Gloria Ramirez is in her 36th year of teaching and her 14th year at Langham Creek High School, a school of 3,215 in Houston, Texas. “I knew I wanted to be a band director when I was in 9th grade. I tell the students that this is my passion, and that they need to find their passion, whether that is music, the space program, or anything else.” There are 225 in the band program and 35 in the color guard. The band program has 27 years of first divisions in marching, has been the state honor band of Texas two times, and has been invited to perform at the Midwest Clinic twice. Says Ramirez, “It is important to have fun. We have entered state competition many times, and students can put immense pressure on themselves. Last year, I made sure to stop and recognize when something really great was happening. It made things so much more enjoyable to prepare, and there was much less pressure. By the time we finished the last performance, there were students crying because it was just beautiful. I told them, “I just love watching you perform.” I get a lot more out of it than anybody. The students don’t realize what they do for me.
You aim to spend at least 15 minutes a day on warmups. What is one thing directors should watch for during warmups?
Students need to remain as natural and tension free as possible when they rehearse. It is by no means the only thing I do, but I like articulation exercises, where students start with whole notes, then half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes in various styles. These exercises focus on good air and tongue placement. If students get behind on sixteenth notes, it is likely they are either tense or running out of air. This particular exercise helps students recognize how their body feels and how to control their breathing so they can maintain good characteristic sounds, clear articulation and tempo. We tell them all the time to never get to the end of their air.
What are some of your favorite strategies for mixing things up in rehearsal?
I want students to become independent thinkers and do this by occasionally telling students, “I’m not going to start you on this piece. You can start yourselves, but you can’t talk or count off.” The first time I did this was a challenge for students. Eventually a trumpet player decided to breathe loud enough for everyone to hear him, so the band started, but it was ragged. On the second try, they got it. I have done a similar exercise by having students play and keep together Molly on the Shore without me. It forces students to think every second, listen more intensely, and depend on one another.
We have done what we call monk rehearsals, where the director is absolutely quiet and acts out what we want our students to do, much like charades. I tell students the plan when rehearsal starts, and that is the last thing I say to them. Students have to watch the director and listen to each other. If students are rushing, I hold up two fingers and move them up my arm like they are little running legs. Then I move my fingers up my arm again at a slightly slower pace. If a clarinetist with the melody is being overwhelmed by the rest of the band, I point at him while looking at everyone; then students know to listen for that part. The point of the exercise was for us to learn to communicate with each other without ever speaking a word. It is not an exercise we have been able to maintain for the entire class period, it can get tough, mostly on me. But, during the activity the kids are very engaged. They are sitting up to the edge of their seat as if they will be able to hear what I am acting out. Directors and their groups are constantly communicating with each other during a live performance through a cue, a baton gesture, a look. It’s the way we talk with one another.
I once passed out National Emblem and told students that they were responsible for preparing it. Each principal player was responsible for setting up weekly rehearsal times, and we set a deadline of six weeks for the project to be completed, at which point we would record it. I asked students if they thought they could do it, and they did. This was inspired by learning about how quickly and independently Japanese bands work. Those students spend hours outside of the school day – and entire weekends – rehearsing in sections where the older students lead the rehearsal. While we do not have that kind of time, our students are no less capable of putting music together on their own if given the responsibility.
What are the keys to building a strong program?
When students enter the band hall we want it to be a place where they feel comfortable. I tell the older students that the new students come in will be nervous and need to feel welcomed. We do have rules, but kids have a way of enforcing behavior. They know how we do things.
Part of comfort is eliminating the fear of making mistakes. When I was an assistant here, students frequently talked to me about things, but when I became the head director they are a little more reluctant to speak with me. I do try to speak with the kids about their outside interests and try to form a better relationship, but it can still be difficult for them to approach me, it takes encouragement on my part. I had a student once who told me: “Ms. Ramirez, you know when you ask us ‘do you hear the difference in the color and sound?’ we will say ‘yeah,’ but we don’t necessarily hear that.” I looked at him and said, “You have to be able to tell me when you don’t get it, so I can help you hear what I am hearing.” It is important that students feel able to be honest. I ask a lot of questions and make it as clear as I can that there are no wrong answers. I ask them “What do you think?” “What could we do better?” “What would you do differently?” Students need to know you respect and value them, and this is a way to do that.
Band students usually get their instruments out and warm up a little bit on their own before we begin the rehearsal. One time, I asked students to come in quietly and not play on their instrument. After everyone was seated my first question was, “How many of you feel a bit of tension right now?” The all raised their hands, and I pointed out that it was because I changed the routine. I told them that I normally trusted them to prepare for the rehearsal, but that today I thought I would change things up. I asked students what they normally did to prepare for rehearsals and why they did that, making it clear that there was no wrong answer. A trumpet player mentioned doing long tones and lip slurs to loosen lips up, and a clarinetist used the time to make sure reeds responded well. I said that these examples were good for an individual warmup, but then I pointed out that I had scheduled the march to be the first thing we rehearsed that day, and that warmup time could also be spent spot-checking music as needed.
