An Interview with Bruce Dinkins

Dan Blaufuss | May 2011

    This year Bowie High School in Austin, Texas sent six of its 350 students to the national high school honor band and seven to the 5A Texas All-State band. An additional 175 students went to the state solo and ensemble festival this year, 128 in ensembles and 47 solos. The marching band won first in the area and fourth out of 250 high schools in 5A state. They placed fifth last time they went in 2008. Bowie’s concert bands get straight ones at all the University Interscholastic League events. We spoke with director of bands Bruce Dinkins about this school and the experiences that shaped his teaching.
    “In college I was selected to be in the 1973 Intercollegiate Band for Kappa Kappa Psi/Tau Beta Sigma. William Revelli was the conductor. We sat down in the band room at the University of Michigan, and on the wall was the saying, “To all those who enter: You are subject to the relentless refining process of music through uncompromising standards.” This saying has stuck with me. I posted it in my band room in South Carolina and now have it here at Bowie High School; I try to hold the students to that. The process is relentless, and we often tell them what to do better, but it’s worthwhile when they go to solo and ensemble competition, and the judge notices beautiful tone or excellent technique. As an 18-year-old I remember being so overwhelmed by the greatness of the University of Michigan and this conductor who, in the first five minutes, told me more than I had learned in five years.”

What led you to move from college teaching to the high schools level?
    After earning a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory, I went to Juilliard for a year in the professional studies program and attended the Aspen Music Festival in the summer. While at Aspen I was offered a job at Florida Community College in Jacksonville, where I was a professor of music theory and clarinet, one of two full-time instrumental faculty members. The ensemble director had some health problems and the department chairman asked me to conduct the band in his absence. I enjoyed it so much that 15 minutes into rehearsing “Jupiter” from The Planets, I wondered why I hadn’t continued conducting past college. Five years later I went to Emory University in Atlanta as the head director of instrumental music, conducting the jazz ensemble, wind ensemble, and orchestra. When I started the school had about 10 music majors, and when I left, there were about 60.
    While at Emory I started leading high school workshops on weekends, and I came home bubbling over the level of enthusiasm and quick progress of the high school students, which eventually led me to teach high school. For three years after that I worked after school at the DeKalb County Center for Performing Arts in inner-city Atlanta. I worked with the marching band, which grew from 45 to 180 members, and conducted three or four musicals a year. I often left work at midnight for weeks on end.
    After three years I decided to find something that let me get home earlier and took a job at North Gwinnett High School in a suburb of Atlanta called Suwanee, where I stayed for five years. My band was invited to play at the University of South Carolina’s band clinic, and soon after a superintendent called and asked me to apply for the job at Irmo High School in that state. Irmo won the 5A state marching band competition seven out of my eight years there. When I went out for my first American Bandmasters Association meeting in Las Vegas I ran into Jerry Junkin, the director of bands at the University of Texas and a friend from my years at Florida Community College. He was on the search committee for Bowie High School and asked me if I was interested. I interviewed and have now been here for ten years.

What are the keys to preparing a good performance?
    When putting a piece of music together, the notes and rhythms have to come first. Without those, the performance will not convey the intensions of the composer. Every composer has a trademark sound, and producing that is the goal of a performance, not just playing the notes sitting on the stand. It is important that students realize that music connects us with some kind of past experience, whether musical or otherwise. As Hindemith so aptly put it, if we didn’t have an emotional connection to what we hear, it would simply have a tickling effect on our ears. The music would not connect with the emotions and the mind.
    I spend a lot of time working on fundamentals. I like to go back to some of the old books, for example the Unisonal Scales and Chords by William White, which was used by the service bands in the 50s and 60s to build an ensemble sound. I also use the Grover Yaus books, including 101 Rhythmic Rests. I think that’s the one most know, but there’s also the 150, the 59, and the 27 rhythmic etudes. Each one has a varying degree of difficulty. I use the 150 with my freshmen because it repeats rhythm after rhythm, all in unison. That way it not only teaches a unified articulation but intonation.
    I use I Recommend by James Ployhar and the Claude T. Smith Symphonic Concert Warmups for the chorales. The tunes in Smith’s book are familiar and use difficult keys like A flat and D flat, so students become comfortable in keys other than E flat, B flat, and F. Directors pass something out in D flat, like one of those dark, sonorous Alford marches, such as The Vanished Army, and frequently students just fight notes for weeks. My freshmen have to play all 12 major scales individually. It still doesn’t guarantee a great reading of The Vanished Army, but it does assure that students can listen in all the keys and make adjustments.
    A book that few people still use is Leonard Smith’s Treasury of Scales, which really builds the ensemble sound. It creates a strong sonority by teaching players to hear the root, 3rd, and 5th in different settings and to drop the 3rd or raise the 5th in a major chord.
    I always teach rhythm with drumsticks in my hands. My clarinet teacher at Juilliard said that every minute you practice without a metronome is a minute wasted, and that has stuck with me for 30 years. Pulse holds the group together, so I constantly keep tempo and pulse in their minds. I use drumsticks because I’ve broken so many batons by banging them on the stand. After a while the students settle into the rhythm and make that their responsibility. Rarely do the groups here lose tempo.
    I also teach tempo memorization. To do that I will set the metronome to 120, and we will play for a while. We move on to something else, and a couple minutes later I’ll ask somebody to tap 120. After someone guesses I turn on the metronome to see how close it was.

