Up Close: Hendersonville High School
Hendorsonville High School is a music powerhouse in North Carolina. Despite having only 630 students in the school, more than 130 of them (around 25 percent of the student body) participate in the music department, including the current student body president, the starting quarterback of the football team (a clarinetist), eight members of the state champion-soccer team, cheerleaders, and a number of other athletes. In fact, over 80 percent of Hendersonville’s band members participate in at least one sport. The bread and butter of the music department is its concert band, which boasts a ridiculous 60 consecutive superior ratings at state festival, dating back to 1926. Another remarkable statistic is that since the high school began managing its own music program in 1937, there have only been six band directors leading the program. And aside from the first director who founded the school band 74 years ago, all of those that followed have been Hendersonville High School graduates themselves.
For the past 24 years, Fran Shelton has been running the show in the Hendersonville High School band room. In spite of her substantial credentials in music education – having served as president of the Western North Carolina Bandmasters Association, the North Carolina Bandmasters Association, and Women Band Directors International, as well as secretary of the North Carolina Music Educators Association – Fran remains humble about her accomplishments. She even jokes that it took her almost 20 years of teaching to realize how little she actually knew. Yet, in this recent conversation with SBO that covers such topics as preparing for the new school year, integrating the student body into the music program, and developing administrative and parental support, it’s clear that Ms. Shelton has accrued a substantial amount of wisdom working in what she calls, “Just a special place: a small school with a big band and a great reputation.”
School Band & Orchestra: Tell me about the program that you walked into at Hendersonville when you were hired.
Fran Shelton: The high school was incorporated in 1901, and moved here in 1926. It’s a registered historic site. And in the entire history of the high school, I am the sixth band director. That says a lot right there.
FS: It is a great place to work! And it’s a great concert band school. The tradition of that concert band is pretty remarkable in the state of North Carolina.
SBO: What does it take to establish a program like that?
FS: In this case, it was one of the first in the state. It was actually started by the Lion’s Club and then the city schools ended up picking up the band program. We’re still a small high school, with only 600 students. We have 130 students in the band, and I credit that participation to the tradition we have: the band has always been great, and it’s always been well respected in the state and in the community.
SBO: It’s one thing to have that history, but what was your game plan to maintain that status when you first took over the reins of the program?
FS: As my superintendent told me, “Get on that horse, but turn it around gradually, because we already have a pretty good program.” He wasn’t a band person, but I thought that that was pretty substantial advice. The thing is, except for the first band director, every other one since is a graduate of the high school, so we’re vested in it.
What I tried to do was take what was already there – and it was a wonderful program – and build upon that, try to do a little bit more. We developed the concert band program, the level of literature, and the quality of the literature. One thing I’ve really tried to do is to expose the students to great literature and great composers, really push them to the upper level of music. When you play quality literature, your kids get so much out of it – it’s such a great learning experience for them.
FS: I listen to everything. I go to the Midwest Band & Orchestra Clinic and attend concerts, and I pick up all the CDs. When I’m getting ready to pick a program, especially a contest program, I am constantly e-mailing directors, primarily at the college level, making sure that we are playing quality literature. I don’t want us to play junk, and there’s a lot of junk out there.
SBO: How far in advance do you normally select the literature you’re going to play?
FS: I start listening in the summer, because that’s when I have time. And then I look at scores at Midwest, sometimes go to J.W. Pepper to look at scores, and just pick people’s brains for the best music I can find. I’m on the concert festival committee for our state, and we have summer meetings where we pick each other’s brains, too.
Our top band plays masterworks, but even with the younger kids, my baby band, they don’t play nearly as well, but it is super important to expose them, too, to great literature.
Henderson High School At a Glance
Location: 311 8th Avenue West, Hendersonville, N.C.
On the web: www.hendersoncountypublicschoolsnc.org/hhs/
Students in School: 630
Students in Band Program: 130
Band Director: Fran Shelton
Recent musical accomplishments
- 60 Consecutive Superior Ratings at N.C. Concert Festival (1926 – present)
- Festival of Disney – First Place Band Class AA – Symphonic Band
- Class A Concert Band – First Place Band Class AA Jazz Band – Gold Mickey Award
- Top Scoring Band of the Festival – Silver Mickey Award – Jazz Band 2011
- Festival of Gold, Chicago Symphony Hall (Chicago, Ill.) – First Place Band
- National Adjudicators Concert Festival (Atlanta, Ga.) – Superior Rating
- International Band Festival, Kennedy Center (Washington D.C.) –First Place Band
- National Adjudicators Concert Festival (Atlanta, Ga.) – Superior Rating
- Festival of Gold Invitational, Symphony Hall (Boston, Mass.) – First Place Band
FS: We have a symphonic band, that’s the top group – 75-78 students, and membership is by audition. Then there’s the concert band, which has 55-60 students. We have a jazz band, which is by audition, and then a marching band, which is strictly volunteer. The marching band is curricular – the students get a half a credit for participating – but I can tell you that at a high school like this, by making the marching program all volunteer, the numbers in the concert program will increase because the kids aren’t having to make a choice. Eighty percent of our concert band kids are athletes. That’s how we can have those numbers at a small high school. Our emphasis is not on marching band. We compete and that sort of thing, but it’s not our bread and butter, so to speak.
