Ranch Cities' high school bands see high marks
By Basil Gist
The school districts along U.S. 377 have been making waves on the UIL stage, sound waves that is.
From Aubrey to Pilot Point, Tioga to Collinsville, marching to concert, solo and ensemble, the Ranch Cities band programs are performing with excellence at their various levels.
Beginning to the south with the area’s largest program, the kids at Aubrey ISD start their musical pursuit as early as sixth grade.
“Usually our sixth-grade numbers are around 150 kids,” Aubrey Middle School Band Director Chris Davis said. “We actually have specialized classes, so a flue class clarinet, trombone class, [etc.], they’re all in a class by themselves.”
Davis, who works alongside high school director Jason Noyes, credited this more focused learning with the rate of growth for Aubrey students and further explained the value of a full team of instructors with varying specialties in getting the strongest possible start.
“You start learning actual songs around Christmas; parents are surprised at the progression for sure,” Davis said. “It helps to have the directors themselves be specialized, when we choose which teachers will teach which beginner class, we have more strengths because we have more teachers to choose from.”
The bands in the district are split up not by age, but by skill level.
“We have an advanced, an intermediate, and a remedial band, so there’s three bands just for the seventh and eighth graders,” Davis said. “They do concert contests just like the high schoolers do.”
Up the road in Pilot Point, Dan Balkema runs the show with a decade of experience heading the Bearcat program.
“The one thing I’ve enjoyed the most is continuing the success we had from the beginning,” Balkema said.
The band finished their marching season at the state competition in 2021 and secured tenth in area this year, not to mention the bevy of success at concert, solo, and ensemble.
“Last year was a state year, so we advanced to state marching,” Balkema said. “We have the same ability of getting up to the area level as we did last year.”
The consistency of quality, Balkema explained, is something he enjoys nurturing in the kids from start to finish.
“I’m fortunate enough to see them start band as sixth graders and grow all the way to graduation,” Balkema said. “It’s a phenomenal feeling seeing kids graduate and know full well I started them.”
Unlike their southern neighbors, the Bulldogs are still settling in with a new director in Otis Bonner.
“We’re getting things situated; a lot of the students have caught on to what I’m trying to do here,” Bonner said. “The upperclassmen are working with me and engaging, and I’ve gone back and forth on how much responsibility to give them.”
Bonner explained the importance of senior leadership and teaching students to respect that responsibility.
“A lot of them have adjusted to it and have adjusted very well,” Bonner said. “You want the upperclassmen to be a go between on teaching how we do things.”
The new Bulldog explained his program’s success largely came in the form of maintaining stride.
“We want to always keep stepping forward; now that we see what we have, we can keep moving forward,” Bonner said. “When you get a new director a lot of times, you’ll see a step backwards; our main success is there wasn’t.”
At the northern tip of the Ranch Cities, Collinsville ISD sports a band over 60 strong as a 2A school.
“For a 2A, it’s a pretty big band program; this is my sixth year here and it was 24 when I got here,” CISD Director Jeff Van Oort said.
Van Oort attributed a lot of the growth to timing and a lack of obstacles.
“Rural Texas is kind of all athletics, but I really don’t have to deal with that here,” Van Oort said. “We got a new band hall six years ago, the assistant position is only three years old, it’s something I really pushed for, and it’s only made the band that much bigger and better.”
The director explained after achieving 1’s, UIL band scores in reverse, in two of three contests, marching, concert and sight reading, in recent years his band is aiming for a sweepstakes.
“A sweepstakes is ones in all three of those contests in the same year, it’s kind of our goal for the year,” Van Oort said.
Though excellence is a point of success for any given extracurricular pursuit, each of the directors circled back to incomparable value of their programs on developing students into adults.
“What’s more important to me than being a star musician is being teachable and being a hard worker,” Van Oort said. “That’s what’s going to benefit them in the future.”