Small but Mighty

Rural bands.
Marching bands in rural locations make the most of limited resources to participate just as fully in the activity.

A photo of Purchase Line.Rebecca Bouch graduated from Purchase Line Jr./Sr. High School in Commodore, Pennsylvania, population 331. While studying music education at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, she ran into a student from a neighboring high school and recalls him saying, “I can’t believe there’s a music major here from Purchase Line. We always thought you guys, like, milked cows and stuff.”

He’s not that far off, she remembers thinking. Everyone in Indiana County milks cows.

Today Bouch is director of bands at Purchase Line, which is about 80 miles east of Pittsburgh. The school serves a large geographic area but has only 400 students in 7th through 12th grades.

While rural bands usually have fewer students and less resources, they are just as committed and work just as hard as those in more populous areas.

“We may not have as many students or quite as much money for the newest uniforms or equipment, but I refuse to believe that because we are small, we are not capable,” says Ashley Blount, director of bands at Ropes Independent School District, serving less than 500 students in pre-K through 12th grades in Ropesville, Texas, a town with a population of 428. “Our students are brilliant, kind, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth kids. …Why can’t we expect our students to perform at the same level?”

Jacks and Jills of All Trades

Directing a band program in a rural school district presents challenges that those in populated areas might not face. For example, music educators might need to teach outside their comfort zones.

Band director Kasey Rogers-Anderson at South Newton School Corporation in Kentland, Indiana, with a town population of 1,748 and district enrollment of about 900, took on the responsibilities of choir director due to a last-minute resignation of another teacher. Her duties include 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th grade band; high school concert band; marching band; pep band; music applications; and 6th grade and high school choir. An elementary teacher tackles 7th and 8th grade choir.

Bouch has been in charge of all instrumental groups, 4th through 12th grades, and has not taught the same schedule since 2013.

“[In addition] I have had music theory here and there, music appreciation, general music 5 and 6, and general music 8,” Bouch says. “This year, I have general music 7, which I haven’t [taught] since my previous job at another school district in 2000.”

A photo of Ropes.Like Bouch and Rogers-Anderson, Blount teaches a full slate of classes with a sweeping curriculum to a wide age range of students. She teaches 3rd grade intro to music, 4th grade music applications, 5th grade beginning band, 6th and 7th grade junior high band, and 8th through 12th grade high school band.

If teaching music classes weren’t enough, instrumental educators sometimes teach outside their subject area. Blount helps out with 6th grade math, and Bouch teaches typing.

Dana Ketchersid, secondary principal at Ropes, views the small school way as an opportunity, not a challenge. “Our school’s mission statement is: We build lives. We build hopes. We build dreams,” Ketchersid says. “Mrs. Blount has the opportunity to start building those relationships as early as 3rd grade.”

Stretched Resources

Rural music directors also face challenges finding adequate resources to keep their programs viable. Like many rural schools, Purchase Line, South Newton, and Ropes serve student populations with low socioeconomic status.

Instruments that band directors in affluent districts would retire are standard equipment at Purchase Line. Bouch turns dinged-up instruments into ones that are at least playable, so she doesn’t need to turn away eager musicians.

“Sometimes they don’t get to play on a Ferrari,” Bouch says about her students. “They have to play on a Chevelle. It’s the best we can do.”

To get instruments—even Chevelles—into her students’ hands, Bouch joined a director network to swap instruments. A band director might borrow a French horn from her, and she borrows drum carriers from another. “It’s so nice for all of us to help each other out,” Bouch says.

South Newton receives Title I, Title II, and Title IV funding. About half of the students play on borrowed school instruments. The bands cannot crowdsource for materials and are allowed only one fundraiser per year.

“Being in a small community, we don’t want to tax or burn out our community always asking for support,” says Charles Huckstep, high school principal for South Newton. “We do have a very giving community across the board, but money is still always tight.”

Ropes, which is about 20 miles from Lubbock, receives both federal and state funding. The majority of Blount’s budget provides instruments and supplies for students. As her program has grown, she’s dealt with a deficit. “However, knowing the positive, long-term impact band instruction has on the human brain, economic standing can’t be a reason to allow a lesser-than experience in regard to enrollment in the band,” Blount says.

Rogers-Anderson learned early on that she’d have to play the hand she was dealt. Living 85 miles south of Chicago and 45 miles northwest from the closest major town of Lafayette, Indiana, South Newton students have few options for private lessons.

“Since we don’t have access to as much outside help, I am accountable for knowing each instrument inside and out,” Rogers-Anderson says.

