It wasn’t the ending they had hoped for.
But as Rich Armstrong will tell you, success can’t be based on subjective scores.
“It’s based on heart. It’s based on dedication and perseverance. It’s based on what you put in to the program — and what the program gives back to you,” the director of WISD bands said.
“These kids,” he said, pointing out into the band hall where a group of students were practicing, “these kids are champions in life. They accepted responsibility. They put it all out there on the field. I’m extremely proud of this band.”
Marching an upbeat, highly energetic program with one of the most difficult (if not the most difficult) choreography in Division 4A competition, everyone affiliated with the Spirit of Waxahachie Indian Band program began the season with high expectations and a commitment of returning to the UIL State Marching Contest in San Antonio.
After earning top marks at the DeSoto and Little Elm invitational contests and receiving a “1” rating (the highest score given) at the UIL District contest, expectations were high.
In the arena of marching band competition, where you finish comes down to a subjective opinion.
“You just never know,” Armstrong said. “It’s not like a 21-20 football game where the team who scored 21 points wins. In the band world, scores are based on the judges’ opinion and those opinions are often influenced by reputation and talk before the competition even begins.
“We had one judge who gave us a low score, which knocked us out of the finals at the area marching contest and kept us from going to state,” Armstrong said.
At the area contest, which determines which bands earn a berth to the Texas UIL State Marching Contest, each band performs its show for the judges. After every band has performed, the top seven bands are announced for the finals and are given a chance to perform one more time before the top two bands are selected to advance to state.
When Waxahachie wasn’t called for the finals during the area contest held in Mesquite, the students — and their fans — were visibly upset.
Following the announcement, Armstrong pulled his students together.
“I was still in a state of shock myself,” Armstrong said. “You have to be truthful with the kids. I was honest with them. I told them that our marching wasn’t as good as it should have been. I told them their music was great.
“I told them where the judges had ranked us. Everyone had put us in the finals except one judge, and that score was low enough where we were barely edged out by Midlothian. One guy’s score was enough to throw us out of finals.
“I told them that we can’t let one person destroy our season,” Armstrong said. “I told them that where you go from here has no bearing on the outcome of today’s contest. I told them that they showed up and did the job. They did what they were supposed to do. It just didn’t turn out in our favor. I told them it doesn’t diminish what we do and who we are.”
Going into the area contest, Waxahachie had two things going against it — the band drew the first performance and it was performing a non-traditional, jazz-based show.
“We drew the first performance. It’s not good. I would have preferred to go last, but you can’t do anything about it,” Armstrong said. “The bottom line is that it could have turned out the same way. I told the kids to just go out and do their show. You can’t dwell on it.”
As for the non-traditional show, Armstrong said he — as well as the kids — has no regrets.
“The kids love performing this show. The music is fun and entertaining — and that’s what band is all about. It’s also unique,” he said. “One of the things I like about Waxahachie is the fact that we don’t do the same thing that everybody else does. It sets us apart.
“When we first played the music (this year’s show is entitled ‘Beyond Caravan’) back in the spring, there was excitement among the kids,” he said. “When they played ‘Incantation,’ the kids enjoyed playing it. By the first football game, the kids were playing two-thirds of the show and loving it. They love playing that style of music. They like what we are doing. They like the challenge. They like entertaining the crowd and throughout the season I think they have gone out there every week and owned the music.
“They did what they needed to do. I think they stepped up and performed a very difficult show and I am extremely proud of this band. Most of all, I’m proud of their class and what they represent. They went out every Friday night and performed well. We haven’t lost a halftime show yet,” Amstrong quipped.
“At the DeSoto and Little Elm invitational contests, we were right up there with the 5A band programs. That proved that what we were doing was right.”
Pausing for a moment, Armstrong leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath.