Like I said, 80 percent of our concert band members are athletes, and this year the starting quarterback on the football team plays clarinet in the band. We have a running back, linemen, cheerleaders, basketball players, soccer players, cross country athletes, the student body president – and having all of those people participating just makes your band healthy!
SBO: Some schools seem to struggle with dispelling a negative image of playing in the school band – is that something you’ve experienced?
FS: You mean the band nerd? For us, that’s pretty easy. You make marching band volunteer, and that way your athletes don’t have to make a choice. You want to keep your athletes. You want to keep your stars on the various teams participating in music. We had eight kids from the soccer team playing in the band, and they won the state title last year. That’s real important! And it means that there simply isn’t that stigma here. I do understand that that is a problem at some other schools.
FS: Those problems aren’t caused by the band programs; it’s school boards and state legislatures. They’re cutting up here like crazy, too. We cut chorus at our high school this year, and it’s terrible when that happens. Thank goodness we have wonderful administration at our school and an extremely supportive principal. And, we’ve got wonderful band parents. If it weren’t for wonderful band parents, who knows where we’d be. We struggle with funding, too, but it’s our band parents who make sure that we have everything we need to be successful.
SBO: Would you expand on that – what’s your approach to integrating parents into your program?
FS: We try to involve them as much as possible. They have to have a reason to participate. I don’t think we’re beating them up with fundraising too badly. Parents run the away concession stand – and I don’t think that’s anything new, a lot of bands also do that. We try to keep the parents active and involved. We try to make sure that they know that we want them there: we want them at rehearsals; we want them at concerts; we want them on trips. We travel a fair amount with our two concert bands, and the parents are really helpful when we travel.
We are constantly keeping them involved and informed about everything we’re doing.
SBO: What’s your preferred method of keeping people informed?
FS: We do everything over e-mail. We have a web page maintained by one of our parents, we send out regular emails, and our parent group also sends out regular emails. We are constantly asking for help, and because we have such a large pool of parents to draw from, we don’t have to beat the same people up over and over asking for help. Our parents chaperone, they make props, they work in the concession stands, they help with fundraising – they really do so much for us.
FS: We sell fruit at Christmas, we do discount cards, we do some yard sales, we do concerts – we did a big Memorial Day concert where we had all the veterans in.
SBO: What have you found to be most effective?
FS: Probably our fruit sale. We’ve been doing that for years, so people plan for it and count on it. Special concerts can pull in pretty good funds. We have the state playhouse in town and every other year we go out there and play. That opportunity is great because it is a chance for us to reach a different clientele than our normal audiences.
SBO: To change gears for a moment, what do you do to prepare for the school year? What steps do you take, so that everyone is ready hit the ground running as soon as school starts?
FS: I do most of my preparation before the school year ends in the summer. As soon as our last concert let out, we started listening to music and stuffing a folder full of material that we might look at throughout the year. The kids have had that music all summer, and a lot of them take a look at it before the year starts. During the summer, many students check their horns out to start going through the new material. It gets pretty frantic at the end of the school year. We have our kids help with everything, and that gives them something to do over the summer. Some of them might never open their horn cases, but others will.
SBO: Do you have a system of student leadership in place?
FS: Absolutely. We have student officers, who are voted on by the other students, and we put a lot of responsibility on our senior class. For the most part, our officers are usually seniors, and they’re responsible for almost everything. It’s their band, and they have to run it. They’re constantly setting up stands and chairs, running rehearsals, running sectionals… we do a lot of sectionals, where we break up into small groups, and the students are responsible for running those. The older students are also responsible for working with the younger students as well. The older kids come in before school or stay after school to work with the younger students and help bring them up to speed.
FS: We give our seniors a lot of responsibility, especially in the teaching end of it. I’ve had the students do more and more of that over the last five years, and it’s been great. A lot of times the senior section leaders will re-write parts, assign parts to play for concerts, and more. I have to be willing to give up that responsibility and let them have that leadership role, but that’s worked quite well for us.
