Middle School Band Requires Lots of Hard Work, Remains Tons of Fun


El Segundo Middle School Band Director Tony Bancroft loves his job. He loves teaching and directing the band and just as importantly, he loves having an impact on his students through something that they can take with them the rest of their lives--music.


“It is generally fun to teach and work with kids because you see them improve and grow--that is an honor to do,” Bancroft said. “A lot of times kids that come are very talented, but many times they are not and they have to work really hard. So for a kid to accomplish certain things, it can be very challenging, especially in middle school since they have a lot going on.”For several years, many residents in El Segundo have focused their efforts on the importance of music. Music has been used to enhance the education of students from elementary through middle and into high school and to the El Segundo Concert Band (ESCB). The ESCB has contributed to the expansion of music in the city by working with local students through its clinics and the music symposium (summer camp). In addition, as part of the middle school transition to the new International Baccalaureate structure, El Segundo Unified School District asked ESCB to create a supplementary band program, Distinct Advantage, to enhance the instruction provided during the regular school day.


“For me, it is fun and rewarding to see that growth. It is cool and it is hard to think of this as a job sometimes because when you are working with kids, you are constantly molding them and shaping them while trying to help them see what they currently can’t see which is right over the horizon,” Bancroft said. “That whole process of becoming aware of different potentialities is great, whether it be a new note, a new scale, a whole song or a whole concert. It is a process and I find it to be fun and rewarding.”


In the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year, El Segundo Middle School lost 3.4 hours of band instruction time and Distinct Advantage was the way to make up those lost hours for parents and students interested. Through the assembly of professional musicians, the after-school program offered sixth, seventh and eighth grade students the opportunity to learn from specialists in woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments.


Bancroft, who began in 1997 when it was a split position between El Segundo High School and the Middle School, has witnessed the complete transformation of the band program at the Middle School over the past few years. Recently, there were even guitar classes added. What has not changed is the amount of work it requires to prepare students to become better at playing instruments.


“To play a band instrument and participate at a higher level, there is a lot of stuff that you need to know--it is not just brain work. There is a lot of physical work that you must be able to accomplish such as muscle structure and muscle memory along with the intellectual stuff,” Bancroft said. “Like with any sport, there is the combining of the knowledge and action together. You can understand the concept on the board and in the book, but to make your muscles hit a home run, play a scale correctly--that takes a long time and a lot of hours. There are people who will say that it takes an X number of hours, but the number is a lot. It is not like many disciplines where you can see results day one. It takes a long time to develop the ability to be able to reproduce in a consistent and pleasing sound while having fun because this is what this is all about.”


Bancroft likes to remind his students that band is fun, but that it requires a great deal of work and only allows for a small margin of error when seeking to excel at the art of playing an instrument. “I make them aware that they are not going to be rock stars from day one because it is so different from all other activities,” Bancroft said. “Music has all the elements of the team sports, but all the individuality of math, science and English built into one. When you are playing in a band, if everybody is playing one note and you play the wrong note, it sounds bad. It is only one note, but you can notice it. The audience will hear it. If every kid in the whole band only misses one note, in any other class, in any academic setting, on any measurement of skill, that is an A plus. In math, you would be the smartest kid in the class. In music, if you only miss one note, I would probably get fired if that happened. The expected level of reasonable, adequate sound is actually really high. To be able to produce that level of excellence time and time again is actually one of the great secrets in the arts.”


Still, Bancroft’s students have always found success in music and there have been middle school band members who audition for the ESCB and earned a position. Bancroft also encourages students to try out for California All-State Honor Band, which holds auditions for kids all over the state. If selected, they get to meet in Fresno for a day. This year, two high school students, James Dahl (trumpet) and Christian Alva (tenor saxophone) and middle school student Kathleen Moran (bassoon) were accepted to the All-State Honor Band and were able to spend the last weekend in February performing in Fresno.


“It is a lot of hard work. It takes thousands t takes thousands of hours to get good,” Bancroft said. On some instruments it takes less time to reach these landmarks, but the reality is to get good and competitive, it is hard work. It takes way more hours than sports. In sports you usually try to get a ball into a net, or something, and you don’t always do it--which is why you have such low scores. In music, you don’t score directly thousands of times more because it takes a long time to get it right and reach that one goal in music.”


Given the level of difficulty to become great at playing an instrument, Bancroft likes to organize field trips to offer incentives and keep the students motivated. The guitar class went to the House of Blues, Hard Rock Café and the Musicians Institute in one day. The other bands have competitions locally as well as sleepover tour competitions. This year they went to San Diego, but in the past have gone to Las Vegas, Seattle, San Francisco and Florida. “I will take the upper-level kids so they have something to look forward to. They get to engage with master classes with professionals in field or competition, which helps motivate high-achieving kids,” Bancroft said. “You have to constantly self-analyze what you are doing wrong and that is the key mindset. You are never really perfect. It’s like building a sandcastle with the water and wind always coming up. You have to constantly figure out how to mitigate things. Kids are growing up, so their bodies are changing, which makes it a different challenge. There are many things to put off from the outside to do it well.”