“I really thought our kids had earned the right to perform one more time (in the finals) for the judges. But it’s like I told the kids, you can’t let one person destroy the season,” he said. “I have always thought of them as champions. That’s how I envision them. That’s what I believe them to be. We put this show together believing that if they performed it well, it’s an awesome performance vehicle that could take them to state. It’s just a really good show.”
Sitting in the band hall office, Armstrong and WHS assistant band director Reggie Cook reflected back on the dedication and hard work the students have put into the show since summer band camp.
With a legacy of excellence that dates back to the beginning of Texas UIL high school band programs (Waxahachie played an instrumental role in establishing band programs in Texas public schools), Armstrong and Cook spoke of the expectations that go along with being a member of the program.
One of the band’s mottos - Learn It. Live It. Love It. Own It. - refers to the dedication required to become “the best.” In order to “own the show,” months of study and preparation are required to learn and master the show.
“At that point, when you can entertain the audience and have them up on their feet applauding your efforts, well, that’s what it’s all about,” Armstrong said. “That’s the greatest feeling any musician can have is to have the audience love your music and be rewarded with their applause. That’s what we want to give our kids. We love to bring home awards. But the applause from the fans in the stands is the greatest reward of all. When you love the work and you own the show, it’s awesome.”
At every gathering, rehearsal and show, one word also is repeated time and again from every member of the band.
That word is “PRIDE.”
Not only is it a statement of the band’s feeling for the program, it is also an acronym for the driving philosophy behind the Spirit of Waxahachie.
“Yes, we constantly ‘push, push, push’ working on fundamentals and how well the kids play,” Armstrong said. “We expect the kids to put in a lot.”
“But more than the show, it’s about the kids and what they take away from the band program,” Cook added.
Armstrong stays in communication with many of his former students who have graduated and gone on to college or began careers.
“Regularly, I’ll have former students tell me it wasn’t until college or they began working that they realized how much they had benefited from the life-lessons that were taught in the band program,” Armstrong said. “You have to be disciplined to be a member of the band because it requires a lot of extra work and effort. It teaches you to manage your time. It teaches you perseverance. It teaches you that you can reach beyond your comfort zone and do things that you never thought were possible.
“As an educator, that’s the part of my job that I’m most proud of,” he said.
As the 2007 marching season draws to a close, Armstrong and Cook stressed the many accomplishments of the year.
They note the best drum major awards Matt Neal received during the two invitational tournaments.
“All season long Matt stood up and took charge,” Cook said.
“We could always count on Matt,” Armstrong added. “He has accepted responsibility and has never quit. He’s never stopped pushing his classmates to strive for excellence. Without question, he is a true leader. He’s someone who has never been concerned with how well he is received because his only focus has been on getting the job done and getting it done well every single day.
“I’m proud of all three of our drum majors (Taylor Armstrong and Tiffany Neal serve as assistant drum majors). I’m just flat out proud of this band,” Armstrong said, adding he is also grateful for what he calls “phenomenal support” from the parents, booster club, school administration and the community.
“I have never worked in a community like this,” he said. “There are districts around the state that would love to have the support that we do. Our booster club is terrific. Whatever we need, they find a way to get it done. David Nix (WHS principal) and Tom Collins (WISD superintendent) are the band’s biggest fans. They don’t just support the kids, they truly love these kids. And the community, well, wow! They are always there for us. We are very grateful for all the support.”
While Armstrong and Cook said they would have liked to have brought back a state championship for the school and community, the program will continue moving forward.
“We’ve got a great foundation to build on,” Cook said. “We’re going to keep getting better and when state rolls around again in 2009, be ready to make a bid for the title.”
As far as the WHS band boosters are concerned, they are already champions.
“In our eyes, this band is the best in Texas,” said Ronnie McMahan, band booster president. “We’re extremely proud of these kids and the directors of the WISD band program. It would have been nice to have gone to state — and win state — but what our kids have received from being part of this program is far more important that any trophy. For that, as a parent, I am extremely thankful.”
E-mail Neal at firstname.lastname@example.org.