March 2018 - The Sam Houston High School band is growing.
Just a few years ago, the Texan band hovered around 100 members and even dipped to 80 at one point. But last year it jumped to 171 and is currently at 199. Head Band Director Arun Bhatt believes next year’s band will grow even more, to at least 250 members.
A combination of factors – including the 2014 Bond program, junior high recruitment and a supportive band culture – are collaborating to take Sam Houston’s band to an entirely new level.
Larger numbers mean a greater talent pool, and thus the opportunity to take the music and performance to a higher level.
But Bhatt doesn’t see the growth as a means to win state marching championships.
He’d certainly be happy to win them, and he admits he’s competitive. But that’s not the goal. From his perspective, more students in band mean more students that he and his fellow band directors Jillian Adams and Jesus Martinez get to teach and encourage. It means more students get to learn music and reap the many benefits of a rich musical education.
The goal is to provide a place for as many students as possible to learn, grow and excel.
“Band kids learn music, but it goes so far beyond that,” Bhatt said.
Bhatt and his staff are building a culture within the band program that gives students the opportunity to thrive and become life-long appreciators of music.
“We create a family environment for them,” he said.
But the band “family” wouldn’t be possible without instruments, uniforms and equipment. Just a few years ago, Sam Houston’s instruments were downright bad. But thanks to the Bond 2014 program, that has changed. Sam Houston has received more than $200,000 worth of instruments, uniforms and equipment from the bond program so far.
“Now every kid in my class has a top-notch instrument,” Bhatt said.
The bond also made it possible for the AISD to eliminate instrument fees, so now any student who wants to play an instrument can. With that financial barrier removed, more students can and are participating. And with all the instruments the bond has purchased, students get to choose what they want to play; they don’t have to settle for what’s left.
“A lot of the growth is from the bond – being able to hand an instrument to any kid that walks in the door,” Bhatt said.
The growth also stems from recruiting in junior high, where band starts in seventh grade. With the elimination of instrument fees, junior high bands are also growing across the district, creating a larger pipeline into Sam Houston’s band.
Bhatt doesn’t just wait for the students to show up in ninth grade though. He goes and meets them while they’re still in junior high and starts building relationships, laying the foundation for their future involvement.
But it’s still scary for brand new freshman when they first arrive on campus. The standards and size of the band program can be intimidating. To help ease the transition, each freshman is paired with an older student who helps guide and mentor that student, ensuring he or she adjusts well and finds his or her place in the program.
“Our environment here is welcoming,” Bhatt said. “The kids respect each other and really help each other out.”
The band hall has become a safe place, a family environment where life-long connections are made.
“Students often stay in the band hall late at night until we have to kick them out,” Bhatt said.
It becomes their home away from home, where they not only study music, but also hang out, work on homework or just visit with friends.
For some, it’s what keeps them in school.
Bhatt has had many parents tell him, “My kid wants to come to school because of band.”
Bhatt explained that unlike most teachers who may have a student for one year, he and his fellow band directors get to invest in students for six years – two in junior high and four in high school. They get to build real, strong relationships that often include Bhatt tracking the students’ progress in other classes and providing encouragement, support and even tutoring if needed.
Though Sam’s band has a supportive atmosphere, it’s also a place where students are expected to perform and encouraged to pursue and achieve the program’s high standards – and that goes for the best players to the most inexperienced.
“We all succeed as a group or fail as group,” Bhatt said about the marching band. “Unlike the football team, we don’t have a bench. You’re going to learn how to work together.”
As the band’s numbers grow and the talent level improves, Bhatt is determined to let no band member fall through the cracks, particularly the less-skilled players.
“We find a way to keep kids involved,” he said. “There is a place for everyone.”
The band’s growth also means Sam Houston will do something in April that it hasn’t done before: take three full ensembles – each with about 50 students – to the UIL band contest, including a varsity ensemble, non-varsity ensemble and sub-non-varsity ensemble comprised of freshmen. Previously, Sam Houston had only enough students for two ensembles.
The ensembles will compete at a high level and do their best to win. But if they don’t, Bhatt won’t be discouraged. As long as his students are learning, improving and growing, the Sam Houston band is achieving its mission and marching in the right direction.