Battle of the Bands

Screen Shot 2015-04-23 at 2.01.01 PMKids 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.

Words and Photos by Chasen Marshall
Published by Houston Press: Aug. 19, 2010

Beyond the bright green door to Room 1018 — the one with the “Support Our Band” sticker — Renford Joseph stands with arms crossed, in the middle of one of his long-winded diatribes directed at a group of kids on the floor.

Twenty-one members of the Worthing High School band, all wearing white T-shirts and green gym shorts, are in push-up position, instruments at their sides.

“If y’all are going to hurt my ears, I’m going to hurt your arms,” says Joseph, the band’s director.

Kiera Bashay tries to hold strong. Her back is flat and her elbows locked, but her arms are beginning to shake. Her soft brown eyes are set on a spot directly beneath her head; her gold saxophone is on the chair behind her feet. Though others have their butts in the air or knees touching the ground, her positioning is as it should be. She’s only a junior, but she’s one of the leaders, and can’t be seen slacking. The band graduated 16 seniors in the 2010 class, and this year they have only five. Others must step up. Joseph has challenged her to do so.

Plus, she’s in the front row, and Joseph loves to prolong punishments.

“Band season has begun,” continues Joseph, as his eyes scan the group, “understand y’all, summer is over.” They have less than a month before their first football game.

Last year, 837 high school bands competed in University Interscholastic League competitions statewide, and only four of those schools were from the Houston Independent School District. According to Walter Smith of the HISD Fine Arts Department, who had been overseeing the high school curriculum until recently, 20 high schools have band programs, but because many of those programs have seen a “drastic cut” in the number of participants, few programs have been sending their bands to UIL competitions. To bolster the declining programs, and to help prep them for returning to UIL competition, HISD reinstituted its annual Marching Band Festival.

The festival is coming up on its third year on October 9 at Delmar Stadium and Smith hopes it will attract more than the ten schools that performed last year.

In the closing days of summer, it’s customary for bands to rework and reload for the upcoming school year, beginning at band camp. Some bands never take a break, some start a week before school starts, others just pick up where they left off on the first day of school. Worthing and Austin High are two HISD bands that started up weeks before school.The festival is coming up on its third year on October 9 at Delmar Stadium and Smith hopes it will attract more than the ten schools that performed last year.

Like student-athletes or anyone involved with extracurricular activities, band members commit extra hours to practice time, competitions and fund-raising. This tests a student’s time management and discipline, because at both Austin and Worthing, students must also maintain adequate grades in order to perform.

“No one wants to work as hard as we do and then not get to go out at halftime,” says Keavon Runnels, 32, the band director at Austin.

At the end of July, Worthing, which is located in Sunnyside in south Houston, is into its third week of band camp, and its numbers fluctuate from day to day. Along with Bashay, there is a group of 15 to 18 who show up consistently; the rest is a rotating group of faces. Joseph was expecting more to come. Most of the uncommitted are freshmen, unsure of whether or not band is for them.

The 31-year-old Joseph is less concerned with hurting feelings than he is with molding his students into competent and disciplined musicians. Last year he whittled the band down from a group in the 40s to 32. But a year ago, at band camp, the group was smaller than the one on the ground in front of him now. His methods are not all about the music. “A lot of these kids, they come from backgrounds where there’s no discipline at home, no structure, single-parent homes, no parents at home,” he says. “I’m all they have at this point.”

Joseph is entering his fifth year as the band director at Worthing, a school that is 91 percent African-American. He has a long history with music, dating back to the eighth grade, when his mom forced him to join band.

For Joseph, though, his position means more than getting to joke with the kids and listen to music every day. He knows that the band is reason No. 1 many of these kids are still in school.

* * * * *

It’s no secret that Houston-area high schools have issues. A 2007 report conducted by Johns Hopkins University listed 22 of the 38 HISD charter and public high schools as “dropout factories” — schools with an attrition rate of 40 percent or higher. Both Worthing and Austin were included. Aside from that infamous list, in 2008 and 2009, Worthing was rated “Academically Unacceptable” by the Texas Education Agency; this year it rose to “Academically Acceptable.” Austin — which is located in the Greater Eastwood area, just miles east of downtown — received a high rating of “Recognized” in the 2010 report.

Schools also deal with lackluster or unequal funding. HISD is a decentralized district; the disbursement of funds is dictated by the individual school and its administration. So if a band needs new uniforms and instruments, funds are not guaranteed.

“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.

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 it…now 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.

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.

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.”

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.

* * * * *

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.

“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.”

With the entire band due to show up in four days, it’s clear that Runnels knows that repeating the success of the past year will not come easy.

* * * * *

Out on the field in the late afternoon heat, Joseph is visibly upset. He’s wearing a large fishing hat and dark shades, and he’s yelling into his megaphone. “This is a marching band, not a walking band,” he says as he follows briskly behind the band that he just sent running to a wall 250 yards away.

By his demand, everyone in the band is wearing a hat and the appropriate clothing. But the maintenance crew messed up his lines and hasn’t cut the grass. And the band can’t seem to march and chant as one. So, Joseph is upset.

“Y’all are bringing this on yourselves,” he says, once they return from their run. All but one are standing on their line with their backs straight, though most are panting. One of the drummers, a heavyset girl with braided hair, doesn’t even attempt to run. Being out of shape is one thing to Joseph, laziness is quite another. He tells her to keep on walking all the way home. And she leaves.

“He’s hard on them, but there’s nothing he won’t do for these kids,” says Martha Lewis, the band’s auxiliary coordinator. “He’s probably bought more lunches and given more rides home than any teacher or counselor in this school.”

Today the band is supposed to be marching with its instruments, but a misunderstanding with the custodians forced the group to make do with a single snare and Joseph’s megaphone.

Joseph delivers the marching instructions: “Mark time eight, break away eight, mark time eight, break away eight and halt.” The group repeats the instructions, pointing in the direction the orders direct them. Shayla Tibbs, the snare section leader, starts beating the marching cadence. Knees rise in unison and voices ring out as one. Arms are extended to reflect where instruments would be held.

The group appears to execute the routine almost perfectly. “Good, not great, but good,” Joseph says into the megaphone. He weaves through the group, pointing out those who were off the cadence, not bringing knees up high enough, not sounding off at a proper volume or maybe for wearing an ugly hat. Those he points out go running for the wall.

Once the group is reunited, despite exhaustion and frustration, they are at attention.

“Y’all know good is not good enough for me,” Joseph says. “If y’all want to be the best, y’all got work to do, each and every one of you. This is your band. Mark time eight. “

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