"Build It and they will come,"
was the watchword, but patience was not one of our virtues and haste became the practice. The Superintendent of Williamson County Schools, Dr. Mike Looney, would often refer to Hillsboro School as a "diamond in the rough."
However, we had no intentions for the Hillsboro Dreamcatcher Band to endure any coal years along the way to diamond status. We had big dreams and big work to do, but plodding along would only serve to squelch the enthusiasm and inertia we were gaining. We made a pinky swear to remain focused on those initial goals, no matter how lofty they were. We would need to get our band established and formidable swiftly.
We invited our feeder program, the Independence High School Band, to join us in the stands for the Hillsboro Homecoming football game. We rehearsed and had pizza together before "marching" into the stadium. High schoolers were shoulder-to-shoulder with our middle schoolers as we performed our very first two-note composition, "Theme from Jaws."
A few weeks later we added a note and were featured playing the NBC Chimes (the Major 6th interval) for the local NBC Nashville affiliate. The anchors were impressed and so were we. This is what we had initially envisioned - creating new energies and exposure for our kids and the new band program. We were creating our "brand," and the kids, community and general public were all enjoying what we were selling.
Over the winter break, while we were enjoying much-needed time with family and friends, Dr. Looney sent a request for the Hillsboro Band to perform for the School Board meeting in early January. He said a Jazz Band would be ideal. Cameron accepted the invitation, as any new teacher would do, but there was one problem. We had no "Jazz Band,” the kids knew nothing about jazz, we didn't have any jazz music in our library and school wouldn’t resume for another two weeks. Not to mention that Cameron would be in Spain until the new semester began.
In the first two weeks of January 2012, Cameron started a jazz band that rehearsed a couple times after school and one Saturday morning, with the promise of pizza, in preparation for the Hillsboro Jazz Band debut in front of the school board. Seven brave new jazzers set up their equipment in the board room and performed with Cameron sitting in on trombone.
Our principal served as a roadie (her son played lead alto saxophone) and asked us, "Is this really our drum-set?" It had just crumbled in her hand while transporting it from the vehicle. Add one new drum set to our wish list, because we now had a Jazz Band.
Not long afterward, we formed a Percussion Ensemble appropriately named “Pulse.” Cameron built some urban percussion equipment ala "Stomp" out of galvanized trash cans, metal screws and bolts and 5-gallon paint buckets. The kids loved it and were totally engaged. Not only were we becoming a band but an entire band program!
Spring was soon upon us and it was time to start forecasting needs for the fall band enrollment. We decided to take the band on the road and caravanned to a new feeder school, Pearre Creek Elementary School. Cameron structured the performance as a master class with interactivity between the band students and the elementary students, sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed on the gym floor, right at the feet of each section of the band.
This intimate, hands-on setting proved very successful as many elementary parents admitted that their child had previously never expressed any interest in joining the band. With the addition of 40 new 6th graders, the band grew from 58 to 90 members at the end of year one, and so did the needs and the demands.
In an effort to escalate the process of teaching the fundamentals of each instrument to each section of new band students, Cameron assembled a group of specialized instructors and created a new member program called "JumpStart.”
This program aimed to provide more individual instruction at the most pivotal time of a student’s instrumental career – the very beginning. For three school days, instructors were hired to teach the fundamentals of playing an instrument. Musicians from the Nashville Symphony, local universities and studio performers assembled at Hillsboro School for this innovative new program.
Students met in small groups and learned everything from embouchure formation to instrument maintenance. At the conclusion of the program, the students were more equipped with the information necessary to be a successful 6th grade band student.
Now that the band was taking real shape, with a good balance of instrumentation and improving skills, the focus shifted from making a sound to making real music. Cameron and PJ took a developmental day off and made a trip to observe a day in the life of the successful and impressive Arlington Middle School Band, located outside of Memphis, Tennessee.
Director David Ryan and the band booster president were gracious hosts and shared their time and strategies for building a strong, high-performing band program. While Arlington was quite disciplined implementing a "Results Not Excuses" methodology, Cameron developed his own cyclical structure, knowing his program was still young and growing -
"Why Is Band Fun? Because I'm good at it. Why Am I Good? Because I practice. Why Do I Practice? Because band is fun."
Soon after returning to Hillsboro, we created a mission statement and a set of by-laws to form the very first 501c3 middle school Band Booster Club in our district. This would provide us with a more fluid platform for procuring funding to purchase further needed equipment and instruments being added to our ever-growing wish list.
