Battle of the Bands

Kids march towards a better future.Fighting declining interest and funding woes, two HISD high schools offer kids an oom pah pah way to better futures

"It's on the band director to develop a relationship with the principal in order to help get what they need for the band," Smith says. "One principal may be up for maintaining a band program, others may not."

An issue that echoes beyond the city limits of Houston is the nature of the communities a school may serve. For Worthing and Austin, each draws from a largely low-income community, which means $50 band dues, $90 band uniforms and even the occasional $5 lunch are expenditures some students' families can't easily make.

And then there's hormonal teenage behavior: Just last year, Austin's band lost nine of its members to pregnancy.

When they weren't inside for music practice and group discussions, the Austin band was outside marching or working out.
Photo by Chasen Marshall
When they weren't inside for music practice and group discussions, the Austin band was outside marching or working out.
As the week went on, stretching became essential for the Austin band as daily fitness workouts took their toll.
Photo by Chasen Marshall
As the week went on, stretching became essential for the Austin band as daily fitness workouts took their toll.

Aside from the variables working against their success, high school bands have proven to "aid in the education of children," according to Smith.

"HISD as an organization, I'm not sure what value they see in the fine arts," Smith says. "Music speaks for itself, its beauty and discipline, which the students can't help but carry over to other subjects. Studies have shown that schools with more fine arts programs, they have higher graduation rates and higher test scores."

Beyond producing talented musicians, band programs, like the ones at Worthing and Austin, have been shown to teach students more than musicianship.

"They are the leaders in the school, bottom line, they are the leaders in the school," says Worthing's principal, Tamara Sterling. "And they are very well respected."

The valedictorian of the Worthing class of 2010 was Cristina Vasquez, a short brunette girl with three older sisters, all of ­Mexican-born parents. She is set to attend Texas Southern University, with an accumulated $226,544 in scholarships. Vasquez is the first person in her family to go to college. She was a saxophonist under Joseph, first at Dowling Middle School and then Worthing. She's in band camp at TSU now, one of 13 members of the university's 2010 class, and all of the freshmen have some level of scholarship help.

"He said that if I followed him to Worthing, he promised I would get a full scholarship to college," Vasquez recalls. "My parents never really believed they're boasting about me to their friends."

Keavon Runnels at Austin estimates that it costs $15,000 to $20,000 per year to run the band, "and that's pretty much the bare minimum." The estimate doesn't include instrument repairs, trips to the music store for a saxophone reed before a performance, bottled water for the band or travel expenses.

This year Austin was invited to play at the Home Depot Center in Carson, California, as a finalist in the Home Depot Battle of the Bands, with the chance to win $10,000 to put toward new uniforms and instruments. The trip provides national exposure for the band and the school, and a fun experience for the students, but it isn't cheap.

Between the travel, food and lodging, the trip will run nearly $380 per student. In total, the experience will run the group just shy of $25,000.

Travel also serves as a valuable recruiting tool for band directors. Getting students in through the band room door is much of the battle. Once they're there, once they start to learn their instrument, they don't usually leave. As Joseph says, "I just tell the kids, 'You get them [your friends] here and I'll do the rest.'"

It's shortly before 9 a.m. on the first day of Leadership Camp at Austin High and it's clear that few of the aspiring bandleaders are fit. After some simple stretches, 90 jumping jacks and forward and backward arm rotations, several in the group of 17 are laboring through squats.

Out in front of the group, leading the workout, is Runnels, a man who resembles a running-backs coach more than a band director. Short and compact, with a high-pitched voice and an occasional stutter, he's having a difficult time getting the largely Hispanic group to sound off in unison. Austin's student population is nearly 95 percent Hispanic.

Between sets of squats, Runnels does his best military leader impression: "What is pain?" he calls out.

"Weakness leaving the body," the group replies. He adds extra squats when the group doesn't respond at an acceptable decibel level. The students are significantly louder on the following attempts.

A week from this day, the first day of actual band camp, Runnels expects the number of kids to be closer to 100. Each of the kids on the blacktop in front of him is sacrificing a week of summer by choice. These are the ones who see themselves as leaders. And so, on this morning, despite the temperatures nearing 90 degrees, Runnels works the group hard. Runnels has just one assistant, not nearly enough manpower to oversee an entire band, which is why he needs his leaders to be ready.

When two band members show up late, Runnels lifts one finger and rotates his wrist, indicating they owe him laps.

The latecomers join the group and work their way through squat walks and a new crouch-to-jump exercise called jump shots. The group then moves on to sit-ups and, after the first set, one of the latecomers has to be escorted into the air-­conditioned band room. Turns out the lean boy with brown, close-cut hair and oversized khaki shorts hadn't eaten that day.

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