Tarpon Springs, Florida: Marching Band Champions and More

Tarpon Springs at Grand Nationals

I keep hearing great things from Florida about the Tarpon Springs High School music program, whose marching band is a seven-time Bands of America AA and AAA Division National Champion (seen above in Grand Nationals). Some of their more recent accomplishments include:

  • 2014 Bands of America Grand National Champions and AA National Champions
  • One of 11 bands selected to perform at the 2013 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
  • Director Kevin Ford named the 2014 Outstanding Educator for Pinellas County Public Schools
  • Director Kevin Ford one of five finalists for the 2015 Florida State Teacher of the Year award

Not only do they also have an incredible jazz band program (a 2015 Berklee High School Jazz Festival Champion), the department has seven different ensembles performing on a national level.

Before you assume they must be from an especially affluent community to be able to fund such achievement, guess again. Tarpon Springs is a tremendous success story; in this and a subsequent post I’ll talk with director Kevin Ford in the hope of discovering some of the secrets behind their success.

Can you give us a sense of what makes your program unique?

Our program’s title is The Tarpon Springs Leadership Conservatory for the Arts. Our program combines leadership development with the performing arts. We are a public school program and there are no audition requirements to participate in our program. During our students’ freshman year, in addition to their performance ensemble course, all conservatory students are enrolled in a Student Leadership course. The course focuses on attitude development, positive role modeling, understanding self-motivation, responsibility assessment, communication skills, personal responsibility, sensitivity in working with peers, action plans that achieve group goals, and in a curriculum that inspires our young students to think beyond just today.

We focus on who they want to become as a person, as a professional, and the impact they hope to make on this world. From the teachers, to the parents, to our students, we are focused on developing “habits of excellence” in all aspects of how we operate and perform in our program. We are committed as an organization to provide professional experiences for our students that will help them develop as both young artists and give them opportunities to grow and develop as individuals.

Quite honestly, if you were to just look at the socioeconomic make up of our school and community, most would think that what our students experience and accomplish would not be possible. It is inspiring to witness the commitment of our parent booster program, our students, and the community and the efforts everyone makes to ensure that our students are able to experience so many extraordinary educational performance opportunities.

There are no auditions?

Not at all, we march anyone and everyone who would like to participate in the program. As teachers we want to provide this experience to anyone who has the desire to participate. Generally, every year we are marching at least 30%-35% of new students to the activity.

How many students and teachers are in the program?

There are 220 students in our band program and approximately 500 total students in our Leadership Conservatory for the Arts Magnet program combining instrumental, vocal, dance, color guard, and orchestra. We have 4 full–time teachers teaching the band and guard program: My responsibilities include all magnet-related tasks, overseeing all our performance ensembles, curriculum, and teaching our wind ensemble, brass, marching band, and our music performance classes.  In addition, we have three other directors:

  • Christopher De Leon teaches our Jazz Ensemble, our intermediate Wind Ensemble, woodwinds, marching band, and all freshman leadership courses which includes all instrumental, string, dance, and vocal students.
  • Todd Leighton, our percussion director, teaches our percussion classes, music theory, and music technology courses. It is a requirement of every magnet student to take one semester of music theory and electronic music. Like Mr. De Leon, he teaches all instrumental, vocal, and orchestra students.
  • Jason Herrington teaches dance courses at both the high school and middle school and shares the daily teaching responsibilities for the color guard with my wife, Jeannine Ford, who is our color guard director.

Tarpon Springs Jazz BandChristopher De Leon directing the Tarpon Springs Jazz Band

How many additional people are on the marching band staff?

Our marching band staff is relatively small but we are blessed to have some extraordinary teachers and designers. In addition to our directors, we have:

  • 4 marching instructors who we divide between brass, woodwinds, battery, and color guard
  • 3 percussion instructors, covering front ensemble, back ensemble, and battery percussion
  • 4 color guard instructors who split up rifles, sabres, dancers, and flags

In addition, we have some of our alumni who come back and help when they can and we are very appreciative to everyone who helps each of our students become the best they can be. Our student leaders take the initiative to hold sectionals each week to assist in the development of their individual sections. It is a total team effort and one I am proud to be a part of.

What does your annual schedule look like?

We start off our year with summer training. We meet once a week on Tuesday evenings throughout the summer for anyone who is in town and not on vacation. We use these rehearsals to introduce students to our musical and visual pedagogy programs.

We also hold several camps in the summer. We have a middle school concert band camp that lasts two weeks, a jazz camp, and a dance camp. We have found these to be very beneficial.

We start off our school year in August with our Wind Ensemble, Jazz Ensemble and Marching Band curriculums running simultaneously. We like to keep the music ensembles together for the first few months, so that our more experienced players can mentor our younger musicians. It allows us to build a consistent approach to their instruments and to creating music.

