Band directors are always looking for new ways to get students excited. One sure-fire way to do this is to have students observe other students perform, which usually happens during competitions, where they watch groups in different categories than themselves.
This is a great educational opportunity because students learn to identify what entails a great performance.
Before the pandemic, I never thought of creating special concert events with our band program. However, during the past three academic years, I have worked with a great group of people to figure out the ins and outs of planning a collaborative concert. If this is something you’re interested in developing, I hope that you can learn from my hits and misses.
Our first collaboration was within our own school during the 2019-2020 school year. Ashlyn Kuyrkendall, the choral director, and I wanted to put together a big event to open The Grande Hall, part of the new performing and visual arts center in town. Our idea was a Christmas Celebration, showcasing all aspects of the music departments at Shelby County High School (SCHS) and Columbiana Middle School, for all of Columbiana to enjoy. We began planning in August with the Shelby County Arts Council and city officials. The process of getting this concert off the ground was much more work than we anticipated.
First, we received the go-ahead from the school administration and the arts council for our December concert date. We were told that the venue would be ready even though it was in the final stages of construction. The Grande Hall was ready — barely. We had dress rehearsals with the painters in the hall, and students had to unpack hundreds of chairs for the floor.
Second, we learned that having a concert off campus can be tricky. You must make sure that you have everything covered, such as equipment, sound, risers, as well as a plan A, B and C — in case anything goes awry.
Together, Mrs. Kuyrkendall and I crafted an event that is still talked about today! The concert itself was a great success, but the required planning prepared me for future collaborative endeavors.
At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, the fine arts teachers at SCHS were approached by our district’s fine arts supervisor about starting an annual end-of-the-school-year arts event in our town. We are not the largest high school in our school system, but we are home to the central office, and Columbiana has a thriving main street, which is part of every quintessential southern town. At first, we were caught off guard because this would be our first big event since the pandemic, but as we started planning, we saw how this event would be great for our community and our school system.
With the help of other district teachers, we hashed out a plan to have groups representing each of the seven school zones in our system. We partnered with our city’s Main Street Columbiana and the Shelby County Arts Council, and with only a few weeks of planning, we arranged to have two stages for performances, art installations, food trucks and store fronts opened for the big event.
Challenges we faced included timing, weather (because it was an outdoor event), coverage and ensuring that all the local businesses were happy. Just when we thought everything was taken care of, we learned that a separate event would be taking place in one of the venues in the arts center. We could not use that section of the center, but everything else was open to us. We had chosen that venue as our rain backup plan, but luckily, we were blessed with a great day of weather, and everything went off without a hitch.
The second year of the event in 2021-2022 brought more challenges. This time, the arts center was completely booked, so we were only able to use our main street area. We revamped our event with some changes that really made the event shine. First, we moved the two performance stages to each end of Main Street. This created a corridor and centralized the focus of the event. The previous year, one stage was on the street and the other was around the block at the arts center. Although this allowed for a bigger footprint, the spread-out nature of the event seemed to create less of a buzz.
With the lack of space at the arts council, we were unable to have our county-wide high school senior visual arts display that we did the first year. Instead, we featured the artwork of the seniors in each storefront. We felt this brought more traffic into the shops and created a buzz about it more than in previous years.
We are in the process of planning year three of Arts on Main, and we believe that some of our new ideas will highlight the arts even more in our great small town. We want to continue the same buzz from the second year with a more centralized location, but we also want to incorporate our multimillion-dollar arts center in town. We want a similar set-up as year one with one stage near the arts center and park. To encourage foot traffic in that area, we plan to have vendors in the park. We also want a final celebration performance at night, featuring all performing arts students from the seven school zones along with a fireworks display.
The final collaboration that I worked on over the past few years, was a concert with the University of Montevallo, which is about 25 minutes away from SCHS. We have several teachers who are alumni of the school, and many Shelby County students attend college there.
Montevallo has a very successful band program, and the director, Joe Ardavino, is one of the nicest people you will ever meet. At the start of the 2021-2022 school year, our program at SCHS expanded its course offerings to include Jazz Band for the first time. I knew it would take a while to get the jazz group up and running. We spent the first semester learning the language and theory behind jazz. We performed at some community events during the holidays to get the group used to playing in public.
Olivia Snyder, a SCHS special education teacher, who helps with the band, is a Montevallo alum, and I mentioned to her in passing that I thought it would be cool if we did a collaborative concert with Montevallo’s jazz ensemble at the end of the year. The next morning, I was cc’d on an email between her and Joe.
Before I knew it, we were planning a concert for April in correlation with Jazz Appreciation Month. We just needed a venue, so I called the Shelby County Arts Council and asked if the Black Box Theater, which seats a couple hundred guests and has great acoustics, would be available. It was!
We had numerous discussions about what we wanted the concert to be and settled on each jazz group playing a 20-minute set to highlight the jazz programs at SCHS and Montevallo. Then the concert would end with a jam session between both groups. My jazz students were so excited about the joint concert, and even students who were not in jazz band were excited to be audience members.
The planning for this event was beyond easy, and it was due to all the previous collaborative events I had worked on. This is another event I always get on the calendar early to give our jazz program something to work toward. I would love to expand the collaborative jazz concert to include the jazz programs at other district schools as well as other local jazz groups to create a jazz festival in Columbiana.
After three years of collaborative efforts, these are the five key elements to pull off a successful event:
Remember, the more you highlight your students in creative and new ways, the more your program will grow. I am seeing that more and more, especially in our middle school band program, which has doubled in the past three years! Many middle schoolers say they joined band because they have seen the high school band preforming in many different locations and settings.
Another way we have showcased the artistic talents of our students is through three murals around town. My favorite is the one Ruthie Johns and Lauren Campbell, two band students who graduated in 2022, painted outside the band room door. They approached me about it in the spring of 2020 before the pandemic, and they finished it in the summer of 2022.
The idea for the mural came last summer, when the band went to the back of the practice field where a giant oak tree was located. I noticed that the tree had sustained some damage, probably when a tornado came through the town in 2021 and destroyed several homes. I told the students that the tree represented our band program. We might take shots to the exterior, but our roots and interior are strong.
The quote on the mural by author Tom Robbins — “Our similarities bring us to a common ground, but our differences allow us to be fascinated by each other” — mirrors the inclusive nature inside the band room. We accept everyone regardless of their background.
Ruthie and Lauren thought the idea for the mural was perfect for what the SCHS band program is: A family that welcomes everyone and stands strong regardless of any shots to our outside. Principal Kyle Dudley loved the idea and gave them the go-ahead.
Our city is becoming increasingly more of an art sanctuary with multiple murals, the arts council and thriving fine arts departments at all five local schools. I hope that as the fine arts grow in Columbiana, so will our community in support as evidenced by our collaborative efforts these past three years.