Wonder Women

In many ways, music education is a man’s world. According to researcher Elizabeth Gould in 2005, less than 10 percent of college band directors are female—a ratio that has not changed significantly in three decades. Although they may be few and far between, many female band directors have made names for themselves in universities and high schools. From the East Coast at the University of Delaware, the South at Lincoln University in Missouri, the North at Northwestern University and West at Bear Creek High School in Colorado, female band directors are proving to be a force to be reckoned with.

Photo: Dr. Mallory Thompson, director of bands, and Daniel J. Farris, director of athletic bands, show their Northwestern school spirit with the popular Wildcat Growl. Tom McGrath/TCMcG Photography.

Dr. Mallory Thompson

Group: Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Job: Professor, Conducting and Ensembles, and Director of Bands

Years as Director: 30, 16 at NU Trivia: Dr. Thompson has been a guest conductor for several military bands including the U.S. Army Field Band, U.S. Air Force Band, West Point Band, U.S. Navy Band and U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.”

After nearly 102 years, Northwestern University’s Wildcat Marching Band has proven the test of time. NUMB, as it is known, has almost 180 members as well as countless staff and volunteers that dedicate their time to this high-energy Big Ten ensemble.

Dr. Mallory Thompson wouldn’t have this any other way. “My favorite moment is almost always the next moment, the next rehearsal, the next concert,” she says.

Although her role as the university’s director of bands has her overseeing many administrative responsibilities, teaching conducting courses and directing the Symphonic Wind Ensemble (SWE), Thompson still involves herself in the musical workings of NUMB.

An Honor and Responsibility

Thompson first arrived at Northwestern University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees as a musician. She went on to receive a doctorate at the Eastman School of Music.

“I just really enjoyed conducting,” Thompson says. “I felt I had a natural facility with that and enjoyed working with others in that way.”

After 30 years as a college professor and conductor, Thompson credits her students: “They’re so incredibly talented that I really need to give it every bit of effort I can.”

In fact, she considers it an “honor and a responsibility” to work with her students. “If I can imagine it, then I can help them to understand it, and they can do anything that I can think of,” Thompson says. “If I’m not always ready to do my very best with them, I’m cheating.”

Her primary ensemble, SWE, just recently released its fourth CD, “rising.”

Labor of Love

While there is no expectation from the administration, Thompson still dedicates herself to Northwestern’s marching band. As a “labor of love,” Thompson can give her students the same love she received from her alma mater all those years ago. Thursday night rehearsals, home games and away games are all a part of Thompson’s schedule.

As the “supportive godmother,” Thompson likes to support the director of athletic bands, Daniel J. Farris, in any way she can. “I think he does a remarkable job with the group, and I like to support the students, so I’m there as backup; I’m there as support,” Thompson says.

Favorite Songs

Part of Thompson’s involvement in NUMB is to conduct the marching band in two very important songs: the “Alma Mater” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “I really feel I get to do the two most meaningful pieces of music,” says Thompson. Thompson takes the national anthem very seriously. “I think of my father, a veteran of World War II,” Thompson says. “And it’s given even more meaning to me since September 11th because we were at band camp when that happened.”

The “Alma Mater,” according to Thompson, is the “most sacred Northwestern song.”

“It has taken me back to singing that when I was in the band; that’s very dear to me,” she says.

Rhonda Harper

Group: Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.

Job: Director of Bands

Years as Director: 29; 8 at Lincoln

Trivia: Harper is a member of the Women Band Directors International, Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity, Tau Beta Sigma National Honorary Band Sorority and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.

Some people know from the very beginning what they want to do, and Rhonda Harper, director of bands at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., is no different. She had attended Lincoln as an undergraduate, studying music education.

“I always wanted to be the band director here, and years later I got my chance,” Harper says.

That’s when Harper made history—as the only African American female director of bands at one of the many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

A Marching Musical Storm

Since its inception in 1948, Lincoln University’s Marching Musical Storm has considered itself one of the “finest collegiate marching bands” in the United States.

Every halftime show is different, thanks to a team of writers who create the drill and show designs.

“Some of my favorite performances are the halftime shows,” Harper says. “I like that we have a vibrant music program.”

As a director of bands, Harper has learned to balance her schedule. She conducts the marching band, concert band, pep band and jazz band all while teaching basic music classes and more.

“I teach basic conducting classes for music education majors and instrumental conducting, and I also teach trumpet applied methods,” Harper says. “So I have a pretty heavy, serious schedule. And this time of year, things are especially busy for recruiting.”

Making History

Harper spent a good chunk of her career not as a university professor, but as a high school band director.

