The following was written by Max Zeronian, special to the Outlook.
Although the first week of school has just begun, Pasadena Unified School District high school bands have already been bearing the summer heat during band camp at Marshall Fundamental, John Muir and Pasadena High schools, gearing up for the football and marching band competition seasons.
Band camp is a long-standing tradition in PUSD, but new leaders at Marshall and PHS are hoping to ramp up the somewhat dated music programs. Corey Whitt of Marshall and Bill Benson of PHS as well as veteran director Philip Topping of Muir will lead their school bands in the new school year.
With an East Coast and Midwest background, Whitt’s move to Pasadena has been a challenge, but one that he has taken on readily.
“The biggest difference between the bands back East and here is the size,” said Whitt, a Harvard graduate. “Here, we have many smaller bands, as opposed to a few large bands.”
As a result of the smaller programs, Whitt had to go above and beyond to get new sheet music for his musicians.
“I called up some friends and had them send me what they could,” said Whitt, who also bought music. “We finally have new music for Marshall.”
The new music and change in leadership at Marshall has students excited. While they expressed their love for former director Joel Lopez, they are excited for change.
“[Whitt] has a lot of positive energy that’s rubbing off on us,” said Arianna Moreno, a Marshall sophomore. “When it’s 9 a.m. and everyone’s half asleep, he’s upbeat and ready to go. He gets us going.”
With long hours and record-breaking heat, most students would elect to stay inside. For band members, that isn’t the case.
“Band is my stress reliever,” said Michelle Hernandez, a Marshall junior. “I love making music and I love being around all of my friends.”
Along with school faculty and students, parental involvement is at an all-time high. At each school, there is a core group of supporters, such as booster clubs, as well as other parents who help in any way they can, including hand-washing band uniforms after a rainy day or mowing the grass at the practice field.
“The support at PHS has been a great help,” Benson said. “These parents really want to see their kids do well, and they offer their time and resources as much as possible.”
Many of the parents involved with music booster programs have had other children in band, and now their younger kids are going through the program. This commonly leads to ongoing involvement by parents and a reliable support network for the programs.
Although band parents play a significant role in the development of the band, its success often ultimately hinges on the band director. PHS and Marshall have new directors this year, but Muir is entering its sixth year with director Philip Topping.
“I wanted to bring stability to the program,” Topping said. “When I came in, the program didn’t function like it should. Now, the program is growing and has been doing so for the past few years.”
Topping has provided a foundation for all of Muir’s music programs, including the concert band, which was given a “superior” rating by the Southern California School Band and Orchestra Association, the highest rating a school can earn. Topping also introduced a color guard to the school, which wasn’t there when he arrived, and has created a community jazz band, the John Tirabasso Community Youth Jazz Ensemble, that is open to all students and focuses on kids in grades 6-12.
Funding for the arts may have declined, but the level of musicianship has continued to climb, due in great part to the combined efforts of band directors, parents and the kids who worked through the summer to reach their goals.