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Tiny Band, Big Heart

November 30, 2015 | Photos and reporting by Greg Kendall-Ball and text by Abby Johnston

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

On New Year’s Day, the largest high school marching band in the country will represent Texas on the national stage. The Allen High School Escadrille will take 725 of its 774 members to Pasadena, California, to march in the Tournament of Roses Parade, a prestigious honor that took two years of preparation to secure. According to the Dallas Morning News, it will take seventeen or eighteen buses, six airplanes, and $1.2 million to get the award-winning Escadrille to the big show, where, in a giant ocean of blue-and-white polyester, it will march seven miles to the Rose Bowl. It will no doubt be the spectacular, larger-than-life pageantry that the nation expects of our state.

But as with all things in Texas, a few hours in the car and several hundred miles of highway will bring you to a completely different breed of Texas’s halftime heroes. While the Escadrille spent this fall figuring out how to uniformly maneuver an army of teenagers through a hard-right turn, Rotan High School’s band was in the Big Country prepping for its own extraordinary trip to the state finals, a first for one of the smallest high school marching bands in the state.

Handing out an official designation for the tiniest band in Texas is difficult; the University Interscholastic League’s rules for eligibility are determined by a student’s grades, so the numbers fluctuate. But at 24 members, the Rotan Yellowhammer band is certainly a Lilliputian troupe, though its halftime show is a Herculean effort. The mascot takes off her costume and immediately transforms from an oversized beaked bird into the band’s solo saxophonist. Cheerleaders put down their pompoms and take up instruments. Ultimately, two dozen kids—one still in football pads—put on the kind of show usually performed by hundreds.

And it’s because of massive bands like the Allen Escadrille that the Yellowhammer band had its most competitive marching season in school history. When the UIL realigned to include 6A schools in Texas, it meant that the smallest 1A programs such as Rotan’s were competing against comparably sized bands for the first time. In past years, the Yellowhammers faced competition that was three or four times their size, but a new 1A pilot program and UIL shifts—not to mention Rotan’s new band director—put a previously distant goal in their sights. This is the year that the Rotan Yellowhammers had a fighting chance to compete in the UIL state marching contest.

You can watch the Escadrille on primetime in all its splendor, carrying on its legacy as “the biggest band in the land” in a Texas-size march. But the Rotan Yellowhammers represent a different facet of our state: the scrappy, can-do kids from a town smaller than the entire student population of Allen High School. This is their story.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Although Rotan counts gridiron giants such as National Football League legend Sammy Baugh and former Longhorn wide receiver Jordan Shipley (well, for a year, at least) as alums, the current Yellowhammer team isn’t poised to break any records with its 2—8 season in the six-man football division. But fans have a different tradition to cheer for when the stadium lights flicker to life: the Rotan Yellowhammer band. Rather than football families, it’s the Yellowhammer’s halftime show that has strong bloodlines. More than a third of the members are second- or third-generation Yellowhammers taking up the polyester. These vintage uniforms, along with a cabinet stuffed with band memorabilia dating back to the forties, remind the current Yellowhammers that they are part of a long history.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Rotan, which bumps to life at the intersection of Texas highways 70 and 92, about an hour northwest of Abilene, laid its roots as an agribusiness community. Its population peaked during the fifties when it was home to one of the largest gypsum plants in the country. But as small farms began to decline, so too did Rotan’s population, sliding from 3,159 in the 1950 census to 1,611 in 2000. The Yellowhammer band incorporated a local landmark—the Double Mountains—into its show this year when it rolled out a huge photograph of the flat-topped buttes as a backdrop. The mountains are also the subject of a mural in downtown Rotan.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

