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Marching Bands Developing Talent in Birmingham City Schools

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Huffman High School Mighty Marchin' Vikings Band. (Joe Songer, For The Birmingham Times)
By Ryan Michaels
The Birmingham Times

Birmingham City Schools (BCS) officials have found a way for music students to enter high school on a high note.

The system is going to bring back middle school marching bands to not only make students more well-rounded but also improve area high schools, which have seen a drop in the number of students participating in band, said Deborah Mayes, Ed.D., fine arts coordinator for BCS.

“We hope [getting students involved will] ignite some kind of interest … because the total push right now is to make our high schools larger and to get more kids off the street and into our band programs,” she said.

When students begin fine arts at an early age, it can help with “brain power,” as well as help them “figure out math problems that other people will probably have an issue with because music [helps young people] learn how to remember things,” Mayes said.

“They have to learn how to add those notes up together to get a complete measure of music, and all those kinds of things will help [students],” she added.

Playing for school bands even helps with independence, Mayes said: “You’ve got to play your part. You can’t depend on Joey or Deborah when it’s time to have a pass off, and it’s what you know because your piece helps to develop the whole ensemble sound.”

Developing the Whole Person

James Crumb, BCS fine arts consultant, agreed with the importance of band in the development of the whole person.

“If you want to be successful, you do have to be disciplined, you have to be consistent. You have to set goals, work hard to reach those goals, and then [have] self-assessment and awareness,” he said. “You [then can] evaluate yourself by asking, ‘Did I reach my goal?’ ‘Why didn’t I reach my goal?’ and ‘How can I do better once I set another goal?”

Crumb said that students need those skills before they graduate.

“High school is the final frontier for teachers and instructors to actually reach the child,” he said. “For those that are really doing well, you just keep encouraging them and keep pushing them.”

The middle school push so important because school officials want to get students interested in band before high school, Mayes said.

“It’s really hard to get a kid to start on an instrument once they get to high school,” she said. “If you don’t get them at a younger age, they’re more frightened to start something new, particularly once they get in high school, because they are ‘cool’ at that age.”

Tamara Travis, who directs the school band at Epic Elementary School in the Glen Iris neighborhood, said learning the skills of playing music makes her young students feel special.

“My students know that they’re focused, they’re disciplined, but they just love playing music,” she said. “They listen to different kinds of music, and being able to play an instrument is something they can do that someone else at the school cannot do, so it makes them feel special.”

Band Fest

One way to attract band students before high school is through the All-City Magic City Band Festival (ACMCBF), which has been held annually for more than 30 years and recently took place at the George Washington Carver High School football stadium.

This year’s festival showcased the city’s seven public high school bands, which were scored by a panel of judges on categories, including color guard, dance line, and overall band performance. Ramsay High School won awards for best drumline, majorettes, and dance team.

During the closing performance, all of the bands gathered on the field—horn players in red, blue, green, gold, and white fizzed, popped, and bobbed in concentric curves, forming a pit in which the dancers and drum majors stepped and flung their arms under an overcast sky.

The festival is not as much a competition as it is an event to promote “camaraderie” among high school bands in the city.

“It’s a time when all the bands get to see each other,” Crumb said. “You see some of them play each other during the season, but you don’t really get a chance to see all of the bands together in one setting.”
Before the bands took the field at this year’s ACMCBF, a percussion ensemble of students from five different BCS middle schools opened the event.

Mayes said, “[It was] awesome! The little kids got a chance to go on the field and do something. … They were so excited.”

Mayes added that she hopes the event will inspire children in the younger grades, as well: “The bigger piece to this whole thing is for all these kids to see that there’s something at the high school.”

An added bonus at this year’s ACMCBF: the students got a chance to see and perform with the Tennessee State University (TSU) Aristocrat of Bands marching band, one of the top historically black college or university (HBCU) ensembles. Just before trophies were handed out, the TSU band took to the field with all seven Birmingham bands as they played together.

Crumb believes that having the opportunity to see TSU’s band perform will encourage high schoolers to pursue band at higher education institutions, particularly HBCU’s, which often provide band scholarships.

He’s hoping that some of the high schoolers who attended the festival might think, “’Hey, you know what? I probably can [join a university band]. I don’t think this would be too bad.”