Inside the Biggest Band in Texas (or Anywhere Else!)
When it comes to music education, sometimes things really are bigger in Texas. Such is the case at Allen High School, the lone public high school that serves the entire town of Allen, a well-to-do suburb of Dallas. Allen has seen tremendous growth in recent years, and Allen High School has likewise seen a dramatic increase in student population, up to its current enrollment of approximately 5,000 students. In turn, the Allen Eagle Escadrille, the school’s marching band, color guard, and drill team, has also boomed significantly. In fact, over 500 student musicians participated in the popular ensemble this past fall, in addition to another 100 members of the color guard and drill team, as well as scores of volunteer assistants. Already perhaps the largest school band in the U.S., the program’s directors are expecting an additional 100 or so students to join the Escadrille next year.
To put their size in perspective, the Allen Eagle Escadrille requires 18 school busses to transport its members to and from performance events. At football games, they cover the entire field, from end zone to end zone. And when it was time to update their uniforms, they put in an order for 800 sets from Fruhauf, which is the largest order the company has ever received. [Allen High School had already placed the second and third largest orders in Fruhauf’s history.]
Yet, in spite of their almost comical numbers, the size of the Allen Eagle Escadrille is far more than a novelty act. In 2004, the school was awarded the Sudler Shield for marching excellence by the John Philip Sousa Foundation, and the Escadrille has recently participated in such notable events as the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York and the Tournament of Roses Parade in California. After marching season ends, the Escadrille breaks down into eight concert bands, with the top concert groups also having garnered significant acclaim.
The man running the show behind this massive music operation is Charles Pennington, who was tapped for the head job three years ago, after previously serving as an assistant director at AHS for eight years (the last four of which he was also the director of the marching band).
In this recent SBO interview, Pennington talks about what it takes to keep such a colossal ensemble in top form, while also detailing how the remarkable size of his marching band stems from the program’s philosophy of finding a place for every student that wants to participate.
School Band & Orchestra: Let’s cut straight to the chase – you have over 500 students in your marching band, 600 if you include the guard and drill team. How do you make it work?
Charles Pennington: There are a lot of key pieces to making it work, and it starts with great kids. We have excellent kids who want to be here. After that, I have to give all the credit to my staff. Each of the staff members has a particular role to play in bringing together each season. We have one person who is responsible for taking role each rehearsal. That’s his job. Another person takes care of inventory. We have someone who takes care of the private lesson programs. Each person has a specific area that he or she takes care of, and everyone does his or her own thing. I trust them to do their jobs well. In terms of just managing the kids themselves – I’m always asked the question, “Do you know the name of every kid in your band?” And the answer is no! [laughs] Absolutely not. But I always follow up by saying that somebody does. Someone in our staff knows each of the kids. We do a zone approach to the marching band, where one director is in charge of an area and a section, and they become very familiar with that group of kids. So if I need to know the name of a particular child or deal with a problem, my staff can point me in the right direction. It’s a bit of a spider web effect.
We have staff meetings every morning, where we discuss what we need to work on and what has gone well. We also do a lot of collaboration planning for the next day – what is working, what isn’t, and so on.
SBO: What was your plan coming in several years ago, when you were given the opportunity to take over as the head director?
CP: Allen really is a dream job because we have such great kids, staff, parents, and administration. To get all of those aligned, it’s just an amazing thing. Many places will have some combination of those four elements in place, but there are also always other areas that you’ll really have to work on. I took the job here because of what the program was already doing – and I’d already been a part of it for eight years. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to change anything; I just want to continue doing what we’ve already been doing, keep kids involved and excited, and keep it fresh and new for both the fans and the students.
SBO: What factors create an environment where a band can get to this size?
CP: A lot of people see the size of our high school, which is right around 5,000 students, and say, “Oh, well, that explains it.” And I think they’d be pretty close to right. I don’t think our percentage of band students to student body is outrageous. It’s just that we choose to keep it all together. To allow that to happen, you have to have a creative schedule that enables the students to be involved, which is a big credit to our administration. You have to create a situation where kids can participate. We have kids on the football team, swimmers, tennis players, all-star physics students – they come from everywhere. We share kids with all kinds of sports and other activities; it’s not just band or else.
There has to be a mutual support from the school itself where the student body appreciates the band, just like they might appreciate the football team or anything else. We get that here.
And finally, the parents are a critical part of the process, from chaperoning busses to sewing buttons on uniforms to handing out food and water. They give an enormous contribution to our daily activities.
SBO: Is the support your program receives something that you foster by going out and supporting other activities in your community?
CP: Here, it starts with the football games. That’s one area where we really reach the community. One of the most visible activities our school does is have a football game every Friday night. That’s what our community sees, and that somehow relates to the climate of the entire school. We’re out there to support that team, and the community, in turn supports us. In addition, we also support the community through store openings, pep rallies, veteran’s day celebrations, holiday parades, and so on.
CP: Every day! And they all meet during the same class period. It is different from what you might hear someone else doing, where students are split up into concert band during the day and then come together later for a marching period.
SBO: And the marching band is curricular?
CP: We meet the first part of the day. We start before school and work our way through the first period. That’s part of the reason why we’re able to have a lot of kids in the program. We’re on a block schedule, but that rotating block schedule is bookended by a single one-hour class at the beginning and at the end of the day. And those meet every day. That’s where we put sports, band, and other similar subjects, and that enables us to avoid conflicts with other core academic subjects.
