Thursday, November 10, 2011

Proud Prepper

Growing up in Starkville, I played in marching band starting in 6th grade and continuing, off and on, through my senior year of high school. I loved playing in band. More than that, I loved being in band - being a part of band. I played French Horn, though I spent some time as a drum major, conducting and twirling a mace. Depending on how much I was practicing, I spent time as first chair and time as last chair. But I was a member of the band, and that mattered more to me than my individual role. El Sistema's traditional focus is on orchestra, but New Orleans is so marching band centric that I thought it was important to visit at least a few marching band programs in the city. I'm hoping to visit The Roots of Music at some point next week, a great Sistema-like after school program for band. Today, however, I had the immense pleasure to visit Xavier University Preparatory School - an all female, all black, catholic middle and high school. I arrived mid-afternoon to find their band preparing for an open-house presentation that evening. The band was small, about 30 pieces when fully assembled, and I felt at home the moment I stepped into the band room. Their director, Xavier University graduate Tiffiny Reckley, was excited about the concept of music as a vehicle for individual and social growth. She hadn't heard of El Sistema, but the way she ran her band resonated strongly with many of what I've come to think of as Sistema guiding principles. Here are some elements I noticed throughout my time at XUP that really struck me:

  • Peer Teaching 
    • One of the first things I noticed when I walked in the room was that there was a student on the podium running the rehearsal. And doing a fine job of it too. Throughout the afternoon, there was an enormous emphasis on the students instructing each other. Small groups would break off to practice their parts- duos would form to work on memorization and technical specifics. It was beautiful. There were 30 students in the room. But there were also 30 teachers.
  • Discipline 
    • There was a culture of discipline you could feel throughout the school. Students were uniformed and knew the rules. In the band room, students were trusted to practice on their own, and did so dutifully. High expectations were set musically and the girls worked steadily to achieve them. It should be noted that marching in a marching band is strenuous work- hard physical labor even. A 5 mile marching route can sometimes take as long as 3 1/2 hours to complete. So the girls have physical conditioning as part of band- running laps around the school and doing suicide drills. This lines up with the need to prep pre-k and kindergarten students physically before they start playing a real violin- playing strengthening games so that they build up stamina when they begin to play and practice. 
  • More Time, More Often
    • On average, the girls get at least 2.5 hours a day, 5 days a week with an instrument in their hands. That's an astounding 450 hours per standard school year. That kind of intensive time, not only with the instrument, but in a unified community is what builds the cycle of musical excellence, individual growth, musical excellence, social growth ad infinitum. 
  • Performance
    • These young ladies perform a lot- they have 5 performances/parades this month! That also means they'll be adding a 6th day onto their weekly schedule and coming in to school on Saturdays to rehearse. 
  • Joy
    • Not just for the thrill of the music, but the joy of being together. After running through a piece, the drum line continued to play grooves and rhythms and the whole band began to dance- soon there was a spirited dance-off. Everyone began the next piece with renewed enthusiasm and vigor. The students not only voluntarily participate in this ensemble, but they spend all their spare time in the band room. They are motivated by the 'pull' of joy, belonging, and accomplishment. They are there because they want to be.  
  • Contribution
    • There was a fantastic example of a culture of contribution that I got to witness while visiting. There was an alumna who had returned from Tulane to play with the trumpet section. Apparently, alumni often return to play with the band when they can, teaching and leading their section. This also plays into the generation to generation foundation built by XUP's slogan: "And the tradition continues..."
  • Transformative Family Involvement 
    • This was one of my favorite things about visiting this program. XUP is sure to include not just the students in the culture and community of the school, but also their families. In order to nurture transformation in a child's life, it is not enough for a program to transport them to rehearsal for a few hours. Inviting whole families to participate in a child's growth and discovery is an amazingly powerful thing. At XUP there is a group of parents supporting the band- 'Band Boosters'. There is also a Dad's Club, a Mom's Club, and soon there will be a Grandparent's Club. I had a conversation with a small group of parents outside the band hall after their open house performance, and they raved about the positive effects, outside of music, playing in band was having on their daughters. It was invigorating. I love it. It should be noted that the girls affectionately referred to their band director as "Momma"- these young ladies had become sisters through music. 
  • Community
    • Being in band at Xavier prep requires of each of its participants a deep understanding of community. Through playing, they will begin to understand themselves as a member of a whole, contributing to the community of the band. Playing in the band fosters a sense of understand the part the band plays within the community of the entire school. Playing in the band means you represent your school to the entire community of New Orleans. You are your school, for all intents and purposes- the school is a small part of a much larger community of schools, and the band is the primary delegate to the city of New Orleans. And these girls do a great job at fulfilling all of these roles. 
My time at Xavier Prep was great, and helped give me some insight into the marching band culture omnipresent here in New Orleans. I really enjoyed getting to know the director, the ensemble, and the school as a whole. I'm excited to see them march in a parade one day- I'll cheer loud as they march by.  

I am a Proud Prepper wannabe. 

Questions of the day:
What are the values/challenges inherent when playing with an ensemble within a pre-established community (a school, a church, a camp)? 
What do you gain from beginning to play in an ensemble when you're 6 that is different from what you gain beginning to play at 11? at 14?


  1. I am happy that you got to see our band and students in full effect this week. I believe you dont have to have a big band to sound good. Sometimes quality is better than quantity. I hope you experienced that while you was here. At our school there is a strong sisterhood and I am happy you got to experience the sisterhood too, here at xavier prep.

  2. I am a music student from Ms. Reckley's class, the band director that you visited. I am happy that you had the opportunity to visit our school and stay for open house. I know that our band isn't the largest band, but they sound like one. I'm glad that you had a chance to stay and listen to our band perform. I hope that you will have the chance to visit with us again in the future.

  3. I attend xavier prep and I find it very interesting that you enjoy our band and you would like to become a proud prepper (:

  4. I'm also in Ms.Reckley's music class. Your blog entry was great and inspiring. I am glad you had a chance to visit and Thank You for writing about all these wonderful aspects of Prep. I found it amusing that you think you are a prepper "wanna-be", because the moment you came on the campus you were already family.

  5. I think that this was a very good article. I am in one of Ms.reckley music student and when she read us this article I was all ears. I thought it was funny when u said you were a" wanna be prepper ". But I really enjoyed ur article!

  6. Hi, I'm in Ms.reckly music class and I attend Xavier preparatory school. I think this blog was very interesting and show how much someone can have a passion for band and also be a family.
    Kimani Ramee

  7. I am a student in Ms. Reckley's fine arts survey music class at xavier prep, i really liked your blog about prep's band because you really went into detail about what you like about our band and that reflects your taste In music.
    -cierra cyres

  8. Hi I'm kelsi Brookins a student at Xavier prep. I feel this fully explain Xavier prep and it's band ! I was very happy about how yu described our school and it's work. Thank yu from a proud preper

  9. Morgan boudouin...
    I'm a senior at Xavier prep and I found this very inspiring to read. I wish I could of been there when you visited prep.