The 24-member Yellowhammer band gathered for an early morning practice outside of Rotan High School’s ag barn in October. The band qualifies as a varsity composite, which allows eighth graders to march alongside high school seniors, with seventh grade “field hands” assisting with props during performances. The Yellowhammer band isn’t a historical powerhouse exactly, but a shift in the way the UIL classifies school size positioned the 2015—2016 members to be more competitive in marching contests.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Josh Bailey wears many hats on top of managing the Yellowhammer plumes. The first-year band director pulls double duty as a music teacher for pre-Kindergarten through twelfth grade. Bailey, who studied music at the University of Texas-Arlington, is a native of nearby Tuscola. His position with the Yellowhammer band is the 25-year-old’s first as a high school band director, but his ambition makes up for any experience he lacks. When the band began rehearsals in July, Bailey and his students scrawled eight different goals for the season on the band hall’s white board. They ranged from modest—getting along, being on time—to the lofty: making the UIL’s First Division ranking at Regional Marching Contest.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

“Band moms” decorated the lockers of Yellowhammer band members, but the orange-hued real estate doesn’t come easy. Nearly every member of the band is involved in some other extra-curricular activity that also begs for locker displays, including FFA and sports. “Students in this town realize that if they want to have successful programs, they have to do a lot,” Bailey says. “They have to do cheerleading and band and sports.”

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

The Yellowhammer band marched from the band hall into Rotan ISD’s H. Govan Memorial Stadium for a game against the Aspermont Hornets. In Rotan the halftime show is almost as important as the game itself. The stadium stays full until the band has played its final note and the lights go dim.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Rotan ISD superintendent Greg Decker and Rotan High School principal Scott Allen traveled two hours north to watch a football game against Crowell and to see the band perform. Despite stormy conditions that sent Yellowhammers scuttling for rain ponchos, parents and other school officials showed up to support the students. Rotan went on to lose the game 50–0, not uncommon results in the high-scoring six-man football division.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Junior Caleb Rosenblad has a hand in nearly every snap on the football field. He plays center on offense. When it’s time to put up the D, he moves to nose guard, and he occasionally steps in to play on special teams. But when the whistle signals the end of the first half, Rosenblad picks up his baritone saxophone and marches with the band (in which he also has chaplain duties). The Rotan band borrows a few other Friday night personnel for its halftime show, including two high school cheerleaders, one middle school cheerleader, and the school’s All-American mascot.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Clarinet player and cheerleader Kaitlin Bowen checked her instrument at home after cheering and marching in a game against Aspermont. On a game day, Kaitlin could have band rehearsal, class, cheering at a pep rally and football game, performing with the band, and, likely the least glamorous of all of these activities, homework.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Bailey used a stapler as a quick fix to secure mascot and freshman solo saxophonist Jax Hurt’s marching bibbers. As the only band director at a small school, Bailey mends uniforms, takes care of the instrument repairs—which sometimes involves duct tape—and drives the equipment truck to football games and marching contests. The Yellowhammer band may be a tiny operation, but Bailey’s direction and leadership is a true one-man show.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

The Rotan Yellowhammers took the field at Abilene’s Wylie High School for the UIL Regional Marching Contest. The bands that received a Division 1 ranking earned a spot in the UIL State Marching Contest in San Antonio just a few weeks later.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

At the UIL regional performance, drum major Renee Atkins saluted the judges and the crowd after the Rotan band was introduced. Atkins, a senior, acted as a student leader for the band and played trumpet for the Yellowhammers. She was also named the band sweetheart as the marching season wound to a close.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Rotan’s performance at Wylie High School required a bit of adjusting. The band typically marches on a field designed for six-man football, a field much smaller than Wylie’s 4A regulation turf. That was, perhaps, fitting for this year’s “Tales of the West” show, which honored Rotan’s history by rolling out screens emblazoned with vintage images of the town. The wide stretches of foreign field around the Yellowhammers might not have been an intentional aesthetic choice, but it certainly evoked a pioneer’s spirit.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