How do you instill fundamentals in students?
    Every time we come back to a piece after learning it initially, and students make a mistake, I say, “The capital of Texas is Austin,” and they understand that they should know the music as well as they know that the capital of Texas is Austin. Sometimes I wonder why am I still telling seniors that they missed an F#. Playing correct notes is like starting a sentence with a capital letter and ending it with a period. There are certain rules we learn in other subject areas that we automatically follow because of repetition, so if young students miss an F#, they should repeat the passage many times. When we fix accents or articulations, I always repeat it five times, whether it’s a single measure or a four-measure phrase. This way they associate the physical feeling of the air or tongue used to produce the accent with the sound.
When I sit down to do a crossword puzzle, obviously I have to think about the clue for a minute, but there are certain things I don’t forget, such as how to write the letter B. Sometimes I may misspell something, but I know how to correct that problem. That’s how we approach teaching music. If you start learning a solo, the teacher doesn’t have to point out every crescendo or accent. The teacher can focus more on correct style, which produces higher ratings.
    At high school workshops I help groups prepare for upcoming festivals. I clean up technique and help the band understand the piece as a whole. One difficulty directors face is that students don’t initially grasp the totality of a piece when they begin to work on it. I put the technical elements together like a crossword puzzle and prepare them for that higher level of understanding.
    A former student of mine auditioned for the United States Army Band and played the repertoire for me a couple weeks before the audition. He began one excerpt too fast, and I told him that his tempo choice was not at all traditional, so he slowed it down. Afterwards he called me from Washington, D.C. to tell me that he made it to the second round. He said that almost everybody played that excerpt too fast, but those who made the cut played at a slower tempo.

What do you consider when choosing repertoire for your ensembles?
    It is less important how well students play a piece initially than what they get out of it by the time the concert or contest is over. I don’t pass out a piece entirely out of students’ grasp, but I do push them with music just above their level. This year the top band is playing the Rienzi Overture by Richard Wagner, one of those great old overtures that is rarely played anymore. I conducted it recently with an honor band in Georgia. The directors were thrilled, commenting that their students would go home knowing a piece of music that they might not have learned otherwise. When I conduct an honor band I try to have a diverse program by including something from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods, as well as a 20th-century band piece. I want to give students the best of all worlds.
    I also like to premiere new pieces. A composer in Austin named Ryan George wrote a piece called Firefly in the last few years, and when Steven Bryant was working on his doctorate, he wrote the piece Dusk and conducted it for us.
    While preparing to go to Seattle this year to perform at the Western International Band Clinic I learned that Satoshi Yagasawa, a Japanese composer who wrote a piece we were playing called Machu Picchu, would be there during the concert, so I asked him to guest conduct his piece on the concert. He led a rehearsal through a translator. It was such a great thing for my students to play for these composers.
    I teach a chamber winds course in which students learn chamber music as part of the curriculum. They receive the music in December, rehearse on their own in January, and beginning in February band class is dedicated to small ensemble rehearsals. Six pianists come to accompany the soloists, and the other three directors and I coach them. I spend considerable time in music stores looking for the best repertoire. If students play great music, their concept of playing improves.
    This year as I listened to the U.S. Marine Band’s performance of the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride at the Midwest, it struck me that I have never heard anything so beautifully played. That morning they had played a chamber concert, and the beauty with which both concerts were performed proves that the skills transfer. I have woodwind quintets in each of my bands because I want the flute, oboe, bassoon, clarinet, and horn players to blend well, and if they do it in a group of five, imagine what they can do in band.

What are your aims in conducting freshman band?
    I teach freshman band because students come to Bowie from four middle schools. It is easier to address all the important aspects and teach the vocabulary I use when they’re together in one class. I got the idea from Paula Crider, who is now the president of the American Bandmasters Association. She told me that her freshman band was a great tool. When I came to Bowie, there were three concert bands, but no freshman group.
    It is difficult to come from middle school repertoire and play Respighi in a top high school wind ensemble. Students might be able to play the notes, but lack the necessary intellectual understanding. That’s why I decided to have the freshman band play that wonderful middle-of-the-road repertoire, such as Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite and John P. Zdechlik’s Chorale and Shaker Dance. That repertoire is meaty and prepares them to step into one of the other ensembles. It pulls students in a direction that they’re not comfortable with coming from the middle school and leads them to become more responsible.
    Incoming freshmen do not audition at the beginning of the year. Coming into a new school with a new director is difficult enough, so they audition later. This year we divided the 98 freshmen into two concert bands in November. Before then we worked on rhythm, counting, and intonation. By the audition in November we have built friendship and trust, so they give me a good indication of how they play. The audition repertoire is usually a full-page etude; it can have some difficult technical demands, but I mainly want to hear how they play their instrument.
    Older students audition yearly, and I alternate every year between auditioning them individually in my office or bringing in professionals to hear them. Auditioning 300 players by myself takes three or four weeks. Auditions occur at the end of the school year, so the freshmen audition for the upper bands after a full year in the program. The repertoire is usually all twelve major scales, the chromatic scale, sightreading, and an etude that we choose. We do not help students on these; they work on school audition material on their own or with their private teachers, which most students have.

