For a week this past summer, the football field at Booker T. Washington High School was home to a marching band larger than any the school itself had seen in years.
“You’re looking at 150, 160 kids out here!” Michael Scott said during one rehearsal, part of a week-long “Precision Camp” that brought together student musicians from around the city and up into Broward. “At one point, this size marching band was the norm in Miami.”
Scott grew up in Miami and worked as a high school band director in Miami-Dade County Public Schools before leaving for a job in Broward County a few years ago. “I graduated from high school in 2000,” he said. “That’s like a 16-year gap—and from then to now, it’s like night and day.”
Some of Miami’s storied school marching bands have dwindled to 30 or even fewer musicians. Sandra Little’s whole family marched at Miami Central Senior High School and she still helps out with the band. “I just saw so many kids falling to the street,” she explained. “This is my way to keep them in a safe haven.”
But Little said getting students to sign up has never been harder. “And then, when we do get ‘em, it’s like, we gotta start from scratch.”
Little learned flute in a public middle school, and her children picked up French horn and clarinet. But many middle schools don’t have band programs anymore, a change driven largely by new accountability measures introduced in 2008 linked to statewide standardized tests.
The state now requires middle schoolers with low reading and math scores to take “intervention” classes to catch up.“If there’s no room in their schedule since the state requires them to take an intensive reading or an intensive math class,” explained Lisette Alves, a deputy superintendent in Miami-Dade schools, then band class would be first to go.
Schools are also given a set number of teachers based on the number of students, so if you get enough students who need “interventions” in a single school, Alves explained, “Instead of hiring teachers who are teaching these elective classes, they now have to hire these teachers who are teaching intervention classes.”
These changes were compounded by deep school funding cuts spurred by the recession. “It all hit around the same time,” said Bill Reaney, who oversees performing arts for the district. “Therefore, at the middle school level, it was depleted, and a lot of our urban core around the state went through the same thing.”
Twelfth-grader Damon Cunningham fell in love with music in elementary school. He played recorder, then oboe and flute. When he started middle school, Cunningham recalled that he couldn’t wait to get in the band room. “The second I get there, they tell me they don’t have no teacher for it,” he said. “You couldn’t touch the instruments or anything. I was stuck in a rut.”
In high school, Cunningham has been a standout tuba player for Central’s Marching Rockets. He’s hoping to go to Juilliard or the Berklee College of Music next year, but it hasn’t been easy to find someone to take over when he graduates. “Each time I’ve recruited a person to play the instrument they look at the instrument and get scared.”
As music programs have disappeared from junior high, ninth graders are picking up instruments for the first time, and trying to get up to speed in just a few weeks. “In most districts in this state and around the country, programs are not starting students in beginning band at the high school level,” said Dr. Shelby Chipman, director of bands at Florida A&M University, who brought close to 300 students from Central High to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in 1997. “But these directors are because they have to; that’s just the way things are now.”
A half dozen Miami-Dade band directors shared similar stories, but most wouldn’t speak on the record out of fear of retaliation. They pointed out that districts like Broward have been able to use bond funding to protect arts programs. In Miami, there’s no specific budget allocation for school bands. Some funding can come from a school’s overall budget, or from outside grants, but many programs get by with what parents and alumni can cobble together themselves to repair instruments, patch old uniforms and rent school buses for away games.
Alvin Smith, the president of the alumni association at Miami Edison Senior High School, said his group tries to raise enough to provide buses for Edison’s band to travel to “three or four” performances a year. Other bands with would-be musicians are hobbled by a lack of funds to repair instruments.
But there are bright spots too. At Miami Northwestern High School, Chad Norton has been able to sustain a band program with some 150 students. He starts rehearsals weeks before the first day of school, and, one student recalled about his ninth grade year, “Mr. Norton was always walking around going, ‘You want to be in band? You want to be in band?' "
That Norton has managed to keep his band this big is no small feat. Band, he points out, is an expensive art form—but it’s also one that can yield big payoffs for students. “Once a student joins band, and they’re here,” he said, “it motivates them to just get out the bed and come to school. It motivates them to get good grades. It motivates them to change their ways and become a better citizen.”
Last year’s seniors got offers for nearly $1 million in music scholarships. Performing arts supervisor Bill Reaney said the district is eager to restore what’s been lost. “We need to fix this,” Reaney said. “When I was hired in February, my directive was ‘how could I bring back these programs?’ ”
Reaney said the pendulum is already swinging the other way: Two middle school band programs were re-booted in August as part of a pilot program called the Harmony Project, and the district is planning a benefit concert later this month to support 15 high school marching bands. Scheduling changes at other middle schools will allow them to choose arts and intensive reading, so long as they can find a way to pay for both.