Every once in a while you have a dud class that isn’t into it. But when that happens, you just give the responsibilities to the juniors, and then the seniors step up right away! They run the rehearsals, get the others in line, give out music – they really do it all. They’re better than having a student teacher because they know the program inside and out and they know the younger students. It’s also a respect issue, where the older kids have more respect for the younger kids because they work with them and they get to know them faster.
SBO: You’ve been teaching for almost three decades – in that time, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned about being a successful music educator?
FS: Well, I didn’t know anything when I started teaching, and it took me about 20 years to figure that out! [laughs] After about 25 years of teaching, I finally started figuring some things out. It’s only dangerous when you don’t know that you don’t know anything. Once you realize how little you know, that’s when you can start learning.
Going back to your question about starting the year on a positive note, only about four years ago, I started putting all the material together before the end of school. By the time school starts up again, the marching band students have already met and read their music. We also do that with the concert band and the jazz band. Perhaps the most important thing to surviving in this field is asking for a lot of help. Once you start doing that, life gets a lot easier. You also have to be extremely organized. I have my calendar out for the next year by the beginning of June. That calendar includes everything we’re doing in all of our bands, except for the jazz band, which will sometimes play out in the community on short notice. The students know all the extra rehearsals, concerts, and everything else far in advance. That’s been a big help because our kids are all involved in so many different activities. You can’t put an ultimatum on the child, you have to get those schedules out and then go talk to the coaches and teachers of other activities. You never want to put the children in the middle of scheduling conflicts. It doesn’t always work as well as you want it to, but you have to try. Our athletic director has all of our calendars in June, so he also tries to prevent having to put the kids in a bind.
If the kids know when they walk in the first day that they’re going to have to be ready to play, that sets the tone. We send out emails that say, “Bring your horns, we’re starting on day one,” so they do know that we’re just going to dive right into the material. We have a concert for 9/11 and we have a Labor Day parade that we march in, so we don’t have time to waste.
SBO: Music educators have to wear so many different hats these days. Do you have any tips for staying sane and preventing burnout?
FS: I ask for help. I delegate a lot to the kids and I delegate to the band booster organization. I go to my principal a lot, too – we talk all the time. I don’t make any major decisions without involving him. My principal goes with us on all of the trips. We talk about funding and fundraising – he won’t let the kids go door to door, because we feel it’s just not safe. We don’t beat the community up with fundraising. My principal and I don’t always agree, but that’s okay. I’ll keep going back to him until we reach an acceptable compromise. I am very lucky to have someone who I can go to talk out any issues or binds facing the program.
Running a band program is a lot of work, but when I get home, I try to take a break from it. I might listen to music at home, but I try to get most of my work done at school, and then leave it there when I leave the building. If you’re not having to fight your administration – if your administration is behind you and your principal knows what’s going on – it makes life so much easier. If something comes up, then it’s much easier to deal with because you know you have some support.
This year we’re flying the band out to Los Angeles, and our principal has been in on this project every step of the way – talking plane tickets, busses, hotels, and so on. It’s so important to keep your administration involved.
SBO: Do you have any other advice for band directors around the country, perhaps something you’ve learned over the years in your own classroom that other band directors might want to do more of?
FS: We all need people to come in and listen to our band during rehearsals. Directors have to be prepared to unzip the defenses and listen to feedback. A lot of directors don’t like to do that because they think they know it all. I have people every year come in and rip my kids up – but we do that so we can get better.
I want to get better at conducting, too. I see things going on and I just think, “Golly, they need to ask for help!” The older you get, the less cocky you become about all of this. The longer you teach, the more you figure out that you just don’t know anything. Like I said, the light bulb clicked on for me at about year 25. I’ve been figuring it out slowly, and I think I’m getting better at it. I learn a lot from those kids every day. It’s a great motivator, having to keep up with the kids. These kids today are smart and savvy – they have all these technology skills. If I don’t know a piece inside and out, I’m in trouble, because my students will have already listened to four or five different performances of it on YouTube.
SBO: What is the most rewarding aspect of being an educator?
FS: Most days, I love it! [laughs] I go into the eighth grade every day to work with those kids and assist their band director. When you see them that young, watch them progress and mature into ladies and gentlemen, go on and graduate high school and you just know they’re going to be successful, that makes all the difference in the world. Hopefully music and band is only one small part of what I’m teaching; hopefully I’m also teaching them to be good human beings who will do the right thing. Some of these kids may never play music again, but at least they will be able to go to a concert or a show at the theatre and have an appreciation for what they’re seeing and hearing.
The other thing is when you have one of those magical moments where the kids are playing and everything is going just great – that’s enough to keep you in it. Also, where I teach is just a special place: a small school with a big band and a wonderful reputation. Really, our school is strong in many areas, not just band, and all of those different areas work together. It takes all aspects of the high school to make a strong band program.