What is your philosophy on marching band?
    We refer to the marching group as the outdoor performing ensemble because it incorporates as many aspects of the school as possible. If the show uses props, we get the theater people to build them and move them on and off the field. When I came here, there was a real need for more visual activity in the program because the color guard was small. I invited the dance team to work with the band, and their director, who had played at the University of Texas, loved the idea and choreographed for 80 girls to surround the band during the performance. In parades I like to invite the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps cadets to carry the flags.
    The name also reflects the fact that we play substantial music. When I think of marching band, I think of marches, but if we’re going to spend three months working on the same music, the students should get something out of it. This past year we played Tchaikovsky, and in the past ten years we have done works by Ginestera, Mahler, Stravinsky, John Adams, Respighi, and Shostakovich to name a few. If we are going to stand outside in 100 degree weather and march day after day, I want students to have experiences that they will remember. We played “Deep in the Heart of Texas” when we went to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 2008 because we were from Texas and I thought it would draw attention to who we are.
    Our drum major this year has cystic fibrosis. She had great dedication and was an inspiration to me. She has a debilitating disease but doesn’t miss a rehearsal or performance. That’s one of the great things about teaching, you run across students who really inspire you. It helps you realize that working outside in hot weather isn’t so bad after all, compared to what this student has to overcome.

Why do you avoid going to the same places each year?
    The Bands of America Grand Nationals are such a wonderful experience, and I want it to leave a strong impression on the students and remain the pinnacle of the their marching band careers. However, I think it becomes just another contest if you go every year, so our band attends different competitions. There were three years between our last two trips to Grand Nationals, so the group that was there as freshmen got to return as seniors. I am not planning to go again for a couple of years.
    The concert band went to the Western International Band Clinic in Seattle twice recently, partly because Canada is so close. We take the clipper up to Victoria, get off the boat, and line up to go through customs. It is a good experience for the students to get passports and learn about international travel. This year the festival had a group from Japan and one from Idaho. It’s important for students to realize that music is the universal language. We can get on a plane and fly to Russia and play a duet with a Russian clarinetist and not say a word because the music is the same.
    On the trip to the Macy’s parade we stopped in Washington D.C. for a couple days. We brought a wreath to present at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery and all 305 band members wore matching black jackets. The tomb is in the back of the cemetery away from the parking lot, so the students got in a straight line and followed each other close to three-fourths of a mile without saying a word. I remember wondering what was going through their minds, surrounded by these graves and all of this heritage. The amount of respect they had was mind-boggling, and many people stopped to ask who we were. We’d tell them that we’re a high school band from Texas going to the Macy’s parade. They would say it’s no wonder, considering how respectful these children are. Then we did the same thing that night at the Vietnam Memorial and visited the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. I think part of my job as an educator is not only to teach them about music, but to also show them the world beyond the Texas state line.

How do you raise funds for the band program?
    Our program was inspired by a fundraiser at Lafayette High School in Kentucky called Flamingo Flocking. They have 200-300 plastic pink flamingos, and people pay the band to have them all put in someone’s yard for such special occasions as birthdays. They have the flamingos put in before sunrise and gone before sundown. Imagine waking up and going to get the newspaper and finding 300 pink flamingos in your yard. This didn’t catch on in my community, but we have a similar program called the American Flag.
    People buy a year-long subscription for $40 and on July 4th, Veterans’ Day, Presidents’ Day, and a few other holidays we put an American flag in their front yard. We own the flags and poles and use a couplet to plant it to avoid damage to the grass. The parents deliver the flags, and we have about 1,800 or 2,000 subscriptions now. In addition to individuals, many neighborhoods subscribe so there’s a flag at the entrance to their street. It works well for us because students do not have to convince people to buy candy or magazines. The money students raise goes towards their band accounts, so if someone sells 20 subscriptions, that’s $800 toward their balance.

What advice do you offer others?
    I tell colleagues and students, “Whatever you’re going to do, do it to the best of your ability. Don’t ever settle for mediocrity.” When a couple of students were late to a morning rehearsal recently, I said, “I know this rehearsal starts at 7:30, and it can be difficult to get here, but I drop my two children off at their school while it is still dark so I can be here on time.” It is irresponsible for them to take an extra ten minutes to get here, and I want them to know that we all make sacrifices to have a great band. From the looks on their faces I could tell that they understood why they should be considerate to others.