What do the bands from “School of Rock” and Clark Middle School have in common? Both bands are led by figures of incredible talent, determination and spontaneity, and both bands are winners. The Clark Middle School Band, under the direction of Benjamin Katz, as well as assistant directors, John Timpani and Scott Kennedy, recently won the 2016 John Philip Sousa Foundation Sudler Cup, an incredibly prestigious award presented annually to one band in the nation by the John Philip Sousa Foundation to recognize excellence over a period of years.
The Sudler Cup is determined by the submission of a compilation of recordings of everything ranging from solo and ensemble contests to performances and band contests, and for Clark Middle School’s band, state championships. The quality of the recordings submitted must encapsulate the creative effort and legacy of the late and great musician, John Philip Sousa. For the Clark Middle School Band and all the other middle school bands across the nation, the award was determined from the body of work they submitted, which for Clark Middle School, was created over the past 10 years. In fact, this is not the first time the Clark Middle School band has earned such high accolades. The group was a recent recipient of the Texas Middle School 2C Honor Band award, which is the highest honor that a middle school band can receive in Texas. Additionally, the directors have received recognition from the Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA). However, none of these honors have carried the weight or gravity of the John Philip Sousa award. “It is a tremendous honor to be presented with this award,” Mr. Katz beams. “Being the first in Frisco ISD to achieve this is a very humbling experience. The kids in this band have not only shown themselves to be state champions in 2013, but now national champions from 2016.”
After very productive practices, along with a decade’s worth of hard work from both alumni and current members, the Clark Middle School Band is incredibly ecstatic. However, because of the magnitude of the award and the many bands that strive to achieve it, the band was nothing but floored. “It was truly a momentous occasion. It was really exciting.” Mr. Katz explains about the moments upon receiving the news they had won the award. “There are many people who spend years trying to win this award. This was the first time we had actually applied for it. Because of this, we were stunned when we won.” In fact, last year, no band had won the award because the John Philip Sousa panel determined that not one group was qualified for it. “Nobody had met the expectations of the panel,” Mr. Katz continues. “It is a big deal and a long process. It is the Super Bowl for band. Because of that, we were really excited about it.”
Receiving this honor, however, roots not only from the combination of the musicians’ talent and work ethic, but their overall personas, as well. “For starters, the band students make up about 45 percent of the student body here at Clark,” Mr. Katz says. “Our job, as band directors, first and foremost, is to make sure that the band program is as fun as possible. We want them to have had an overall positive experience, so that when they grow up and go out into the world to become musicians and bankers and lawyers, they would have looked back to remember that at the end of the day, they had a really great time with us.”
The premise of the band program’s philosophy is built on its simultaneously unique and uniform nature. “Unlike most bands, we do not have chair tests, nor do we ‘rank’ kids,” Mr. Katz explains. In other words, the order within the sections of the band are not built on traditional hierarchy like most middle school bands, but on the spirit of simple teamwork. Mr. Katz compares this bigger picture concept to the expected harmonious nature of a NASCAR race. “We would just like everybody to play well. For example, at a NASCAR race, most folks go out to watch and wait for the crash or for something to go wrong. We simply prepare and try to avoid that crash. We like to keep things going in motion. We want to work together as a team and take care of each other.” This concept is particularly shown in the way the band puts equal emphasis on the well-being of the players, as well as the technicalities and complexities that are necessary to dissect for the band to function properly. Even the band’s practice schedules are flexible, for the fact that Mr. Katz and the rest of the directors would rather have at least a part of each student’s time, rather than none of their time at all. This leaves room for those who are committed to the school band program, as well as Clark Middle School’s many other programs, to coexist within their endeavors and ensure ultimate success. The concept of flexibility and maturity is consistently employed within the students of the band program for them to adapt to skills of leadership and stellar work ethic, and, ultimately, win prestigious awards such as John Philip Sousa’s. This goes along with their ability to be equitable and allows for lack of hierarchy. “So, if you ask a kid in the Clark Middle School Band what chair they are in, they will probably say, ‘Whatever chair I am sitting in!’” Mr. Katz laughs.
The Clark Middle School Band also travelled to Austin to receive a congratulatory proclamation for their award on the state floor of the Texas House of Representatives, from Representative Justin Holland of District 33.
As for the members of the band program, it does not end here. “When things like this happen, we just plan to work harder, like crazy, and we tell the kids to never quit. When you quit, it is so hard to start again,” Mr. Katz justifies. Ultimately, he says that he owes this to the overall environment that allows the band students to achieve their goals and work hard. “I love North Texas,” he proclaims. “We are really blessed to have what we have here and live the way we live. We are truly humbled to be a part of this area, and to have the opportunity to build band programs. This area has the perfect combination of educated people, along with people who value music. Frisco does a fabulous job supporting band and music programs. When you go anywhere else, it is truly nothing like North Texas when it comes to band.”
Just as there is no place like home, there is no environment like that of Clark Middle School’s band. A happy story like this makes a perfect ending for an outstanding band program. It also creates plenty of room for new beginnings!