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Making Great Music at Marcus High School, An Interview with Amanda Drinkwater

Judy Nelson | October 2010

    Amanda Drinkwater, director of bands at Marcus High School in Flower Mound, Texas has led her school’s ensembles to exclusively superior ratings at the University Interscholastic League Concert and Sight-Reading Contests, two consecutive 5A state marching championships, and recent performances at the Midwest Clinic and Bands of America Grand Nationals. “I enjoyed a tremendous musical upbringing in South Louisiana with the world’s best high school band director, Easton LeBoeuf. I remember driving over to marching band contests in Texas and being blown away at the number of programs that were producing loads of wonderful students at such a high level. When I went on into music education in college, I came to know Texas as the place to be for public education and wanted to teach there. I was fortunate to have received extraordinary leadership and guidance from Frank Wickes and Linda Moorhouse at Louisiana State, and from them I came to recognize the importance of teaching band in public schools. During the last of four semesters of graduate work at the University of Kansas I spent spring break touring all the big school districts in Texas with just a map and a couple hundred dollars in my pocket upon recommendation from Robert Foster and James Barnes. It turned out to be an incredibly helpful endeavor when I began looking for a job two months later.
    “I began my public school career at Leander High School northwest of Austin and taught there for five years, then I went to The Colony High School for two years. I am now in my eighth year at Marcus High School. The campus is almost 30 years old, and I am the third director to have taught there. There are three middle schools that feed exclusively into Marcus. We’re very fortunate that the district is organized into clusters; we don’t have to worry about middle schools that have students feeding into three different high school programs. It provides a great sense of unity.”
    Drinkwater conducts the wind ensemble. There are also three associate directors: Dominic Talanca directs the symphonic band, David Simon directs the concert band, and Kennan Wylie directs percussion studies for the entire cluster. All four teachers work with the marching band.

How do you begin rehearsals?
    Instead of calling the start of rehearsals a warmup, we refer to that time as an opportunity to work on fundamentals. I don’t think using the term warmup is necessarily negative, but it can have a physical connotation more than a musical one. Fundamentals are the musical building blocks from which musical literacy grows. Winds work on breathing with and without the instruments, and percussionists work on technique and quality of stroke the first time they play the instruments each day.
    Following this, we may focus on sustained sounds in the middle range of the instrument, and move from there to articulation, volume, or technique in a context of transposition or extended ranges. As ensembles progress over the course of the year, things get more complex, but always with the same focus. A good sound is a good sound, and if you simply expect that regardless of the technical demand, then students will always value a good sound. The individual sound quality, along with ensemble balance, becomes the signature of a group’s ensemble sound. These are the first things I hear when the baton goes down.
    We construct specific exercises for our students with music-writing software or simply by rote explanation. I will take something well known like Remington and write it out in a specific manner for the ensemble so that there’s a unified perception of note length and release points. For outdoor rehearsals we’ll put spaces between the exercises so we can recover visually and get set up with a good breathing plan for the next entrance. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the exercises we’re pursuing, we simply unify our efforts in a way that might offer additional benefits in an outdoor setting. The goal is for every student, from the mallet percussionist to the oboist to the trumpet player, to know what to do if we say Remington.

Does your concept of ensemble sound differ between concert and marching band?
    No, students should play with the same sound outdoors that they would use seated on stage at Carnegie Hall. This doesn’t always please judges or audience members who have an impression that a high school marching band should sound like a drum and bugle corps. Nevertheless, our primary goal is for students to play with a good sound.
    Music educators should be aware of their perceptions and directives when outdoors. I think it is easy to tell students what the result should be – “Come on, I can’t hear you up here in the box! Let’s blow the audience away!” – instead of teaching them how to get there. Sometimes that kind of message ends up having pretty serious pedagogical consequences, so we just don’t say anything to the students outdoors that we wouldn’t say indoors. When asking students to project sound for volume’s sake in a football stadium, it is necessary to consider the students’ ability level, the size and location of the ensemble, students’ physical ability to produce the volume that you may have in mind, and how that might affect the group’s mindset.
    If you were in a concert hall and heard a student make the sound that you’re asking them to make outdoors, would you consider that to be of merit? If that answer is no, then it is probably unwise to ask students to make that sound anywhere. It can be a delicate balance of trying to cater to the impression people have of how a marching band should sound while maintaining the educational focus.
    We also assess the wind students’ embouchures and breathing the same way we would indoors and make sure that the outdoor posture and carriage of the instrument is not detrimental to the embouchure. Sometimes you may have to make the choice between whether you want an instrument angle to look really expressive from the box or you want the ensemble to sound good. I think the choice is simple.

