Story and Photos By Kelly Lawson
4:30 am – Friday, September 11th – Two children wade through darkness to sing a happy tune. They have not seen their father since Wednesday bedtime, but that is normal this time of year. It is a special day for Willis ISD Director of Bands Chris Allen, and it will not be the last time today Happy Birthday will be played or sung to him. Meanwhile, Willis High School Band Director Matt Martinez has 15 more minutes to sleep before his daughter wakes him; it will be a long day for him, too.
6:45 am – Lights are on in the WHS Band Hall. Allen walks in, with Martinez right behind him. The pair has 20 minutes to make sure the room is set up and ready for their 131 band students.
7:05 am – 1st Period –Concert Band – The bell schedule is altered today because of the pep rally – the first home game of the season. Today’s lesson in class is the Fundamentals of 8 Counts of Marching. The directors will refresh this for students in three different classes today before tonight’s halftime performance.
7:50 am – 2nd Period – Symphonic Band – The weather for tonight is a concern, possible rain. Band members are prepared with their bad weather uniform – blue jeans and band T-shirt. Directors work on marching fundamentals and rotate the marchers on the lines in the band hall by class rank.
8:35 am – 3rd Period – The directors have their first chance to retrieve messages, review emails, and check the weather radar. It is also time to pick up the truck and trailer to haul equipment to the game. Even a home game is an away game for the Willis High School Band, because the stadium is 3.7 miles away at the Lynn Lucas Middle School campus.
Martinez is a new father, and this is his infant daughter’s first Marching Season. “My daughter didn’t want to eat or sleep till she saw me last night – it was the first night I have not been home before her bedtime.” Martinez’s wife is also a high school director at nearby Conroe High, so most weeks mean two football games and twice as many rehearsals.
9:13 am – We arrive at the Willis Transportation Center/Bus Barn for keys. Allen rushes in behind Mandy Hyman to give her a scare (he does this every week). While chatting about family and generally catching up, keys are exchanged, and drivers for the band buses and maintenance requests are discussed.
9:40 am – Trailer and truck attached, safety check of lights and brakes begin. Allen speaks highly of the transportation team of WISD, “They are always very helpful and attentive to our needs and safety.”
9:55 am – Back at school, truck and trailer are parked and ready for loading this afternoon. Allen tells how they have had to adjust loading procedures for additional equipment since switching from Military Marching Style to Corps Marching during the 2014-15 school year. “It was the first game last year, and it took us so long to get the puzzle pieces together, our loading crew didn’t get to eat. We had to practice till we got it right.”
10:03 am – Back inside the band hall, an open period. Allen and Martinez chat with me about how they became band directors.
Both were band students. Martinez was heavily influenced by his older brother who was in band. His parents were very involved in the booster club. All that helped shape his decision to apply for the band program at Blinn, then continue on to Sam Houston State University Music Department. “I remember finally telling my parents I wanted to be a band director. I was afraid how they would take it. They were happy!”
“I think sometimes we forget how important these activities are to the kids. Some kids come to school just for band – I was one of those kids. I enjoy connecting with these kids and teaching them life skills. We are teaching them how to act in different situations and helping them find motivation to be here each day. Sometimes it’s the social, sometimes it’s the music – it gets them here, and here we can teach them how to be productive and successful adults.”
During Allen’s senior year in high school, he began to realize how much his parents and other adult role models had helped him. A major geek, he thought he was headed to computer science. Then he made Region Band, and he started thinking he should explore music more. “I also started to realize my parents were right about things I had always told them they were wrong about. I decided I wanted to do something to give back.” He started college and has been learning ever since. As a graduate of University of Houston and earning a Master’s Degree from Sam Houston State University, he is now working on his Principal Certificate. Before WISD, Allen was an assistant director at The Woodlands High School, coming to Willis in 2010. “We are teaching kids many skills they will use in life: leadership, respect, and problem solving. The ultimate goal is that when a kid leaves us, they will take a nice appreciation for music, and skills they can use in all areas of life.”
10:05 am – Jazz Band – 5th Period – “On game days, we allow Jazz Band members to read over music on their own. They have a lot of playing today, between regular band classes, pep rally, after school rehearsal, then the game – we don’t want to wear out their chops,” Martinez explains.
