The Dale County Warrior Marching Band has heart and soul—demonstrating the kindness to help others and the grit to overcome hardship.
The Dale County Marching Band in Midland City, Alabama, is known as a Band of Warriors—but with big hearts. When band members and director Sherri Miller heard that they would be receiving the 2016 National High School Heart of the Arts Award from the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), they were shocked. They had simply been doing what they love, playing music. It didn’t matter that they were playing to support a rival high school team. The strong sense of community, love of music, and immense spirit of this group led them to help those in need, even in the midst of healing from their own unimaginable tragedy.
Halftime: What is your musical background?
Miller: I have been playing flute since I was in 5th grade, and I continued all the way with band through college. I loved band, and I got a bachelor’s in music and a master’s in music education at Troy (Alabama) University, so I made music my whole life.
Halftime: What are your thoughts on winning the Heart of the Arts Award?
Miller: I was speechless when I found out. We were nominated for playing for a rival school. We just thought we were helping out another school that didn’t have a band, and we had fun doing it. We didn’t realize that it would have such a big impact on the community.
[The students] were really excited to find out that we had been nationally recognized. For them, for the longest time, band was just an activity that they were involved in. They didn’t realize it could be so special, and it could mean so much to people. They really learned that being in band is something to be proud of, and it’s not just an extra class.
[The award itself will be presented at the NFHS Summer Meeting in Reno, Nevada, in June.]
Halftime: Why was the decision made to play for the George W. Long High School team from nearby Skipperville?
Miller: Skipperville had gone to their first round of [state] playoffs, and the audience said, “You know, something is missing. We don’t have a band here to pump up the crowd!”
I was very excited that they had asked us, and I knew that my students would be too. They love to perform, so getting the opportunity to kind of extend their season was very exciting for them. The administration approved us to go, and the community raised funds for us, and they made the trip happen.
Halftime: What was it like to be representing a rival school?
Miller: We were very nervous because we weren’t sure how we would be received. But as the time came for us to perform, the football team [gave] us goodie bags. They did all kinds of things to make us feel welcome.
It was just great feeling how appreciative they were to have a band. It was something that we had taken for granted since we’ve always had a band, but for them to finally have one and have that support, seeing how much it meant to them, was really special.
Halftime: You and your band have recently gone through a great loss. Would you share what happened?
Miller: My husband, Sean Miller, was made band director at Dale County in 2014. Then on the morning of Jan. 7, , he was on his way to work, and he was killed in a car accident. Even in just the six months’ time that Sean had been with [the students], they had grown to like him. They had grown to understand that he loved them and that he wanted them to be better. It was a really tragic loss for them and for us since it was our family.
Halftime: You were assistant director at the time and took over as head director. How did you find the strength to take on that position?
Miller: I’ll be honest. I was apprehensive at first. I had to think really hard, pray really hard about it. I didn’t know if I would be strong enough to do it.
That was the place he loved, the band room he’d been in every day. What gave me the strength at that time was knowing that my husband would have wanted his band to be in good hands, and I felt that I could do that for them. But the adjustment of walking down the hallway, knowing that those were the steps that my husband took every day, was very hard. I still have moments where I’ll stop and think about it, and I’ll cry, and I’ll break down knowing that he should be there, but I’m the one walking in his place.
It was the student support, the support of the administration, and the support of the community that let me know that I was strong enough, and I was in the right place.
Halftime: Being a band director means a lot of extra time and work. How did you handle all these commitments?
Miller: I could not have done it without Sean’s family. His parents and his brother really stepped up to help. We all knew that it was a really big job just watching [Sean]. I was actually pregnant with our second child at the time, so I was handling the pregnancy and a very small 2-year-old. Some family friends would step up to watch the children for football games or meetings and all that extra stuff that comes into teaching a marching band.
One year later, I feel like I’ve started to find my footing. It’s still kind of surreal for me, but I’ve got a schedule going. I’ve still got a support system.
Halftime: What advice would you give to other band directors and students?
Miller: Lean on the support that’s there. There’s always somebody there who is willing to listen, to help out. I’ve found out that all you have to do is ask. Don’t think that you have to keep to yourself, that you think you can handle it all. Rely on those who are willing to be there to help.