What are the greatest benefits of marching band?
    Marching band promotes a sense of community. It is one of very few high school experiences in which freshmen and seniors get to interact and work together. Students really enjoy that aspect of the marching season; hanging out with people who play the same instrument encourages camaraderie and the spirit of sharing musical experiences across the program. Upperclassmen get to set an example when they march with freshmen, and freshmen feel like they belong when they work with older students.
    Marching band is also a good way to learn physical self-discipline. Students are on their own in math class or in English class, but they become accountable to everyone in marching and concert band. The music department frequently gets notes or emails from teachers saying, “Thank you so much for helping this student who used to fidget a great deal or have trouble focusing in my class. Over the fall he has done a much better job of sitting still and participating in class discussions.”

How do you get students to meet your expectations?

    Students have to feel that there’s a sense of respect, expectation, and trust towards them. They tend to rise to the occasion, so if you project to them a sense of low expectation or lack of trust, they will fill that order easily. When they first get into high school we have to recognize that it’s going to take some time before they become model Marcus High School band members. They’ll get a lot from the upperclassmen simply from watching and learning, and we always speak to them in a calm tone of voice. We try to project the expectation before we demand it. The role of a teacher is to define expectations and only then demand them. The only times we get into trouble with students is when we forget to define first.
    When students come into band in their 6th grade year they learn how to sit properly, how to make eye contact with the conductor, and how to respond verbally; in marching band we simply expand on that. We transfer the concepts they learn as beginning band students to the outdoor arena. If an instructor raises his hand, they all raise their hand and look toward the instructor. I’d say almost the entire first week of band camp we’re working as much on communicating with the students and self-discipline as we are on musical and visual skills because it’s so important. We want to be able to trust them to respond to instructions.
    We also have to think creatively about how to engage students. Whether it’s the internet or video games, there’s always been some kind of distraction. When I was growing up it was television, and 20 years from now it will be something else, but interpersonal relationships don’t change and neither should the kind of personal skills that are required for students to participate in team sports or music. I believe that student interest in and access to the internet has helped to foster interest in music. Someone with access to Google can search for his instrument and instantly hear recordings of the best players in the world. I’m amazed at the depth of musical interest in my students and the variety of music in which they’re interested because of iTunes. If we regard the internet as an unnecessary distraction, then we don’t see the possibilities there. It’s a networking mechanism. They can see that there are thousands of other high school trombone players across the country, or there might be other programs with a summer band camp. They might see they’re not the only ones practicing outside in August. It’s a wonderful thing for them.
    It’s important for directors to keep their ears open for new repertoire, because this is how to best determine a curriculum for students. For musical selections for the marching band, we keep a running list of things we hear at concerts, in movies, or on CDs or iTunes. The marching music that goes in front of students for four months should be of the highest musical merit and something that they can take with them the rest of their lives. We also have a terrific set of marching band arrangers who are a big part of what we do. When we are selecting literature for the concert band, we consider our strengths, which studios may need to improve in certain areas, soloists, and the age and experience level of the group.

How are the band programs structured at Marcus High School?
     The concert bands rehearse during the fall marching season. Students meet as four separate concert band classes per day, and color guard and percussion meet during the last period of the day. Marching band is considered extracurricular, and after school we have two-hour marching band rehearsals four days a week.
Participation in both concert and marching band is open to anyone; but within the concert band program we hold auditions for ensemble placement, and in the marching band not all students are in every performance. All students march in our halftime entrance with the drill team, which we work on throughout the fall.     When we shift over to the marching competition show, those students will play their instruments and march an alternative drill for the first two- thirds of the season and in the last third may have a support role with visual elements or help the group move equipment. All eligible students participate in some way regardless of ability level.
    The students who march during halftime but not during competitions work on developing their visual and musical skills during competition show rehearsals. The goal in that year of non-varsity training is to teach them how to march and play at the same time. The training effort is non-stop, we just modify the visual expectations so we can focus on fundamentals.

How would you describe your rehearsal style?
    Our rehearsals have a Socratic overtone. Students are encouraged to think and respond and discuss what they hear. The best way to draw students into the room and into the page is to get them thinking about what they’re doing. If teachers always fill in the blanks and tell them what to watch for, we’re simply forging a path that’s too narrow to include students’ thoughts and contributions.