One of our first projects was to enter a submission for a grant contest provided by Clorox, called "Power a Bright Future." While we ultimately did not get selected for the grant money award, the campaign proved beneficial in that it involved the use of social media and a daily voting procedure. This, coupled with voting reminder window clings, neighborhood signage and a big banner hung at the school car rider line, served to help keep the Hillsboro Band foremost in the emotional appeal for funding needs.
Patrick John Hughes Parent/Booster Award
Our first brush with national recognition for the Hillsboro Band came in November of 2012 when PJ received the Patrick John Hughes Parent/Booster Award presented by Music For All at the Bands of America Grand National Championships in front of over 25,000 spectators at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The Patrick John Hughes Parent/Booster Award annually recognizes the extraordinary commitment, dedication, support and sacrifice of music parents and boosters around the world by shining a spotlight on an individual who exemplifies these qualities. The award is named in honor of Patrick John Hughes, the father of Patrick Henry Hughes. Patrick Henry is a remarkable young man who, despite physical challenges that would seem overwhelming to many, has excelled as a musician and student, singing and playing piano and trumpet with the Louisville Marching and Pep Bands, with the help of his father, who tirelessly maneuvered his son’s wheelchair through the formations with the other 220+ members of the Cardinal Marching Band.
Cameron had secretly nominated PJ and had assembled a retrospective video presentation that told the Hillsboro Band story to date. PJ was the first to receive this national recognition for supporting a middle school band. All previous awardees had been high school band booster parents. It was a special time in our short history to be able to share the story of our Hillsboro Band on a national platform.
To help build up the ranks even further, while ever-mindful of the dreaded attrition beast that looms in America's band rooms, we organized a strictly-for-fun weekend trip to Atlanta, complete with commemorative t-shirts. No instruments, no rehearsals, and no performances - all we did was have fun at the Hard Rock Cafe, Six Flags Over Georgia, the Georgia Aquarium and World of Coke. This proved to be a great reward for the kids and enhanced bonding and team building to boot. And the band grew from 90 members to 147, which represented over 45% of the middle school enrollment!
We had band in abundance now, but we needed to ensure that goals would be met and parents would be there to help get the kids there. To bring sharper focus and heightened engagement, the catchphrase
"Be The One"
with a complimentary, cleverly designed logo would lead and follow all of our communication and directives for the new school year.
Students were encouraged to “be the one” to achieve recognition for Mid-State Band and other honor band festivals. They were asked to step-up to assume leadership positions in the classroom. Parents were asked to “be the one” who sought corporate match programs and helped spread the accomplishments of our band program. The idea spread and others bought into our new philosophy.
Hillsboro Band Receives Outstanding Ratings
Further accolades came in the spring of 2014 when the Hillsboro Band received straight Superior Ratings at the Middle Tennessee School Band and Orchestra Association 75th Annual Concert and Sight Reading Performance Assessment. This was a first time achievement in the over 100 year Hillsboro School history!
In preparation for this important assessment, Cameron assembled a mock panel of colleague judges to participate in what he called Spring Symposium, a Saturday morning of intense concert band rehearsal followed by an adjudicated "dry run" of the prepared pieces and a sight reading session. This provided the opportunity to relieve musician jitters and the fear of the unknown while serving to identify areas of needed attention by experts.
The morning was capped off by a fun cookout of grilled hot dogs with all the trimmings prepared and served by the parents who were invited to observe the assessment performance. This Spring Symposium proved invaluable to both the kids and their parents in gaining a deeper understanding of what was ahead and a heightened confidence in their readiness.
Hillsboro School was one of only a few Williamson County middle schools to receive this Superior distinction. We also had unprecedented individual performance achievements with two members (and four alternate members) being selected to the Tennessee Mid-State Honor Band through prepared audition, also a school first.
And how was our greenhorn director doing in contrast to his peers? At the young age of 25, with only 3 years of band director experience, Cameron was invited to be a Guest Conductor for the 66th Annual Quad-State Middle School Band Festival held in November at Murray State University in Kentucky.
The last of our goals became reality when The Hillsboro Band took to the streets of Franklin, Tennessee for the annual Franklin Rotary Rodeo Parade. It was their first appearance as a marching band. Cameron and PJ had set this event as a "blue sky" goal, as only three of the county's other middle school bands march in parades. This was a somewhat extravagant goal, requiring not only instruction in marching fundamentals, but a battery of marching percussion equipment and sousaphones, two very expensive capital expenditures.
