LBJ marching band finds its beat after LASA moves to new campus
If you go to Nelson Field in Northeast Austin on a Friday night, you can see two stories playing out at the same time.
There's the success story: LBJ High School's football team is one of the best in the state. The Jaguars made it to the 4A state semifinals last year, and this year they’re undefeated. As the wins pile up, spectators wonder if this is the season they go all the way.
The other story is taking place in the stands. The LBJ marching band is at every game, entertaining the fans and encouraging the players. But their story isn’t one of potential championships; it’s one of progress.
"I love how people underestimate the band," Pamela, a senior, says.
"We’re the underdogs!" Victoria, a fellow drum major, shouts over her shoulder.
"We’re definitely the underdogs,” Pamela repeats.
The marching band hasn't always been the underdog. Last football season, there were almost 200 members. That's because the band was made up of students from LBJ and the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, or LASA.
The magnet school, which Austin ISD created 20 years ago, is academically rigorous and students have to apply to get in. Up until last year, it shared the campus with LBJ. LBJ students took classes on the first floor, and LASA students took classes on the second.
LBJ students are — and have been — mostly Black, Latino and low income. LASA's students, meanwhile, have been mostly white and Asian; very few are low income. They didn’t interact a lot, except with extracurricular activities like sports, clubs and, of course, band.
But LASA was getting too big for the limited space, so it moved to its own campus.
Now, Darrell Williams, the band director, is seeing what the band is like without LASA.
At the end of September, he sat in his office at the back of the cavernous band room, drinking a McDonald’s coffee. It's been a whirlwind couple of weeks. Williams was hired last school year to lead the band once the two schools split up. When he was hired, he says, administrators didn’t explain how many students from each school had been members.
"They didn't go into percentages," he says. "I kind of figured out the percentages of LASA students versus LBJ students. I would say it was about 98% LASA, 2% LBJ."
The official band roster at the time Williams was hired showed out of 150 students, 32 were from LBJ. But then the pandemic hit. And by the fall, the number of LBJ students on Zoom practices and showing up to play at football games had dropped dramatically
But this is where Williams shines. It’s why he was hired.
"I've learned in his long career that I think that's my thing to take a band program that's not that good or has to go in a different direction and put it on the right track," he says. "This is like my fourth band rebuild."
From five band members to 40
The rebuilding began over the summer at band camp.
Noe, a clarinet player, said he wasn’t planning to come back for his last year at LBJ.
"Originally I wanted to quit my senior year because I knew it would be hard and hectic especially being a dual credit student and with band," Noe said. "Then out of nowhere my friends texted the group chat and said, 'Hey, we should all do band again.'"
He and a few other seniors decided they’d go to band camp and see what the year would be like without LASA students.
"I remember the first day of band camp I came in, and I was expecting like maybe 80 or 50 people," he says. "I walked in and I only see five people sitting down. Just five people! In my head, I was just thinking, 'Oh my god, what happened?'"
"At that time I was feeling really sad for the band. I realized how important it was for the five of us to stay there, the upperclassmen, for the five of us to recruit."
No one expected there'd be only five people. Williams says there should have been between 80 and 90 people for a school the size of LBJ. But after LASA left and with a largely virtual school year, a lot of LBJ students lost interest.
"At that time I was feeling really sad for the band," Noe says. "I realized how important it was for the five of us to stay there, the upperclassmen, for the five of us to recruit."
The five members talked to students who had been in band before COVID. They also reached out to people they knew from middle school bands who never played in high school to see if they wanted to pick up an instrument again.
"I got my friend, the other flute, to join back even though he wanted to get on guitar," Alexis, a senior and drum major.
They started recruiting students to play saxophone, flute and trombone. Noe stopped playing clarinet and is learning trumpet, because that section was thin.
"It’s very, very hard for me to buzz," Noe says about the different techniques between instruments. "When I was playing with the clarinet, my embouchure had to be firm and set, whereas with the trumpet it's only the corners of your mouth that's firm and set. I’m still kind of learning."
Students have been joining all semester. Some students have never played an instrument before, but joined because they are excited by the idea of performing at football games.
They now have around 40 members. It’s not a full band, but they have players in each section. Pamela says the split from LASA has allowed them to explore what the sound of LBJ is.
"We’re actually playing a lot of diverse music now. It is so fun," she says. "We played this cumbia, which is a Hispanic dance. So we're all getting up from the stands and dancing. It's actually more fun now."
The split also gave more LBJ students the chance to try band. A lot of them had been intimidated to join since most of the members went to LASA.
"There were times we didn’t feel welcome as LBJ being the minority of LASA," Pamela says. "That was such a sucky thing to go through, because we were thinking they will have our backs, but there were some times that we felt so un-included; we felt left out."
Williams calls it a performance gap: LASA students had access to private lessons, so they learned music faster and were more prepared for games and competitions. He thinks that might have discouraged the LBJ kids from trying out for leadership roles or being prepared to march on Fridays.
"They probably didn't come to band camp when LASA was here because they probably felt like, 'Oh, the LASA kids are better than I am," Williams says. "'I won't have a chance, so I just won't go' versus going to band camp, doing what you need to do, being responsible to get better on their instruments."
Williams says ideally he’d like to find a way to get his students affordable private lessons at school. In the meantime, he and his drum majors are trying to get everyone to practice every day, so they get familiar with their instruments.
'You're something special'
It’s the end of October, the week leading up to homecoming. Williams is working with the band on the school song. They haven’t played it a lot, and he can see the students are getting frustrated. He waves his hands so they'll stop playing.
“People don’t see you the way you see you. They don’t see you the way you might see you and LBJ. They don’t," he says. "So stop acting like that. You’re something special. You have something to contribute to the school, the community and the whole city of Austin. Stop tripping.”
With that he raises his baton, and they get back to warming up. Afterward, the band heads out to the parking lot to practice marching. Marco, one of the leaders in the band, hangs back. He got his wisdom teeth out this week, so he can’t play his saxophone. But he still wants to support his bandmates.
“I really want to do my best. I do, because I believe in this program so much," he says. "I was here when LASA was, for one year, and I’m looking at this and there’s potential. It’s probably not going to be next year. We’re going to be trying our best, I can tell you that much.”
Marco says he wants to try out for drum major next year. He knows the band might still be rebuilding then, but he thinks what they're doing this year is so important.
“It’s really been just building the base and the foundation for the next few years," he says. "Some of the seniors are kind of sad because they don't get to do as much of the stuff as they would have liked to, because we’re still trying to recruit. But looking at this right now, a lot of them are having fun.”
The next night is homecoming, and the band is the most energetic they’ve been this season.
They’re playing louder, they’re dancing more, and they are having so much fun in the stands. They play song after song without a break. Williams says they’ve improved since the last game. There are more people in the stands for homecoming, and for the first time this season, there’s also a student section.
After halftime, the band comes off the field and creates a semicircle to play in front of the students. People in the stands throw confetti and glitter as everyone dances along.
The Jaguars win the game. The band wins the crowd, keeping it hyped the entire time.
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