Every band director aspires for success, especially in the early years of our careers. Far too often, I see that directors doubt themselves and don’t reach the level of achievement they yearn for. In no way, shape, or form, do I consider myself to be an expert, but I do say this: whatever it is that you want for your program, is possible.
Growing up in the Harrison County school system in Cynthiana, KY, there were always high expectations for the success of our music programs. We were consistently state finalists on the marching field, and had distinguished concert and choral programs. Occasionally, we fell short of our goals, but the early-learned expectations stuck with me.
Chris Hedges’ (one of my high school band directors) words always stuck with me: “If you choose to compete, then you have to choose to accept the results.” He was so right. The only thing that I had to do, was decide what I was willing to accept.
Now, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m a fresh-faced, right out of the gate educator. I began my career in 2014 at Harrison County High School, where I worked for a year and a half as the choral director and assistant director of the marching band. With all of the excitement of beginning a career came a countless number of mistakes. Instead of allowing situations to just be mistakes, I began to turn them into learning opportunities. Needless to say, I became well-educated in this area.
During this time in my career, I began to understand exactly which types of results I was willing to accept. Our marching band was in a state of regrowth. We placed in the state semifinals during those two years. It was not a high placement, but we made it. My choirs grew in number and received proficient ratings at our performance assessments – not “bad,” but it wasn’t something that I was willing to accept.
In the winter of 2015, I accepted the job as the assistant band director at Bourbon County with Eric Hale – a legend in my eyes and one of my former band directors. In the two years that he and I worked together, I truly learned what it meant to make the results you want happen. Due to the band’s historic success, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase: “there is something in the water in Bourbon County.” Despite these rumors, it isn’t magic or super powers that have led to our triumphs. There is just a lot of hard work paired with smart decision-making taking place.
I know everyone reading this must be thinking, “I thought this article was about their success this year?” It is. All of these moments led to the possibility for this success. The 2018 school year was my first shot at being a head director after Mr. Hale retired, and I decided that I wasn’t going to blow it. I don’t think there is a single person who is familiar with our program that didn’t expect things to decline. Those expectations gave me a challenge, and as a fan of challenges I was happy to accept.
Previously, I mentioned smart decision-making as being an integral part of our success. If I’m being totally honest, by most people’s standards, there wasn’t a lot of that taking place on my part. Throughout my recruiting process, I decided that I wanted to have a 120-member band – the biggest in our school’s history – another challenge. I made it happen. The largest hurdle on that path, was the fact that having a larger band would mean having a larger class of new marchers (43 to be exact). In Kentucky, some schools choose to utilize 7th and 8th grade students for marching band. Bourbon County is especially known for doing this. I made the decision to have thirty-two 7th graders and nineteen 8th graders. Overall, I had around 70 kids that were freshman and below. At an early competition, W. Dale Warren served as a clinician. There aren’t words to describe the look on his face when I told him about the makeup of our band. All he said was that there was a lot of work to be done. He was beyond correct.
Due to budgetary restraints, Eric Hale always wrote his own drill and arranged his own music at Bourbon County. I chose to continue this tradition. When constructing the show, I had several colleagues listen as I arranged, went through an editing process, and made sure that the music was coming across how I intended. The first draft of the show seemed like it was going to work.
This season didn’t start off strong. We spent our first local competition in 3rd place at a show we had won in 2017. We were 12th place at the BOA Oxford regional. I believe this may have been the first time that our band sat out of finals competition in at least 11 years. We were class champions, but there was still disappointment. Our in-state rival, Russell County, was over 5 points ahead of us. We decided that we weren’t able to accept these results. I wasn’t going to let my kids experience failure, so we pushed forward. We went back and took a closer look at the construction of our show and made changes accordingly, adjusted practice schedules, and focused on the minute detailing of every moment – basically, we worked harder. Throughout the season, my goal was to teach my students that the band who worked the hardest would gain the biggest payoff. They bought in to the concept, and it paid off.
We ended our season as the Class AAA Kentucky State Champions and the BOA Grand National Class A Champion.
Personally, it was a great accomplishment in my “first year” as a director. I loved that my kids were able to experience performing at that level. In our pre-semifinals performance at Grand Nationals, I told the kids (while fighting back tears) that they had truly made all of my dreams come true. Growing up, I watched my friends at Bourbon County win state and national titles. All I could do was dream about being at that level. Becoming a band director, I sought to give my kids everything that I didn’t get to experience. I can say that I’ve done that now. KMEA and BOA will forever have my gratitude for giving educators the chance to highlight just what these young people can do.
Close colleagues ask me what’s next for Bourbon County and Michael Stone. Other than spending some time with my partner, Josh, and rounding out the concert program, no one knows. When we figure it out, we’ll be sure to let each of you see.