Valuing students extends to the whole student; they are valuable as people, not just because we need them in the band. Some students have problems with their grades in other classes, so we have tutorials for them. They know we are taking an interest in the total person not just how they perform in band. The things they learn by being a member of the band program will help them function in college and on their job once they leave us. We want our kids to be successful in life.
How do you help students develop their full potential as musicians?
We strive to develop individual students, because improving individuals makes the whole group sound better. We will stop and address issues relating to embouchure placements, hand position, posture, and good characteristic sounds. We do split band class where I will work with the brass, Alex will take the woodwinds and Marshall will work with the percussion. This is a much more effective use of time.
Our school in 48.9% economically disadvantaged and it can be difficult for many to take private lessons. So we fundraise, apply for grants, and get masterclass teachers, often from the University of Houston, to come in.That way, they may not get an individual private lesson, but at least they get information from a master teacher without worrying about how to pay for it.
When we bring in masterclass teachers, they meet with all the students who play that instrument, not just the students in the top band. It is best to expose students at every level to everything. We try different ways to say the same things so that someone who may not understand the concept when it is explained one way can eventually get what we are trying to teach.
Each spring, we invite the eighth graders to play with the high school students. Although this used to be only for the top band, we recently changed it to include all high school students to make it feel like a region band experience and to give more students a change to sit next to the top players. We divide students into three groups of equal ability, and each learns two pieces. The middle school students cannot be bused over here until 5:00 p.m., so the concert starts at 8:00. We rehearse from 5:30 to 7:30, they eat pizza and socialize, and then we give a performance for parents. Each of the three high school directors leads one group so all of the middle school students meet their future teachers. The music is all fun, typically from movies or Broadway. The event was a big hit. The next day the directors from the middle school called to say how much the eighth graders were talking about the experience.
When you bring in masterclass teachers, what are your goals?
What masterclasses cover depends on the time of year. In July, the all-state music will come out for Texas. I have masterclass teachers in for four days, two hours each day, to introduce the music to students and give them ideas about how to practice it. We always start out a half tempo. We never learn anything at full tempo. I want students to hear a master performer play the music, so they will know how it should sound on that instrument. When we have masterclass teachers in during the week in the school year, I ask them to focus on fundamentals first and them whatever we may be working on at the time. The directors are in the class as well taking notes. I tell the students all the time that we are learning too. It is import for students to know a person never stops learning.
How do you get students interested in the hard work of rehearsing?
We set both program and individual goals together with students. Last summer, students decided that they wanted to make it to the state marching finals as their goal. We didn’t necessarily want that to be the goal, because there are numerous good bands in Texas, and if for some reason they didn’t make it to state finals, we didn’t want them to think the whole fall semester had been a waste. Instead, we steered students to focus on how we got from point A to point B and to see their successes along the way. Rather than “how can we be a state finalist?” a better question is “what work has to be done to do well at our first show?”
We said that we were setting them for success with his approach and asked them to trust us, and even though we did not advance to the state marching finals, we did compete in the state marching contest. More importantly, students learned how to work together and recognize that they were accomplishing goals all along the way. We like this approach because students are going to spend a lot more time in rehearsal working than the seven or eight minutes the performance lasts. The lesson was taken to heart, as last fall’s drum majors are working with next year’s leaders to set similar goals more related to the process that the final outcome.
What are some of the goals you set for the marching band?
We aim to sound like a concert band on the field. We aren’t the biggest band, but if students play well, move air, and match pitch and tone, then they can have an impressive sound. The other half of sounding like a concert band on the field is to be able to hear every part of the score. We teach this in concert band, and it should apply on the field as well.
What advice would you give to new directors?
New directors should surround themselves with successful people. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I don’t know that many new teachers are doing that. When I started out, I went to as many concerts and contests and rehearsals by people I knew were good at their craft. The really good directors are so willing to share. Ask them if you can visit a rehearsal or take them out to lunch or dinner to ask questions. I still go to concerts and watch people teach when I have free time. Being a good band director is something I always want to try to be. When I first began teaching I felt the need to prove myself. What I found was that I focused a lot on winning this trophy or that trophy. But, what I came to realize later on was that we win because we get better each day and we do that together. That is a saying I got from my mentor Eddie Green. When you are in a performance and you can just feel that everything is working and the kids are creating something amazing, well you don’t need a trophy. You know every moment spent rehearsing for that performance was worth it just by the looks on your kids’ faces. I just love what I do.