The Spartan Band Bucks The System

May 8, 2015

The Pride of Bixby band
Credit Kurt Gwartney

Competition can be fierce in Oklahoma’s high school extracurricular activities. From athletic fields to performance halls, students take seriously the trophies they bring back to their schools. One award-winning Tulsa-area music program has decided to step away from a hallmark band contest to make the spring semester all about the music.

The Bixby High School marching band, better known as The Pride of Bixby, won its number one spot during marching season with a crazy kind of circus on the field. Unicyclers, tumblers, disappearing color guard members and rotating horn players spread across the gridiron, helping to make their show number one in the state in its class, 6A-2.

But the band intentionally fell silent for the spring state concert band contest. For the second year in a row, the Bixby High School band chose to pass on this contest.

Bixby band director Jeremy Parker says what the band does during the fall is entertainment. In the spring, the musicians turn their talents to the artistic.

Parker, who is also the coordinator of instrumental music for the entire school district, says the idea to stop going to the state concert band contest first came to him in 2007 at a music educator’s convention in Tulsa, as he listened to nationally famous band director Frank Battisti talk about music programs that did not include band competitions.

During an early morning band practice in late March, the students were busy working on music for the upcoming concert, the second of the semester. Bixby High School senior, Evan Murlett, who plays the baritone, says he is happy with the decision to pass up the chance for another trophy.

“My freshman year and sophomore year we did go to the contest,” Murlett says. “But from December until the end of the year, we worked on the same couple of pieces of music. And honestly by the end of probably March, we were just about done with them.”

While the Bixby band program is concerned about being read for its performances, the students learn more than how to play a series of notes printed on the page.

“Mr. Parker feels that we will get a much better education if we just look at like a bunch of literature and learn more that way than working on the same music for several months and taking it to contest and that kind of thing,” according to Ally Carpenter, a junior, who plays flute in the spring and leads the marching band in the fall as drum major.

Both Murlett and Carpenter say even though the pressure of receiving a superior rating at contest is gone, there is no time to relax. The Bixby band members have to learn about twice the number of compositions of a high school band focused on bringing home an award.

“We love playing so many pieces,” Carpenter says. “Just getting to understand that there’s so much more literature out there.”

Carpenter says she has played more musical pieces in the past two years than in all her previous years of her young musical career.

The expectation of learning this quantity of music comes with an early morning and evening price. The band room doors open before 7 a.m. for sectional practices. Master classes and ensemble work happens after school, lasting until dinnertime.

“This place is a flurry of activity all the time,” says Parker, who also says this schedule is common for other concert bands across Oklahoma.

Parker says the change has also allowed the Bixby band to retain its marching staff into the spring to teach master classes and lead the after-school chamber ensembles. The fast pace and challenge of learning extra music in the spring also spills over into the fall, helping the band keep its edge in the highly competitive marching season.

Regardless of the practical implications of skipping the state concert band contest, Parker says when he talked with his students about the possible change, he was taken aback about their response.

“These kids could care less about plaques and ratings,” Parker says. “They were actually in this for the music. I’m not correlating this to my colleagues around the state and stuff. This is me; maybe I was more concerned about the plaque and the rating than my students were.”

You can hear Bixby High School’s two concert bands perform the last concert of the year Monday evening at 7 p.m. at Tulsa Community College’s VanTrease Performing Arts Center in south Tulsa. It might be a good idea to arrive early for a seat because more than 700 people attended the band’s last performance in February.