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Band camp US-style

The following article about band camps run by Texas Southern University (TSU) appeared in the Houston Chronicle on 25 July, 2003.

Going through the drills 

by ANDREW GUY JR.

One year, at band camp, Dadriaunna Williams learned how to march. With her instrument. The Johnston Middle School student had been playing clarinet since she was 3, and knew how to blow like one of the best. But play and march?

One year, at band camp, Tawana Allen decided to train to be a drum major. So the Shreveport, La., high school senior came to Houston to learn how. Her first lesson: it's harder than she thought.

One year, at band camp . . . .

Wait.

It's this year at band camp.

And this band camp is more like boot camp.

"We have to be up at 6:30, eat at 7 and classes start at 8," Allen says. "And we can NOT be late for anything."

No marching to a different drummer here. This week is about rules, conformity, following along. It's about absorbing the techniques used by Texas Southern University's world-famous marching band and taking them back to their own middle and high school bands. It's also about learning leadership and life skills.

Discipline. Honor. Morals. Ethics.

This is TSU's Band Leadership Camp.

It's a chance for students to learn the techniques used by the high-stepping, high-energy, high-voltage "Ocean of Soul" marching band. This week's camp has about 70 students, most of whom come from Houston-area schools. A few come from Dallas; a few are from Louisiana.

Tuition is $250 for those who stay on campus in one of the dorms, and $125 for those who commute.

The students are the cream of their high school bands, targeted as leaders who will learn new skills to bring back to guide others.

Some are drum majors.

Others are section leaders.

All are considered talented.

In their schools, anyway.

Once they arrive at TSU, they're all grunts.

"This is LEADERSHIP camp, people! LEADERSHIP!" Richard Lee yells while the students practice their steps Wednesday night.

Looking and sounding like Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, Lee roams the balcony while the students practice on the gym floor.

"Don't get tired!" he yells.

Kathryn Green, 10 years old and tall as a flea, will be a fifth- grader at Ridgegate Elementary School in Missouri City this fall.

"I'm the shortest person in class, and it's hard for me to catch up," says Green, the drum major at her school. "They said it was OK since I'm kind of small, but I'm trying."

Lee has three rules:

 

Be on time.

 

Have the proper equipment.

 

Know your assignment.

"These kids need to learn about life," Lee says. "These are the three things that everybody needs to know. If you're an adult and you have a job, you have to do these three things. It's an issue of survival in the real world and basic skills."

Camp instructor Gaila Rollins is blunt with students. In a clarinet class early Wednesday, Rollins encouraged the four girls to learn everything they can about the instrument.

"Go beyond what your leader expects of you," Rollins tells them with mama-like sternness. "AL-WAYS be prepared. And there are no excuses. None. The only excuse in life is if you're dead."

Well.

Later, Rollins talks about her approach.

"I'm trying to get them to be leaders," Rollins says. "You may have a kid who is talented, but they may not be disciplined. If you set a foundation and rules, kids will follow. They think they don't like rules, but they do. They need it."

They'll need it even more if their goal is to join TSU's "Ocean of Soul." The band is considered an elite college "show" band, whose halftime shows mix music, dancing and marching. (Traditional marching bands with students marching in straight, military-style fashion are called "core" bands.)

Show bands often are found at predominantly black colleges, and are a major part of halftime entertainment.

Last year's film Drumline elevated the profiles of these bands even higher.

Lee, band director at TSU for 10 years, says he spends a lot of time meeting, interviewing and auditioning potential band candidates.

That's what Tyrelle Cheeves wants. The 17-year-old senior at Houston's Eisenhower High School, says he hopes to attend TSU and join its band after graduation.

"I just love playing," the tuba player says. "Our band is more core style, and doesn't do any fancy moves. This band is a show band. I like mixing the marching and dancing and playing."

Is band camp hard?

He laughs.

"Well, it's not hard if you like what you're doing," he says.

Lee, who uses the camp, in part, for scouting, says the students are sometimes caught off guard by his harsh manner.

"I'm not looking for them to like me," Lee says. "I just want them to learn something. I want them to realize the importance of order. If we're going to be a band, we should act like a band and sound like a band and do everything together like a band."

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