Building the confidence of young musicians has led to consistent success—and a second Sudler Shield—for The Woodlands (Texas) High School band.
Joni Perez, The Woodlands (Texas) High School band director, says she’ll always remember the 2018 season as one filled with emotional highs and top performances.
The group’s large number of freshmen entered ready to work while the returning upperclassmen helped nurture a winning attitude.
A consistent finalist when competing in Texas University Interscholastic League (UIL) State Marching Band Contests and Bands of America Grand Nationals with a championship in 2013, The Woodlands was named a winner of The 2018 Sudler Shield from The John Philip Sousa Foundation in December.
The Woodlands is one of a small number of schools to win The Sudler Shield twice, the first time in 2009. And it’s one of several schools that won both The Sudler Shield and The Sudler Flag of Honor (in 2003), which recognizes high school concert bands.
Halftime: What’s your musical background?
Perez: I was a French horn player and marched mellophone with The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps ’98-’99 and was part of the original London and Broadway casts of “Blast!”
I was on the brass staff at Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps ’03-’05, The Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps ’08-’09, and Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps ’10-’11.
After graduating from the University of Houston in 2005, I became the assistant band director at The Woodlands and in 2010 became the head director.
Halftime: What made the 2018 season so exceptional?
Perez: This group of students was different than in years past. There was a positive spirit and contagious attitude. … This was the biggest [freshmen] class we’ve had, about 120, more than one third of the group. The way our older members brought them under their wing and encouraged them to do their best nurtured that family spirit and attitude.
The kids were so sweet and helpful; they wanted to be good people and love each other and enjoy what they were doing. We’re thrilled to be honored with The Sudler Shield. It was a nod to the camaraderie and the can-do spirit and enjoyment of what we do.
Halftime: What does winning The Sudler Shield award for a second time mean to you?
Perez: It’s personal. … I was fortunate to have been a part of it when it was awarded to the school in 2009.
[My predecessor] Brett Johnson was awarded it his last year. When I was given the opportunity to be head director after him, I was hopeful it could happen again for the program.
We just focus on being as good as we can be every year. I’m proud of my staff for bringing their best to the table for the kids every year. It’s a testament to them. … It also acknowledges the effort that thousands of kids have given over the years.
Halftime: What are other accomplishments you’re most proud of?
Perez: At the 2018 UIL preliminary performance in San Antonio, we drew first to perform against 31 bands. I had planted the seed about the huge challenge we’d be facing. We worked hard and did everything we could to get ready.
When [we entered] the field, I told them that they were my personal heroes, and this had been one of my favorite years. Tears welled up in my eyes, … [knowing] it could be our last pre-performance moment together as a band family.
When the brass entered cold on their first entrance, it was obvious they were making a statement. Everyone was impressed with what our students did. … It was one of my proudest moments I can remember.
The band was called last as a finalist.
Halftime: What does it take to be a successful female band director in an extremely competitive environment?
Perez: I honestly don’t think about it. Before I became a band director, I marched in drum corps, which is a male-dominated activity. I learned how to hold myself to the same standards as everyone else. It never occurred to me that it was a male or female thing.
Someone once called me a pioneer in education, … then I forgot about it. I don’t go into situations expecting it to be a challenge. You have to show confidence, knowing [gender] is not going to matter if you don’t make it matter.
Halftime: What are some challenges you face as a band director in general and how do you overcome them?
Perez: The mindset that participating in band isn’t possible for those playing the GPA [grade point average] game … school counselors start pushing kids to choose degree plans [early]. This makes an extracurricular activity like band seem unattractive when students feel pressure to get the highest GPA and class ranking.
We lose kids to the obsession to focus on college [too early]. We have to come up with ways to make band more attractive for students. That becomes more challenging each year.
Emphasizing music and fine arts is critical to their overall success. Advocates must continue to fight for this in our schools.
Halftime: What advice do you have for other band directors?
Perez: Let the students know you care about them. Make time to stop teaching and just visit. Let them enjoy being in your band hall. Create a culture of excellence while nurturing a community. [When winning] a contest, the overall experience the students might get is less than what they get from learning from an experience that didn’t turn out so great. That can be more powerful than winning.
Halftime: What advice do you have for marching musicians?
Perez: Communicate to your instructors or parents your desires, so people can help you find an avenue. Take the advice your teachers give. Have the desire, and then be willing to put in the effort consistently. That’s when you start to develop good habits and see change happen.
Be willing to learn from criticism and mistakes. Learn to apply [criticism] in a positive way and keep aspiring. Be gracious and thankful for those that got you there, so you can hopefully be an example to someone else.