In September, we have our All-State auditions. In November, we break up the program into several different performance ensembles and have our all-county auditions. Additionally, we conduct our audition for wind ensemble placements and separate our groups by ability and experience. We also separate our color guard program into our World and A Guards. We begin our brass, woodwind, and concert percussion choirs and we start our indoor percussion ensemble.

In December, we have all our students select a solo and ensemble selection and we begin that 12 week process where we have various area recitals concluding with our district solo and ensemble evaluations. We utilize SmartMusic to help assist us with this process.

We host a guest artist workshop in the fall and spring semesters. We have a guest artist come in and work with our Jazz Ensemble students for a few days in the winter, and another artist who works with all of our students in the spring, concluding with a concert. We have been blessed to host some extraordinary guest artists including Wycliffe Gordon, Marcus Printup, and Scotty Barnhart.

In February, we have our annual solo and ensemble district evaluations and in March we have our concert district evaluations. In April, we often take our wind and jazz ensembles on a spring trip to a national concert and jazz festival. In April, we host a Showcase Concert that allows us the opportunity to perform with our local middle school feeders and we do another guest artist concert that includes our Wind and Jazz Ensembles. In May, we have our annual Spring Concert and then we begin the process all over again.

Tarpon Springs Wind Ensemble Atlanta Symphony HallThe Tarpon Springs Wind Ensemble at Atlanta Symphony Hall

Specifically regarding our use of SmartMusic in the fall, we test our students on their marching band music. We also use this as a resource for our students to help them become better sight readers and help prepare them for their All-State and All-County auditions. In December, we use SmartMusic to assist our students with their solos and we also assign our students assignments on their Wind Ensemble sections throughout the year utilizing SmartMusic.

What are the expectations for students outside of rehearsal?

First and foremost, we expect our students to be individuals of high character; to make decisions based on values that they have set in place for themselves and have nurtured in our student leadership curriculum. As freshman, every one of our students is required to take our student leadership course that focuses on Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens.

When our students are asked to practice we are working towards making a paradigm shift from them choosing to practice not because it is required, but rather from a commitment to becoming the best they can be in all aspects of their life. Of course this is a work in progress. Not of all our students achieve at the same rate, but we have noticed a substantial difference among our students since implementing this philosophy and structure to our curriculum.

Regarding specific practice strategies for our students, we ask that each of them use a metronome, tuner, and SmartMusic whenever available. We believe SmartMusic is a greater asset for them as a practice tool than an evaluation mechanism.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

We now have seven different performance ensembles that all perform on a national level. It can be overwhelming at times in terms of ensuring that each performance ensemble has everything they need to be successful both from a resource and logistic perspective.

I can recall one day this past spring, where we had five of our performance ensembles performing on the same day in and out of the state. The amount of logistics that go into ensuring that each ensemble is taken care of is substantial. I credit our entire organizational team and teachers that allow us to provide these opportunities for our students.

As I mentioned earlier, we require every student to annually participate in our district solo and ensemble evaluations. I truly believe that there is no other event in our curriculum that helps develop our individual musicians as much as preparation for this evaluation. This is a lengthy process and it requires myself and my colleagues to work with every student multiple times in preparation. As we have grown in student population and have had more and more students participating in multiple events, we have had to adjust our approach.

When the band was smaller, it was relatively simple to schedule and listen to each student individually every week. While we still value one-on-one experience, we have had to rely on other methods of assessment to assist us in our quest to provide every student individual feedback. As a result of the educational value of SmartMusic, our principal has purchased a subscription for every one of our students. Mr. Christopher De Leon, our associate director, has done an amazing job assigning relevant assignments and recordings several times a month. This has allowed us to continue to hear students individually, provide feedback, and to make adjustments to our pedagogical program to accommodate the needs of our students.

What was your introduction to SmartMusic?

Mr. De Leon joined our faculty as one of the directors at Tarpon Springs in 2012. One of our collective initiatives was to develop ways to provide more individual feedback for our students’ so that they could better develop as individual musicians. Knowing that many of our students would not be able to afford the SmartMusic subscription, he approached our principal and explained how SmartMusic was not only a terrific practice tool for our students, but it was also a way for us to track positive trend data on our students. This is something tangible we can use on our annual teaching evaluations and something that we can share with our administrators.

What did you hope SmartMusic would offer your program?

We were hoping it would allow us to hear and provide more individual feedback for our students. Additionally, we were hoping more of them would practice their technical selections with a metronome and help to provide greater clarity to their playing.

How has the reality of what SmartMusic brought to your program compare with your expectations?

We were very pleased and it has helped us in many areas including sight-reading. It has been a great resource for us in the individual development of our students.

In our next post, we’ll get to the big questions, like: “What is the process of developing a show that will be performed at BOA Grand Nationals?”

Stay tuned!

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