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Carrying the Torch: Cockrill Honors Band Reinforces Legacy with National Award

Shane Mauldin|
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
Cockrill Middle School Band Director Gary Williams leads the CMS Honors Band through rehearsal.

Cockrill Middle School Band Director Gary Williams leads the CMS Honors Band through rehearsal.

McKinney, Texas – It’s a little after one o’clock on a Monday afternoon, and the Cockrill Middle School band hall is rumbling with the thunder of stomping feet. It swells in intensity and then gradually dissipates into silence.

It’s because of Mio Yamauchi and her bassoon.

When they hear something they like, the members of the Cockrill Honors Band pound the carpet in an enthusiastic demonstration of appreciation and solidarity, and Mio has just unleashed a flurry of notes that, frankly, make the bassoon suddenly seem a lot cooler.

“I give that 29.4 out of 30,” offers Cockrill Band Director Gary Williams from his platform at the front of the room. The reaction from his students is a mix of chuckles and exasperated groans. Williams isn’t quite ready to label anything perfect just yet. But, it’s close.
They move on and hands go up all over the room. Williams calls on another student, this one a tuba player, and he lets fly with a series of deep, burping notes. “Play through the note,” advises Williams, and the tuba player gives it another go. “Better! Do you hear the difference?”

Player after player volunteers to run through a scale. Eighth grader Alexis Hill offers a smile and a fist bump to one of her fellow trumpet players after a well-executed attempt, and then a player in another section is on the hot seat.

Mio Yamauchi

Mio Yamauchi earned foot-stomping praise from her peers for her performance on the bassoon during rehearsal with the CMS Honors Band.

The rumbling feet return after Daniel White blows everybody’s mind as he tears through a scale on his saxophone.

This is all part of daily life in the Cockrill band hall where Williams, his Assistant Directors Matthew Harp and Robin Winter (and up until this year, Ken Moses, who is now pursuing his doctorate) and their students are carving out a culture of support, encouragement and personal responsibility that’s marked by a dogged pursuit of perfection—and a passionate respect for legacy.

That formula is working pretty well so far. Extraordinary has not become the new normal at Cockrill. It’s the normal that’s been hanging around for some time.

In December, the group will travel to Chicago to perform onstage at the internationally renowned Midwest Clinic, a rare honor granted each year to only a handful of middle school bands from across the country and around the world.

CMS Band Students

Alexis Hill (right) offers a congratulatory fist bump to fellow trumpet player Cole Curry (left) after his run through a scale.

And, earlier this month they received word that they’ve been named a 2016 National Winner in the Foundation for Music Education Mark of Excellence competition for their performances of John Phillip Souza’s “Black Horse Troop” and Robert Sheldon’s “In the Center Ring.” It’s another tremendous achievement—one that has become something of an annual ritual. Since 2011, they’ve earned the recognition four times.

To be clear, this recognition is not a show-up-and-you-win participation trophy. The foundation brings in highly distinguished judges to evaluate entries from all over the country, and only the top quarter are selected for the National Winner award. This year, 236 ensembles from 36 states submitted entries in the contest’s five categories.

And, as Williams puts it, the competition is stacked with talent.

The recorded entries were submitted last spring, and the 7th graders that performed on those pieces are now 8th graders. They don’t take the recognition—or their place in the band—for granted. In this band hall, where the best Cockrill band musicians convene each day, they understand the value of leadership, personal responsibility and the importance of taking up the banner of those who have gone before them.

CMS Band Students

Members of the CMS Honors Band volunteer to play through their scales for director Gary Williams.

The resumes of their predecessors are impressive. In addition to the accolades they accumulated over the past two years, 11 of last year’s 8th graders have made their high schools’ top bands as 9th graders, according to Williams.

“We had 35 kids make region band last year,” adds Williams, “which was a record high for us and third most in the region. When we started Cockrill, we had two kids make regional in band. So, from 2008 – 2016, we went from two to 35.

“I told these students, ‘This is the legacy last year’s group left, and it’s our responsibility to keep carrying that forward,’” says Williams. “We want to celebrate this award because it’s a huge honor for our program, but also for our community—we say that word a lot. There’s a lot of pride.”

Community is the theme that emerges as the kids talk about their band.

Daniel, the stomp-inducing saxophone player says, “I’m honored that we got this award. It’s very special to me because we had just come out of beginner band [last year], and we’d never played in the Honors Band before. We had all these amazing 8th graders that welcomed us and helped us a lot. It was just an honor to be with them.”

Gary Williams

CMS Honors Band Director Gary Williams

“It’s just really overwhelming because all of the 8th graders last year were really good, and obviously, they were a year ahead, but it was just amazing,” explains Ethan Gustafson who plays trombone. “They basically took us under their wing and helped us learn everything and answered any questions we had.”

“Winning the award—as Daniel said—was definitely an honor,” adds Alexis, the fist-bumping trumpet player, “and it’s going to a giant family with a bunch of awesome people. It just tells you that we work really, really hard—but at the same time, we have fun and just kind of bring those two things together. You make memories here, and it’s definitely magic.”

Even as they are inspired by their experience as 7th graders, this year’s 8th graders have their eyes fixed on the work that lies ahead and their responsibility to add to the band’s legacy by building up the musicians who will come after them.

“Last year, when I was a 7th grader, everyone was so talented in the 8th grade, and it just really inspired me. So, I just really hope that I can become that good and be that person that other people look up to,” says oboist Keelin Gaughan.

“The 8th graders were very helpful, and they cared for us. There was a sense of giving back, so that’s what I’m trying to do this year—trying to help the 7th graders, care for them, do anything that will help make them better,’ says Daniel.

For his part Williams is excited to see what this group of kids will accomplish together when they start working in January on the material for the 2017 contest.

“I think our kids are going to be more ready than ever. I can’t wait to hear what next semester’s band will sound like,” he says.

The best guess is that whatever they come up with will be very close to perfect. And, foot stomping will be a totally appropriate response.

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