As kids enter the band hall, there is a stream of knocks at the office door with various questions. “Do we have clean up stuff?” “Can I store my dinner in your office for now?” “Can I switch to percussion next year?” Game Days are supposed to be no question days, and band leadership has implemented a process encouraging kids to work together with upperclassmen and band leadership to filter questions before coming to the office door—another life lesson directors feel will prepare students for life in the workplace.
10:50 am – 6th period – Wind Ensemble and the directors review some of the same choreography reviewed in the earlier classes.
12:24 pm – 7th Period – Music Appreciation/Music Theory begins, and the Directors have Subway sandwiches brought in by early release students returning to prepare for the pep rally. (The Directors will wait and squeeze in lunch during the last seven minutes of class.)
1:09 am – 8th Period – Music Appreciation/Applied Music—mostly non-band students who wish to learn more about music.
1:35 pm – Band Students begin to gather for the pep rally, during which the student body sings Happy Birthday to Allen.
2:50 pm – Drum Major begin warmups with the band members, which includes running a lap, followed by a quick water break. Allen and Martinez spent a lot of time during Summer Band to set up exercise training targeting activities the band would be doing during the season, working on endurance and teaching the kids about how to eat, what not to eat, what not to drink. They explain, “We had many days we sent home many tired bodies. August heat was really, really brutal.”
3:00 pm – Rehearsal time, with several water breaks.
4:30 pm – The booster club provides a hot meal before each game from AllStar Catering. This is the 6th year of the Feed the Kats program. Today, a special dessert (cupcakes), and Happy Birthday is sung for a third time.
5:30 pm – Inspection of the Band. Students are dismissed from their inspection block by class rank to four buses for the ride to the stadium. They are joined onboard by band parents as chaperones, as the directors pull the equipment trailers.
6:00 pm – The loading crew and low brass exit the buses to begin the instrument unload. Students find their instrument case, unpack their instrument, and fall into formation to march into the stadium. For 38 freshmen, this will be the first time to march in full uniform in front of the hometown crowd.
6:30 pm – The band files into the stands according to instrumentation—low brass, brass, percussion, then woodwinds. Once in place, they begin 15 minutes of warmups.
6:55 pm – Band members finally get a few moments to sit and rest before the game. Directors are also taking some time to speak with parents and other faculty. The middle school directors join in at the stadium to help as needed with the band students.
7:30 pm – Kickoff, and the directors have already led the band in playing the WildKat Fight Song, National Anthem, and Amazing Grace. Allen is in front, and Martinez is in the middle among the brass instruments. They will remain in the stands until the 2nd quarter clock shows about 10 minutes of game time.
8:30 pm – Band is fully assembled under the scoreboard to warmup and receive a few words of advice before halftime. Allen addresses the band and asks them to focus on the show and what they have been discussing all day. “I’m proud of the work you have done. Let’s have a great show.” They pull together in a tight circle, link pinkies, and bow their heads in a moment of reflection, focus, and silence.
8:55 pm – The Willis High School Band takes the field. First to perform are the Willis Sweethearts Drill Team. The Band presents opening set of Oh, Beautiful, featuring the music of Aaron Copland and Martha Graham.
9:12 pm – Show completed, the Band marches off the field to the Willis Fight Song and gathers for comments from the directors.
9:40 pm – As the game continues, the team finds themselves trailing. This is where the band and the music helps to keep the spirits and energy level high. Cadence and songs fill the night air.
10:37 pm – The score on the field is 28-17, Magnolia. There are 7 seconds left in the game. The band will play the fight song, then the school song, before filing out of the stands to load instruments and themselves back onto the bus.
11:00 pm – Band is back at the high school, trailer being unloaded, uniforms returned, and students once more form the block in the band hall.
11:35 pm – Called to attention, final instructions are given before dismissal. These 131 students and 2 directors have been at the school for over 16 hours. They are the last organization to dismiss and leave for the day. This is what they started back in August. They have 8 more games in the regular season, with no off weeks. Allen said, “Some of the students love this time of year; some tolerate it.” But these are the weeks and days that form the family bond between the students and directors.
“We are asking kids and adults to pour their hearts and souls into things and make people feel based on a performance. We are trying to make connections to other things; we talk about sport references, but we also try to make connections to their other classes. Band allows us to get into a lot of these other areas.”
12:15 am – Saturday, September 12th – The last band student is picked up from the school. Martinez heads home to his family.