Tarpon Springs Outdoor Performance Ensemble

Sweeping all three of its captions in Class AA, The Tarpon Springs (Fla.) Outdoor Performance Ensemble also won its first Bands of America Grand National Championship.

Photo by Ken Martinson/Marching.com

During a marching band competition, bigger bands are usually the ones that come out on top, and whenever a smaller band is able to hold its own against those bigger bands, people will take notice. But what if a small band is able to win an entire championship-level competition?

The Tarpon Springs (Fla.) Outdoor Performance Ensemble, with a score of 97.15, reached new heights when it became the Bands of America Grand National Champion, beating out many bands bigger than its 210-member group. The band was also awarded outstanding musical performance and general effect.

Spearheading the success is band director Kevin Ford, who credits his students with the positive outcomes that Tarpon Springs has enjoyed.

Halftime: What is your background?

Ford: I marched in drum corps beginning at the age of 10. Through that activity, I was blessed to have been taught by some amazing music educators and was exposed to an extraordinary brass pedagogy program. Many of the things I learned then are incorporated into my teaching methods today. I also had the opportunity to perform with some incredible musicians who have now gone on to play in symphony orchestras around the world. They inspired me through their commitment to excellence and artistry. I received my own music education degree from the University of Florida and finally began teaching at Tarpon Springs High School.

Halftime: Tell us a little bit about the marching band.

Ford: The marching band is under a magnet program based on leadership called Leadership Conservatory for the Arts, where we integrate leadership skills into our curriculum for all of our students. When they come in as ninth graders, they will take a yearlong course that will help cultivate these leadership skills through books and workshops.

The ultimate goal is to have them be set up for success in life. This program doesn’t just deal with music but with academic and other non-musical activities. In my opinion, the performing arts are one of the greatest disciplines that can teach life lessons for people to be successful that we have at our disposal in our education system. We can show our students that what they are doing on the field can also be applied to things they do in daily life.

Halftime: What else makes Tarpon Springs unique?

Ford: Being “unique” is a never-ending process, and we are certainly not where we would like to be yet. However, we are an organization that is committed to evolving and will continue to do so in all aspects of our curriculum. The process begins with our teachers and designers. We have an organizational philosophy of approaching every day with a growthbased mindset. We try our best to NOT do anything just because “that’s the way its been done in the past.” If you are a designer or a composer/arranger for any of the Tarpon Springs performance ensembles, you are encouraged to take risks. We do not make decisions or limit our creative possibilities based on what could be the outcome of a competition or festival.

Halftime: Why does the band compete in Bands of America?

Ford: When I started with the band 21 years ago, we just had seven students attend the first marching rehearsal. From there, we talked about how we could set up this organization for success and what it would take to get there.

I decided that we should start competing in Bands of America competitions as I wanted to have my students to become inspired in seeing the best of the best. I wanted to have them get a firsthand look at high schools similar to ours such as Marian Catholic High School, so that they could get motivated to perform the best they possibly could. Being in this marching circuit isn’t really about the competitive aspect for us, but rather bringing out the best in my students in an environment that is committed to all-around excellence.

Halftime: Describe this year’s show.

Ford: Our show this year was called “Man vs. Machine.” What we wanted to do was to explore man’s desire to push the boundaries of creating something new, and we like that message as it’s something that is related to our leadership curriculum.

In the opener, we play “Fanfare for the Common Man” to represent the greatness of a person and their ability to lead and inspire toward creation and innovation. We then move on to the machine part of our performance. We wonder whether we should possibly make something super-human by way of machines. By the third movement, we explore the emotions and feelings in the construction of these machines where a key component is missing. In the final act, we show that in order for these superhuman machines to really be whole, we have to give them a heart, so that they can feel compassion. In fact, it is there where we have the machine say, “Teach me to be human.” Man eventually conquers machine in which the machines can’t do the work of one extraordinary man.

Halftime: What do you think makes this season stand above the rest?

Ford: Honestly, I am not sure any of us look at this season as being above the rest. Every year is unique, and the students who are performing, whether this year or in past years, have been extraordinary young people. No milestone or any great organizational success is achieved in months. In my humble opinion, it literally takes years to build success, and every accomplishment our current students achieve is on the shoulders of those who came before them. Each class helped raise the bar and expectations from one year to the next.

We could not be more humbled or proud of being named the 2014 Bands of America Grand National Champion. We are honored to be associated with so many great band programs that we admire and respect that have also shared this outstanding distinction.

Halftime: How did the band members react when they won?

Ford: What was funny is that the kids seemed more excited about the snow outside of Lucas Oil Stadium than winning Grand Nationals when we left, but the students were definitely happy about winning the competition. They understood what it meant to be in that position of success, and they paid their respects to the other bands that night that also could have deserved to be in their shoes.

As a band, we have not talked about winning a competition but more in the lines of having our students individually perform the best they possibly could. I asked them whether they felt that this was the best performance they had done to date, and they all said, “Yes.” That was the only answer I needed.

Halftime: What advice do you have for other band directors?

Ford: Don’t focus so much on the competitive aspect of marching band as in winning a competition. Our band doesn’t get involved in that as it’s really out of our control. For many bands, it doesn’t necessarily define the true quality of their performance.

Instead, the performance quality should be seen as this: “Did you do the best that you possibly could?” Focus on the students as you ask them that, as I believe the success of my band comes from my students asking themselves that same question. It is something that bands should strive for, so that they can bring out the best in each and every student.

Ultimately this activity is more to cultivate the students as model human beings rather than becoming a marching band that wins all the time.

About the Author

Jeremy Chen is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California (USC). He marched cymbals for two years at Rancho Cucamonga High School before playing bass drum and snare at Upland High School. He is currently a snare drummer and office staff member for the USC Trojan Marching Band. He aspires to one day become a correspondent for the BBC.

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