Both Blount and Bouch praise their communities for supporting their band programs. Blount calls the people of Ropesville—and the administration in particular—her greatest resource.

And Bouch says, “I seem to have stumbled upon all of the greatest people to help my students.”

Quality Over Quantity

A photo of South Newton.Regardless of size, marching bands are built on the backs of their student leaders.

At Purchase Line, Bouch created a student infrastructure for her 80-member band, which is considered large for a rural group. To keep the organization moving in the right direction, she installed a commanding officer, an assisting officer, a publicity officer, an operations officer, a rookie officer, a marching officer, and section leaders.

At 17 students, South Newton’s marching band requires far fewer student leaders. A drum major and band manager do the trick. Because of fewer students in the band, however, all must learn self-reliance and attend to the small details.

Rogers-Anderson scales down the formations at South Newton to a quarter of a large band. Her band has only one to two formations occurring on the field at a time.

“Otherwise it wouldn’t look like anything at all,” she says. “When I worked at a band camp for a larger school this past summer, an entire arc of woodwinds was the exact size of my band. … We have fewer points in the form to work with, so I write quality over quantity of shapes for each set,” she says.

Marching two flutes, four clarinets, three alto saxophones, two trumpets, one trombone, one sousaphone, one percussionist, and thee color guard members, she rewrites musical parts with only two to four voices occurring at once.

“This allows the main melody and harmony to be heard clearly,” Rogers-Anderson says. “Volume is definitely something we are always working on as our forte sounds piano compared to other bands.”

Currently a 1A six-man football district, Ropes will move to a 2A classification for the 2020-2021 school year. With 90 members in the band, students lead in much the same way as those in larger programs. “I encourage my drum majors and section leaders to help our 8th graders as they adjust to varsity level expectations,” Blount says.

To maintain a steady stream of talented students, directors devote time toward recruitment.

Rogers-Anderson’s high school and 7th and 8th grade bands perform a combined piece during the Christmas concert to recruit elementary students.

Bouch, who wrote a thesis on recruiting band students in rural areas, says that parent communication is key. “Parents just want to be informed,” she says. “Yes, it’s an extra meeting out of my year, one for elementary and one for high school. But it’s what’s necessary for my program.”

At Ropes, band is a required class for 5th through 8th grade students. “My job [is] to foster an environment where students want to continue in high school because of their love of music and opportunities for state-level competition,” Blount says. “These achievements are very beneficial for college applicants.”

Up and Away

While you might think that rural bands don’t travel and compete like large, nationally recognized bands because of their size and lack of resources, nothing could be further from the truth.

Every few years South Newton gets to travel. “We have performed at Cedar Point and will be traveling to a competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan, this year,” Rogers-Anderson says.

In the last two years, South Newton has participated in the Indiana State School Music Association Marching Festival, at which it has received Gold and Silver ratings.

Purchase Line band students love to perform in parades, Bouch says. For the 13th year in a row, they earned first place in the AAA Category at the Clearfield parade. They also perform at Walt Disney World every three years.

The Ropes marching band won the 2015 Texas University Interscholastic League 1A State Marching Band Contest and was runner-up in 2017. The band anticipates making a third appearance at the state contest this November.

School Ambassadors

No matter the size of the school, marching band is always a worthwhile activity.

Bouch calls her band the ambassadors of school spirit. “We support the teams in our school as we are the largest organization in the school,” she says. “We cheer with cheerleaders, compete in parades, stand in rainstorms, suffer the cold, and even go out of state, all for our school. If that isn’t the epitome of school spirit, I don’t know what is.”

Band is one of the few classes that meets during the school day and after school at South Newton, says Rogers-Anderson. The activity promotes responsibility because every single person in band has to be playing and know his or her part.

“There is no way to hide in a small marching band,” Rogers-Anderson says. “They take ownership in the activity and help each other to improve.”

Blount shares Rogers-Anderson’s sentiments. “The physical, mental, and emotional demands of the marching band prepare students as responsible citizens in remarkable ways along with building school spirit and pride in the organization,” Blount says.

Photo of the Purchase Line band courtesy of Rebecca Bouch.
Photo of the Ropes band, courtesy of the Ropes Yearbook Staff.
Photo of the South Newton band courtesy of Lori Murphy.

About author

Frank DiMaria

Frank DiMaria is a middle school computer teacher and a freelance writer currently residing in Fort Mill, South Carolina. On weekends he plays guitar for a progressive funk band called McGroover. His daughter, Briana, marched clarinet for the Fort Mill High School band, winning two state championships and a Bands of America regional. Frank worked pit crew for four seasons with Fort Mill.