SBO: What are some of the biggest challenges of managing a group of that size?
CP: Accountability with the kids – just hearing each of them play and making sure we are reaching all of them. A lot of times we find ourselves very familiar with the top kids. We are also very familiar with the kids at the other end of the spectrum – those who might have some discipline issues or are not quite as motivated. So reaching that great middle kid can be really challenging.
CP: We are exploring that! [laughs] We’re not sure yet. Our goals are different from other groups, though. Some people have that goal of creating a small, competitive, well-balanced marching band. I support that. If that’s something that a director or a community wants to do, fantastic. We just happen to have a different approach. Why not make it more like a college band? Some college bands have 350 or 400 people, and that’s where we like to throw our focus.
SBO: What do you think being a part of such a large ensemble means for the students? And what do you think it adds from a music education perspective?
CP: I think it lets every kid participate, which is the first thing. Regardless of ability, and level of devotion to band, they have a place here. For those students that have an interest in music education or becoming a professional musician, they have the opportunity to be at the very highest tier of performance. And for those students that just want to experience music in a casual way, just want to see what it’s like to play and belong to a bigger group, we present that opportunity as well.
I think that’s key, and it’s something that we miss out sometimes in music education: presenting our groups as a chance for kids to belong to something.
CP: The plan is to continue with that approach. If you are willing to be here and participate, and do your best, we’re going to find a place for you. If the marching band goes beyond the 600 mark, we may have to make some adjustments, just because of physical restrictions. If we travel to an away football game, we may not have a place to put 600 kids. The football field isn’t going to grow. So we may be forced to make some decisions down the line, but even in that case, we’ll do our best to involve every kid to a certain point, to keep making this experience possible.
SBO: Tell me a little about the delegation you do among the students?
CP: It’s a good marriage of student leadership and our staff running the show. We do have a complete tier of officers, ranging from Drum Majors to Drill Instructors and Section Leaders. Those are our instructional leaders – kids who teach other kids. And then we have our logistical leadership crew. That involves the kids who move equipment, take care of the music, take care of the uniforms, and do other behind-the-scenes tasks.
SBO: It’s great that there are so many kids that you are able to include, but it must come at considerable financial expense, as well – equipment, uniforms, busses, and so on.
CP: In order for a band like this to work, the district has to support us, and they do, wholeheartedly. Texas, like other states, is facing some serious budget concerns. The reaction of some districts is to cut, alter, or reduce music programs, or, for example, have bands not go to away games because of expense. Our district has not gone in that direction. They believe that this activity is an important part of our kids’ lives and they are willing to pay for that. On the other hand, band in Allen is extremely cost effective. When you look at that many kids, and then you put a real dollar amount to what we’re doing with those kids, our administration really finds that to be a bargain.
SBO: Is that concept of bang-for-the-buck something that you think more people around the country need to realize?
CP: Absolutely. If you talk about the number of staff that they have to pay for and the number of kids that those staff can service at any one time… if we didn’t have 500 kids in band, where would they be? They’d have to be in a class somewhere limited to a 20 or 30 students, like Art or English – we’re able to service that many kids all at one time.
CP: Competition sometimes is our own worst enemy. Texas is known for having outstanding competitive marching bands. And I think competition brought us there. It’s that competition, and, of course, excellent teaching and leadership, that has created so many well-respected band programs in Texas. But at the same time, sometimes we lose sight of the big picture. For example, if I decided to turn this band program into a program where the focus was on competition, then I would probably have to ask 200 or 300 kids to not participate. And which 200 or 300 kids would I want to go up to and say, “I’m sorry, you’re not good enough”?
I certainly don’t mean to be critical of programs that do create those outstanding competitive bands – they serve as the model that we aspire to musically. We strive to maintain that high quality while being as inclusive as we possibly as we can. And, on top of that, it might be neat if everyone had a little bit more of a holistic approach, top-to-bottom, to see if we could get more kids involved in what we do.
SBO: Would you say that that’s the bottom line, to get as many children involved as possible?
CP: I think it helps. I really do. Those 600 kids translate into 1,200 parents. And those 1,200 parents see what we do with those kids, and would not have it any other way. They want their kids to be a part of something that is great, that teaches great values, that provides them the feeling of belonging in the school, in the ensemble, as a part of a team. The kids here love that element.
SBO: Where would you like your program to be in five or ten years?
CP: That’s a tough question. We’re continuing to grow. We had leveled off for a while, but now we’re seeing another potential growth spurt – we’re expecting up to 100 more students next year. My goal is to continue to get better at what we do. We are constantly trying to think of ways in which we can continue to do what we do without changing our philosophy, and at the same time improve all phases of the program, from quality to musical performance. High quality participation from the students is the goal.
SBO: While you surely have a broad range of devotion to music among the more than 500 students in your program, is there any one thing that you want every single student to walk away with?
CP: Absolutely! It would be my ultimate goal for every student to leave high school and continue to play his or her instrument, whether that’s in church, in a community band, in a college band, or whatever. Just participating in that process – not necessarily to be the greatest player on earth or to make a living by it, but just having a great appreciation for acoustic music.