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

The sit-ups prove to be an exercise in awareness for the remaining kids. Their eyes are constantly scanning the surrounding area for Runnels and his assistant, Kevin Lee, hoping to identify a window in which to cheat on a few reps. Sit-ups are followed by the running drill, Suicides (a series of sprints to various spots/lines at increasing distances). Early in the drill, someone starts walking and Runnels extends the drill from four lines to five. At the end, Shannon Banda, a senior who plays flute, is fanning herself on the way to the band room, and, retching, can barely make her way up the stairs. There is significant work to be done.

Foreheads are damp with sweat and T-shirts are soaked through when Runnels calls for a water break. With wobbly legs and heavy breathing, the group happily agrees. "Next time I'm wearing a Speedo," says Juan Cepeda, to no one in particular.

Some of the girls check cell phones between sipping water, while a group of the guys pull out drumsticks and start working on cadences, some beating on the seats of chairs, others on the hardwood floor.

Part of Leadership Camp at Austin High included daily group discussions on everything from setting goals to what makes a good band to the characteristics of a good leader.
Photo by Chasen Marshall
Part of Leadership Camp at Austin High included daily group discussions on everything from setting goals to what makes a good band to the characteristics of a good leader.
Entering his seventh year as Austin High's band director, Keavon Runnels works his students hard.
Photo by Chasen Marshall
Entering his seventh year as Austin High's band director, Keavon Runnels works his students hard.

A cavernous room with high ceilings, the band room is adorned with mismatched chairs and posters created by the individual band sections. A large emerald-green banner stretches across the north wall with the band's name written across it: Sonic Boom.

Just below the banner, sitting on the top of a shelving unit, are a cluster of trophies. One is on the ground; it's a gold, five-tiered trophy, standing just shy of nine feet tall, that was awarded to the drumline at last year's High Noon Drumline Championships.

Nearly ten minutes later, Runnels yells out, "Back outside!" Some beg to stay inside in the air-conditioned room; Runnels puts on his glasses and walks out the door.

Pleas to remain indoors persist, but eventually die out and the group makes its way outside, into temperatures in the high 90s.

Joseph isn't for everyone. As Bashay puts it, "He accepts no less than exceptional." Which means not knowing your music or coming to practice unprepared is grounds for some minor verbal abuse, laced with a good bit of humor. Joseph makes it clear early in camp that he'll apologize once per season, but from then on out, "I'm going to ride you."

His process nets results. Last year his band of 32 won the TSU Homecoming Parade, the small band division of the MLK Battle of the Bands for the second year in a row, and the Galveston Mardi Gras Parade for the third consecutive year. He also sent 16 of his 16 seniors to college.

The committed members of the band know that their time under Joseph's watch is about more than mastering an instrument or a piece of music. Joseph has three basic principles, the same three principles his band director at TSU, Richard Lee, expected of him ­— be on time, have your equipment and know your assignment. "You should apply those to your life as well," Joseph says.

With the state of affairs at Worthing, at least one of the principles will occasionally be violated. On the same day Joseph watches the band hold the push-up position, he also has a new kid show up to join the bass drum section. The kid is late and wearing the wrong leg wear, light gray sweatpants, but Joseph allows it to pass on this afternoon.

Problem is, with the two other drummers already using instruments, there isn't a third functioning drum for the boy to use. While the band practices, the boy stands at attention, his drumsticks out in front of him. To Joseph, no drum is no excuse not to be playing: "Grab a chair and beat on that, beat on something," he said, annoyed the freshman hadn't thought of the idea himself.

Lack of funding appears to be a universal issue in the inner-city Houston marching band scene. "I've had to borrow a tuba on more than one occasion," Runnels says.

But Joseph isn't one for excuses. "Don't complain about what you don't have, focus on what you do have," he's known to say. Instruments are attainable, one way or another; changes can always be made. Bashay started in music in the fifth grade, and up until last year she had played clarinet. But she became a casualty of necessity when Joseph asked her to shift to saxophone.

"Because the size of our band is kind of small, we had to adjust accordingly," Bashay says. "The only difference [between the saxophone and the clarinet] is the weight. Little more difficult to march with it, too."

In Joseph's mind, Bashay's instrument switch and the unknown freshman's (he never came back after that first day) lack of an ­instrument are hardly valid reasons not to come prepared.

"Y'all are in high school now, you should have memorization skills," he tells them. In past years, the band averaged five new songs per week during the four-week camp, so that they'd have 20 to 25 songs by the first day of school. Rock, R&B, reggae, rap, gospel, pop and disco all find their way into Worthing's song bank. But with a younger group this year, Joseph had to change up the pace. "Now I'm taking my time," Joseph explains. "Everyone is going to go one step at a time; we don't move on until everyone shows me they got it."

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