We contacted local instrument manufacturers Mapex and Jupiter Music and set an appointment to meet. After spending a day exploring options with their staff we were able to identify an appropriate and substantial battery assemblage including some discontinued models. By working with our local Shuff's Music store, we were able to procure nearly $20,000 of drums for under $7,000!
But this was a deal we still couldn't afford, so PJ approached one of his homebuilders again for assistance, Mike Ford Custom Builders. Without hesitation, Mr. Ford said he would help, leaving a check for PJ to pick up at his office. PJ was surprised and shocked when he opened the envelope containing a check for the entire amount, down to the penny!
Our blue sky dreams were about to come true, but we still needed some sousaphones. Another school marching in the parade had some they would not be using. Although we were grateful for the offer, there was a good reason they were not using them. We contacted Jupiter, knowing they were doing a B-Stock sale after NAMM. They agreed to let us borrow a couple exceptional, gleaming sousaphones that had been used by the U.S. Army Band.
PJ's family made sure that we had an official parade banner and created a custom design with FJ MIller that they presented to the band as their gift. The parade day turned out to be a perfect one. The Hillsboro Band stepped off, turning many heads as they thundered through the town square past the judges stands where they would impress everyone within earshot. Amazingly, the Franklin Rotary Rodeo Parade Grand Champion trophy was presented to the Hillsboro Band for their performance in their very first parade!
More National Recognition for Hillsboro
Then the floodgates opened and more national recognition came streaming through when on September 30, 2014, it was announced that Hillsboro School was selected as a 2014 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education. Then the State of Tennessee stepped up and designated Hillsboro School as a 2014 Tennessee Reward School in Performance.
And as of this writing, Hillsboro School was selected as the Best Public Middle School in Tennessee in the 2015 Niche Rankings. It is described by Niche that a high ranking indicates that the school is an exceptional academic institution with a diverse set of high-achieving students and faculty, and the students are very happy with their experience.
There is a wealth of empirical and statistical data that correlates instrumental music programs with higher-achieving academic students. The success of the Hillsboro Band was simultaneously being paralleled by the academic ascent being made at the school. Having begun the band program at a time when Hillsboro School was among the lowest performing and lowest Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) scoring middle schools in our district, individual classroom performance began to rise.
With a new principal, new teachers, new parents and a revamped and revitalized academic vision (and a new band), scores began to creep up and soon would soar. A new culture had been created. The Hillsboro scholars began holding their heads high with renewed confidence and self-esteem. The school was being validated.
So, what’s the formula for creating a band program from nothing and gaining national recognition? We didn’t know. We just did what we felt was the right thing to do in every challenge. We didn’t ask or aim for the very best things, but we knew the pitfalls of compromising on the inferior things. They would not ultimately last and that was not good enough. We knew the band experience needed to be fun and that the only way we would be successful was to have “buy-in” from everyone from the Superintendent to the Principal, from the administration to the teachers and from the parents to the students. What’s our best advice?
- Don’t underestimate the power of asking.
- People want to do what other people do.
- Farm your sphere of influence.
- Everybody loves a winner.
- Your story needs a heartbeat.
We began a tradition of ending each season with an awards banquet, an evening to gather and celebrate our band and all of our shared collective and individual success. Knowing kids, we decided against calling it a "banquet,” that was too stodgy. Instead we dubbed it the "Band Bash.” We also dispensed with the stereotypical chicken and rigatoni and set up a taco bar instead. Make sure you have enough cheese. Kids love CHEESE!
While our program is not about awards, we do present section awards and a variety of individual awards, while also recognizing distinctions earned outside of our own program on the district and regional level.
We honor the graduating 8th graders with their very own dreamcatcher as a symbol of our unity, bearing the six virtue feathers they have earned over the years. The beads symbolize their personal achievements and recognize their successful passage through the Hillsboro Band. We remind them of the legacy they leave behind with a retrospective video that Cameron edits together of the year's highlights. It's always a very emotional coda to all the good work and personal accomplishments made by each member. It serves as a fitting remembrance to just how far we all have come. For this is where all of our best dreams have been captured and came true as members of The Hillsboro Dreamcatcher Band.
Cameron’s Favorite Quote:
It’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.
PJ’s Favorite Quote:
Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world will be at least a little different for our having passed through it.
– Harold Kushner
Read More in This Series:
- Catch the Dream - Build the Band, Part 1
- Catch the Dream - Build the Band, Part 2
- Catch the Dream - Build the Band, Part 3