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

On the Thursday of the third week of camp, 18 members are present, and the group is working on Trey Songz's "Neighbors Know My Name." The four-person trumpet section is on tune, except for one. Donte Lotts is a gangly freshman with C.R.A.B.S. (Class of Rookies seeking to Attain full Band Status) written in black ink across his white T-shirt. Lotts is noticeably struggling with his notes. Joseph calls for the band to stop playing, and calls out Lotts, but mostly Joseph looks to and blames his fellow section members for not spending time before and after practice helping out the new kid. "How about this: I won't teach y'all anything until I see him making progress," he says to the three upperclassmen. "When I see he's learned something, y'all will learn something."

Accountability and teamwork are huge with the Worthing band. On most days of camp, while the horns practice in the band room, the percussion sections practice outside in the Houston heat. The snares and quints drummers will break off from the bass and cymbals, and the two groups will retreat beneath the catwalks to work out the imperfections. Section leaders are expected to run the practice. When a C.R.A.B.S. bass drummer repeatedly messes up a particular piece, the bass section leader, senior Steven Bradley, tells him to drop. Fifteen push-ups are completed and practice resumes. No questions, no whining. This is the kind of discipline and respect Joseph expects, and yet another reason why joining the band isn't for everyone.
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Seven years ago, there was no band to speak of at Austin. Runnels transferred to the program from Kashmere High after the school was "reconstituted" due to low test scores. At Austin, he started the program from scratch.

With temperatures in the high 90s, and no space in the band room, members of the Austin drumline sought shelter wherever possible — even under a carport.
Photo by Chasen Marshall
With temperatures in the high 90s, and no space in the band room, members of the Austin drumline sought shelter wherever possible — even under a carport.
With fewer seniors, Renford Joseph has to take a more hands-on approach with the Worthing band.
Photo by Chasen Marshall
With fewer seniors, Renford Joseph has to take a more hands-on approach with the Worthing band.

"All summer I posted flyers and I walked the streets; I basically solicited students like right off the street corners, from the parks, Jack in the Box, McDonald's, I would just sit in there and talk to them," Runnels recalls. "One student came the first week of band practice."

Year by year, the band grew in size, and year by year, Runnels had to claw for additional funding to bring in instruments to provide the increasing number of bodies. "There's still no set budget to speak of," Runnels says. "We get money as it's needed, if there's any extra money. If the money isn't there, we use duct tape and glue and move on."

The program has experienced an impressive level of success despite its youth. But every year the work starts all over again. The leaders must be identified and trained, and then the freshmen will come in — "freshmen are going to mess up, it's a scientific fact," Runnels tells his leaders.

Late into the first week, Runnels' concern is still the leaders. His eyes speak to his discomfort. Though the group has spent most of the week working on a Beatles song, "With a Little Help from My Friends," the trombones, saxophone and tuba are struggling. A camera from Channel 2 News is present on this Thursday morning, working on a story having to do with the heat wave passing through Houston. The band is content to be indoors away from the heat, but Runnels flashes a quick glance at the camera every time his tuba player, Tyesha Simmons, hits a wrong note.

He's humming the notes, seeming to hope Simmons will get the tune right, maybe via osmosis. But the errors continue. Runnels is a patient man; he's holding up the entire band to focus on Simmons getting the tune right, just as he's previously done with his lone saxophone player and the pair of lip ring-wearing girls on trombone.

While the horns seem a work in progress, the drums are sharp. Most of the group that won the nine-foot trophy has returned. Just like the drummers at Worthing, the Austin drumline is enduring the heat while practicing, tucked under a carport near the outside entrance to the band room. Kevin Lee is working with the six in attendance, all male. Some among the group are the same ones who crack jokes during morning exercises, but once the drums come out, their demeanors transform completely. For instance, Gudelio Morales, a junior on the tenor drum, cuts out push-ups and hardly moves during sit-ups, and never misses an opportunity to trigger a laugh, but with his drum strapped to his chest, he rarely flashes a smile.

Months prior, Morales was selected and attended a prestigious all-star camp along with fellow section member and junior Christian Lugo. Lugo plays the quints. He's popular among his peers and will engage in the occasional joke, but the role of jokester seems out of character.

Runnels is worried that last year's success and band members' recognition as all-stars will have an inverse effect on the band. "I'm not going to name names, but last year we had one kid come back from all-star camp with the wrong attitude," he tells everyone during a group discussion.

"This is your band, it ain't my band," says Runnels. "It's on everyone here; if you want to be good, it's on you to step up."

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