How would you describe your approach to sightreading?
    Sightreading is simply a word for “demonstrating musical understanding.” I don’t often pass out new music just to sightread, but do integrate elements of sightreading pursuit into daily discussions. I want students to think about what they need to do when they have a new piece of music handed out to them. If I can teach students about intervals, ear training, or elements of style they will learn something about sight reading. Students should know enough to be able to tackle a piece with a sense of self-confidence, self-awareness, and ensemble relating to balance and rhythm. Regardless of what we’re working on, students should be able to perform music without fear or needing six weeks of instruction before they can feel worthy of presenting an organized musical effort.

How did your double reed studio get built?
    We have a thriving double reed studio and are fortunate to have a community that supports this. Our middle school directors deserve a great deal of credit for our double reed studio. They consider it an imperative part of the instrumentation at the middle school level, and they foster students’ development by simply giving them attention. So many times bassoons and oboes will be grouped in with saxophones, or they’ll have sectional time with the clarinets and bass clarinets, and I think our middle school directors are terrific about tailoring instruction for them. Our double reed classes meet by themselves at the middle school so students can develop the interest in the instruments, and they are treated as specialized instruments from the get go.
    While we recruitthese players as beginners, we express to their parents how important it is that the ideal double reed student is an independent thinker and how important it is that these students understand that their instrument is unique. It’s a real selling point with those students who envision themselves as trailblazers. If students hear that the bassoon is a very special instrument and a list of all the reasons why, it becomes an easy sell.
    When recruiting for the high school we tell double reed players that they have more options during marching season than anybody else in the band. Rather than focus on the fact that there are no marching versions of double reed instruments, we relay to them that the world is their oyster in terms of deciding how they would like to participate. Everyone else is only limited to one option. Some double reed players play other instruments, some of them are in our color guard, and some of them have keyboard skills and join the percussion section. I think both they and their parents see that as exciting. It keeps them interested and staves off the disappointment of not seeing oboes and bassoons marching out on the field. A terrific bassoonist is our color guard captain this year, and we have oboists and bassoonists who double; this year they can be found marching bass clarinet, saxophone, flute, and even tuba. We like to give advanced double reed students opportunities to be soloists in the marching band musical production. Last year there were oboe, English horn, bassoon, and contrabassoon soloists who played from the pit.

How do you stave off burnout?
    After our performance at the Midwest Clinic in 2007, I remember having such a wonderful feeling of accomplishment with the students and being overjoyed at having put that trip together and raised the money to get up there. I will never forget coming home for Christmas and checking my e-mail the day after we returned. I was excitedly expecting positive comments from the trip and performance. To my utter dismay, what I actually had was a couple hundred e-mails from colleagues and parents who had been waiting until we finished with Mid-west to ask me something important about other upcoming events. Instead of relaxing, I felt like I had to move forward very quickly, but then it occurred to me that I had the option to close the laptop and enjoy memories of the trip for a while before getting back in the swing of things.
    It is difficult to find the balance between teaching and our personal lives, and I think many teachers often feel like one aspect of life will suffer when focusing on the other. When I begin to feel like the band hall walls are closing in, I take a break before things progress to the point that I feel resentment or despair. The opposite is also true; if I’ve been away from a specific aspect of the job for too long, I’ll get my nose to the grindstone for the period of time that I believe it requires to be properly addressed.
    Sometimes the administrative aspects of the job can seem all-encompassing or even discouraging. At those times of the year when the administrative aspects of the program are at the forefront of our daily endeavors we just have to try to find as much time as possible to focus on instruction and music because that’s why we teach. Nobody pursues a music education degree to make a career of filling out purchase orders. It’s all about attitude and outlook. If you keep in mind that these efforts are ultimately for the program, it can help keep you from feeling either jaded or burned out.
Being reactive to what my body and emotions are telling me is helpful, as are healthy relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. I consider myself fortunate to be with people on a daily basis whom I respect and appreciate. It’s extremely helpful to know I can walk down the hall and plop down in the choir director’s office and talk about a rough parent conference and ask if he is having similar problems.

What advice would you give to new teachers?
    I would tell new teachers that in most cases the parents are on our side. They want their children to love music and be involved in something worthwhile. They want them to be contributing members of society. We should see parents as our allies, and if we include them in the process and communicate frequently with them, whether by phone or e-mail, it keeps things open and positive. Most young teachers regard parent contact as something negative or frightening, but if we consider them our allies and share concerns with them, they can be of great help.
    It can affect your state of mind to feel that a parent or administrator is out to get you or disapproves of you to the extent that they communicate poorly with you. This can be a real source of stress. When former students who are in the business talk about the stress of their careers and their personal lives, it usually goes back to communication. The greatest lesson I’ve learned over 15 years of teaching is that talking about an issue directly with the source almost always has a good outcome.