“Congratulations to the Best Band in Texas!” says the hand-scrawled sign on the door to the band hall. The mimeographed letter posted with the practice schedule is similarly upbeat: “ Get involved. You are the Golden Eagle Band, the finest that there is.” This Richardson High School band really is one of the top bands in the state, and it’s especially strong in the music department. Last summer it won the Class AAAAA Honor Band competition, which is a concert category judged on the basis of tape recordings. But can it march as well as it plays? To be the best, you have to do both. Anyway, the kids who come shuffling in on this early morning in late summer don’t much look like champions. They look like raw recruits, some sitting timidly in the corner, others horsing around so as not to betray their anxiety.
This is a meeting of the 64 sophomores, the latest additions to the band. As they assemble, the man in authority takes the floor. “You know me,” he says “You’ll get to know me better.” He is Scott Taylor, Richardson High’s band director. At 35, he looks and acts like Baretta, the television cop, but he has a wider face and a South Texas accent.
“We’re here to learn to be friends and to excel,” he goes on. “We’re not here to humiliate you. There are times when you will feel bad, embarrassed. It’s not intentional and we’ve all been through it. It’s short-lived. On September third you are going to have to set foot out there on that football field and perform. You have to be aggressive if you want to succeed.”
The Richardson High School band has had notable success in playing and marching, but that does not make it particularly unusual. Texas bands are the finest in the country—the three dozen or so best high school bands in the state could be matched by perhaps only a dozen others throughout America. Every fall, thanks to God, 3,500 band directors, and 350,000 indefatigable band members, the show resumes all over Texas. From Monahans to Houston, Amarillo to Brownsville, and points between and beyond, that show is apt to be the best band in town on any given weekend night. Whether you have kids in high school or just an active nostalgia of your own adolescence, you can’t help but be attracted whenever you get within earshot of a high school stadium on a fall evening. The swarm of spectators, the blaze of the stadium lights, and especially the music drifting through the air make you feel a little left out. And that is the power of Texas’ high school marching bands: you want to drop what you’re doing and join the crowd.
How did Texas come on such preeminence? How did it happen that the Richardson High School band is generally more successful than its football team and appears to have a lot more fun? How, for that matter, did it come to pass that the children of cowboys, farmers, and rough necks put on uniforms and picked up the piccolo and the snare drum and the tuba?
Bands came to Texas because it was frontier, not in spite of that fact. Brass bands gained prominence in the Civil War, and their importance increased after the war with the success of sit-down-band composers like John Philip Sousa. As the west was being won, the little towns that wanted some music in their opera houses could seldom find anybody to play a sissy instrument like the cello, but there was always someone who could play a horn—the generic name in band parlance for any wind instrument. Eventually bands worked their way into the schools. An important reason, of course, was football. Texas A&M was one of the first schools in the country to have its band put on a halftime show, sometime back in the twenties. Others soon followed, and in the 1935-36 school year, Abilene High School became the first high school in Texas to make music part of its curriculum. Other states that were high on football, like Michigan, were band-crazy too. But over the last forty years a number of factors have helped Texas win out over its band-and-football rivals.
First is climate. Who wants to march in Michigan after October? Second is the irrepressible enthusiasm of Texas’ local citizenry, who will raise large sums to supplement their band programs. The University Interscholastic League, which formulates regulations for all sorts of Texas school competitions, including musical ones, has also whetted the competitive instinct in Texas. And in recent years there has been money available in Texas and not elsewhere. This year as many as three hundred band directors from other states have found employment here.
Most important, though, is the political acumen of the music teachers and their supporters. The Texas Music Educators Association is smart and well organized; its executive secretary, Bill Cormack, may be the only ex-choir director in the country who is a registered lobbyist. The TMEA has managed to get the Legislature to declare fine arts, including music, a basic subject on par with the three R’s. That is why the kids learning to march in Richardson mastered music in junior high that students in other states won’t tackle until college. The Golden Eagle won their Honor Band contest by playing knotty pieces by modern composers Percy Grainger and Aaron Copland.
Marching bands have undergone three revolutions in the last forty years. All bands started out using military-based marches with shoulder-to-shoulder, precision drills and a long marching stride of six steps to five yards. East Texas bands still favor a military marching style, but the rest of the state changed from close-order drills to shows with a theme—pumpkins for Halloween and turkeys for Thanksgiving—and a shorter stride of eight steps to five yards. Most Texas bands changed a second time when theme shows were replaced by abstract and geometric designs constructed by field-filing assemblages of musicians,