Tarpon Springs: Developing a BOA Grand Nationals Show

Kevin Ford and Tarpon Springs at Grand Nationals

The Tarpon Springs High School music program is extremely successful, with seven different ensembles performing on a national level. A few weeks ago I began a conversation with band director Kevin Ford in which we learned a bit about the program, staff, and their use of SmartMusic. This week, we delve deeper in our attempts to discover the secret of their marching band’s phenomenal achievements as we talk about their success at Grand Nationals (seen above) and their appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Could you describe the process of developing a show that will be performed at BOA Grand Nationals?

Our process starts in late May after our final concerts have concluded. For us the creative process is the same whether we are attending Grand Nationals or not. It is a total team effort. I am blessed to write with some of the most talented and creative people I have ever met; Frank Sullivan, our music arranger/composer, and Michael Shapiro our choreographer. We each share in the development of the theme or concept for a Tarpon production. Once we collectively decide on a theme or a musical inspiration for our production, the three of us collaborate and map out the show’s storyline and effect moments. We work together coordinating every measure of the show, ensuring that we have a coordinated effort both musically and visually and a structured purpose for every developed idea.

We explore all design options and try our best to not limit our ideas to the things that we have already done or are comfortable doing. I think the three of us get most excited when we take risks. We produce ideas from the inside out. We try our best to allow the theme to drive and inspire the “effect” moments and our design choices. The design process for a Tarpon show literally never ends from the time it starts. If we feel something will make the show better we will literally continue to add things all the way up to the day of our last show.

Our students embrace the creative process and are very receptive to change. Most importantly, it is our performers who bring our productions to life. We feel it is important that the performers understand their role musically and visually for every aspect of the performance. This way we feel they can actually elevate the intent of the program. Our ultimate goal for all of the shows we design is for there to be something for everyone and for our students to love and be inspired by what they are doing.

Could you describe the techniques used to develop such a consistently performing group?

We do our best to be process- and concept-driven educators. We focus on conceptual teaching. We feel it results in our students becoming independent learners, thinkers, and creators. Everything we do in our teaching is to move our students from being merely participants playing music to becoming artists expressing music. Ultimately, we want them to make musical and creative decisions and have a purpose behind their decisions as performers.

We feel consistency in all things we do and attention to a detailed process is what helps our ensembles achieve a high level of success. Regardless of which ensemble we are engaged in, our approach to our instruments, tone quality, pitch center and musicality is consistent from one ensemble to the next. Some technical things that we feel help assist our students in the development are:

– All of our students are required to play all 12 major scales. No exceptions. This allows them to play in every key and learn pitch tendencies and how to adjust to those challenges.

– We sight-read just about every day. When sight-reading we just don’t focus on right notes and rhythms, but we focus on making musical decisions. We always assess our performances and discuss.

– We assign weekly SmartMusic assignments that are relative to what we are working on at that time. This allows us the opportunity to individually listen to each of our students and develop strategies that we can include in our warm-up exercises to address common challenges that we find throughout our student musicians’ submissions.

– Every student musician is required to participate in our solo and ensemble events. In addition to our district solo and ensemble evaluation we do a brass and woodwind area recital as well as our own full recital where everyone performs for each other. I believe this process helps develop our students’ individual musicianship as much as any process they go through in a year.

– We value tone quality. Helping students make beautiful sounds is a huge priority at Tarpon Springs. We do lots of long tones, ear training, lip slurs, and chordal exercises.

Teaching young musicians in an ensemble setting is productive in many ways. However, how do you “explain” to each student how you would like them to sound? Typically, we as directors use common adjectives such as “warm” and “dark” when it comes to tone quality. What does “warm” and “dark” mean?

Each student is left to individually interpret these instructions and produce a sound that matches the instructions of the director. We use a system from Inspire Music and Entertainment Productions. They have developed aural models for each instrument through actual recordings of professional musicians. When a student “hears” the exact example you would like them to imitate, they quickly adjust their sound and match the aural model.

For example, if you would like to teach a student to play and sound like Miles Davis, you could spend a full day trying to describe Miles’ sound and style…every student would have a different interpretation. However, if you give a student a recording of “So What” and let them play along, they begin to sound like Miles without being instructed. Their ears are far more developed than we think.

By implementing aural modeling of professional symphonic musicians, we give exact examples for the students and they have a concrete understanding of tone, pitch, balance and blend…etc. They all match the single aural model. By removing the guesswork, we found that the band sounds homogenous almost immediately, and our student musicians are producing much more mature sounds. If anyone is interested in this aural modeling program, I highly recommend it, and suggest they contact Frank Sullivan at [email protected]

Could you tell that 2014 was going to be a special year, or was it business as usual?

Honestly, every year seems special and they are in their own unique way. For us, it’s always the students that make it a special year. Not necessarily an event or a placement at an event. I think all the teachers felt a sincere passion among these students to be great.

The students loved performing this show. I can’t remember a day all season long where they were not focused and ready to be better. Regardless of the weather or conditions or whatever obstacle that seemed to potentially get in their way, they pushed through them. It was actually very exciting as teachers to share in that enthusiasm and to learn and watch them push themselves.

Approved Photo 2 EditMr. Ford, Conducting – photo used by permission of tbo.com

Can you share a most memorable moment from that year?

There are two that come to mind. For many of us, it was the day our students hosted our home show in the middle of October. All of our students and their parents work on the show and do an amazing job. It is a very long day and it’s incredible to watch everyone work so hard to ensure that all the participating bands and our spectators have a great experience. Our band does an exhibition at the end of the night after they’ve worked all day. They are not evaluated and it is purely for the enjoyment of performing.

Our students encountered every obstacle for this performance to not be their best. However, they were absolutely incredible. It was so enjoyable to watch the joy and determination of each of these special students to go out and create a life-long memory. The crowd was exceptional and was thunderous in their appreciation. Even though most of them had been working in the hot sun since 7:00 am, they were so appreciative to their fellow members for the efforts.

It was one of those break through performances you experience in a season where you realize the potential is limitless for these students.

The second occurred when we arrived in Indy for BOA Grand Nationals. I had told the band that the first time we took the Tarpon Springs Band to Grand Nationals it snowed most of the time we were there. I know this doesn’t mean much to those who experience snow on a yearly basis, but the majority of our Florida-born and -raised students had never seen or experienced snow.

After finals retreat that night, and after our band had been awarded Grand National Champions, we exited the stadium to discover it was snowing. I think they were more excited about seeing snow then by what had taken place earlier in the dome. It was truly a “magical” evening.

When Kevin spoke about the realization that his students’ potential is limitless, I got the sense that his belief in this is a huge factor behind Tarpon Springs’ continued success. I’d like to thank Kevin for his time, and to congratulate all the teachers and students at Tarpon Springs for their exemplary work.

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