power that can do so much good.”

Walker wants his students to feel that power.

“They have a gift they need to share,” he said. “And when you combine them into one unit, they are much more powerful than they are by themselves.

“My goal is for them to spend a lifetime with music-to have music as an outlet,” he said. “Even in our great community, kids need an outlet.”

Walker believes that children who have a positive outlet in which to express themselves are much less likely to express themselves in negative ways.

“So many things they do are only for today or for high school, and then they are done,” he said. “But music is for a lifetime.”

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