As a cheerleader, eighth grader Kloe Corn (pictured second from the right) isn’t in the business of playing it cool. Clearly. Members of the band reacted to the news that they earned three straight Division 1 ratings in the regional marching contest at Wylie. This secured the band a spot at the state marching contest in San Antonio, the first time in school history that the Yellowhammers had advanced to state.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Bailey clutched the UIL marching trophy that his band earned at the regional marching contest. With the Rotan Yellowhammers’ success in Abilene, Bailey was able to check off the last of the eight goals for the season: go to the state marching contest.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

When news reached Rotan that the band had qualified for state, several Yellowhammer supporters organized a fundraising dinner at a local store. They sold plates of homemade carne guisada (Bailey’s attempted pronunciation got a few chuckles), tortillas, and rice to help pay for the band’s charter bus to San Antonio. Many of the women who helped cook and serve the meal had no direct connection to the band but volunteered their time and expertise because, as one woman said, “the band needed our help, so here we are.”

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Buffy Sipe hung a sign that was surely met with disappointment from the line of people waiting to buy food, which at one point stretched out the door. But that blow faded quickly: 265 plates of stewed beef later, the fundraiser had procured more than $3,200 for the band’s trip to San Antonio. They sold out in less than two hours.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Dozens of residents made their way to downtown Rotan to see the band off to San Antonio. The charter bus was escorted out of town by two fire trucks and an ambulance and trailed by a caravan of band family vehicles that also made the trip. Rotan ISD superintendent Greg Decker also tagged along with the Yellowhammers on their first trip to state.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Twenty-five strong after a bass drummer got his grades up and earned eligibility, the Rotan Yellowhammers got their first look inside San Antonio’s Alamodome, where they would perform the next day in the state marching competition. The 72,000 seats in the stadium were a far cry from Rotan’s 400-capacity football field. The Yellowhammers spent the day before the competition watching some of the larger bands perform and exploring San Antonio’s Riverwalk, which many of the students were seeing for the first time.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

The day before the competition, Bailey and the band ran through the Yellowhammer’s show, borrowing Karen Wagner High School’s practice field as a rehearsal space.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

It was all business as the Rotan Yellowhammer band filed into the Alamodome to compete in the prelims of the UIL State Marching Contest. Thirteen bands received Division 1 regional rankings to qualify for the 1A class at state, including troupes from four other Big Country ISDs: Rising Star, Knox City, Throckmorton, and Munday.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

Bailey directed the first movement of “Tales of the West” at the state preliminary round as scenes from Rotan backed the band three hundred miles from home. Three music judges and two marching judges were tasked with ranking the bands one through thirteen, and the composite score from each of the judges counted as the overall rank. (So as with golf, the lower the score the better.) The top five advanced to the final round.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

The Rotan Yellowhammer band posed for its official portrait after marching in the prelims. In the thirteen minutes between their performance at 11:39 that morning, and this photo, the Yellowhammers made history as the first band from Rotan to perform at state.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

After their performance the Yellowhammers sat through two more hours of marching in their division before judges deliberated and set their final rankings. Band members refreshed their phones, anxiously waiting for the results. The buzz in the crowd—admittedly from many wearing Yellowhammer orange—was that Rotan was a shoo-in for the finals.

Rotan Yellowhammer Band

One judge placed them at seventh. Two said ninth place. Another two had them at dead last. That put the Yellowhammers at tenth overall, five spots away from advancing to the final round. The loss was particularly devastating for the seniors as well as juniors such as Rachel Counts. Rotan’s 1A program competes at the state level only during alternating years, meaning that the school will have to wait until 2017 for another shot.

A few shed tears are to be expected, but Bailey reminded despondent students that simply qualifying for state was an achievement. And that’s a milestone shared between the kids, an energetic first-year band director, and a community that values marching as much as it does tackling.

Senior and junior Yellowhammers won’t see another state contest, but the band marches on with a crop of eighth graders, freshmen, and sophomores who have had their first taste of success. You can bet that the tiny band’s big heart is beating even stronger and steadier than before.