“I went to three different school districts and 21 years later went to Lincoln University as a professor,” Harper says. “I [had received] my master’s degree from Lindenwood University in administration.” As the longest-standing female HBCU band director, Harper says that many people she has come across “really look up to that.”

In spite of the years she has spent at Lincoln University, Harper says, “I haven’t really grasped the truth [as the only female HBCU director]. I didn’t know the history that was being made. I got to The Midwest Clinic in Chicago, and they have an HBCU clinic, and I was the only female.”

Though she prides herself on her work as the only female, soon Harper may not be alone. “I learned two or three months ago there is a young lady that is interim band director at Elizabeth City [State University],” she says.

Tomisha Brock with her husband, Joplin, as assistant director of bands took over leadership of the Elizabeth City State band prior to the 2012 season.

All In The Family

While teaching and conducting are both a large component as a director of bands, Harper is also responsible for administration.

“Teaching a college band is a large operation,” Harper says. “The administration side is pretty big—you pretty much have to go from teaching in the classroom to the fundraising to all of the logistics of the band program.”

Within the bigger picture, Harper still dedicates herself to create a music program that, for students and alumni alike, is “something to come home to,” she says. “I want to be here for some time more,” says Harper.

For Harper, the rewards as a director of bands are endless. One of Harper’s favorite moments is to watch her students “pull out all of their musical abilities from their bodies and mind and fingers.”

Music runs in the family; Harper’s daughter graduated with a degree in music education this past December. For her daughter and women everywhere entering into music education, Harper offers some advice.

It’s important to always remember: “Your riches come from being a caring teacher,” Harper says.

Heidi Sarver

Group: University of Delaware

Job: Director and Show Designer

Years: 25, 18 at UD

Trivia: Sarver is an avid drill designer for high school bands across the country and the primary show designer for the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band.

With a marching resume that could stretch longer than a football field, Heidi Sarver is truly one of a kind. After receiving her undergraduate degree in music education, she quickly followed it up with a master’s in trumpet performance at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Now in her 18th year with the University of Delaware, Sarver’s years of experience mean that music and Delaware’s own Fightin’ Blue Hen Marching Band are life.

Do What You Love

Passion runs deep in music education, and Sarver is a prime example. As early as high school, “I always knew I wanted to teach,” she says.

By the time she entered UMass, she realized she had found her calling. “I’m one of those few people that wake up every day working at what they love more than anything in the world,” says Sarver. “That’s my life, so it’s a job, but, it’s not.”

A Friendly Community

For 25 years, Sarver’s professional life has thrived, thanks to a unique perspective. Earlier in her career, Sarver says she “gave no credence” to the perceived biases and prejudices as a woman in a male-dominated profession. Although she is aware of the challenges, it’s something she never really took into consideration.

“I honestly paid them no mind—wasn’t even acknowledging them,” Sarver says.

In fact, Sarver has found a community. While the profession itself consists of little to no down time, Sarver is surrounded by friends who are all musicians in the business. “I usually just don’t look at my life and my professional life as separate,” Sarver says. “Everything leads together, so I stopped fighting that.”

Greatest Moments

If there’s one amazing thing about becoming a teacher, it’s the idea of bringing what you’ve learned back to the place where it all started. For Sarver, a couple of her favorite moments were doing just that. When she became band director at the University of Delaware, Sarver was excited to take her band home. In games where Delaware was playing UMass, she had the opportunity to have her students interact with George N. Parks, the former director of bands there.

“It was a meeting of multiple generations, if you will,” says Sarver. “Any chance to bring my gang home—that’s a proud moment. Not a lot of people get to do that. Those were moments I’ll treasure forever.”

Over the years she has served as a clinician at the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy; assistant director for the Bands of America Honor Band; and a soloist, instructor and drum major of the Reading Buccaneers Drum and Bugle Corps.

Another great moment for Sarver was this year’s Sugar Bowl, where she conducted the conclusion of the halftime show featuring a mass band of 13 groups across the country with nearly 2,000 performers. “It was very exciting and a high-energy situation, a really good experience,” Sarver says.

Tammy Ahmed

Group: Bear Creek High School from Lakewood, Colo.

Job: High School Band Director

Years: 20+, 11 years at Bear Creek

Trivia: While at Bear Creek, Ahmed’s band has worked with Bill Hill from the Colorado Symphony, performed for The Denver Brass, and played pieces created by Professor J.D. Shaw from the University of New Mexico and composer Scott Hickey, who wrote a piece as commemoration of a new school building.

Looking back on her career, Tammy Ahmed isn’t surprised that she loves what she does. After graduating from Lake Park High School as drum major, Ahmed initially entered college as a psychology/ pre-law major. “I spent my entire first year studying rats in a laboratory, and I was like, ‘Get me out of here!’” she says.

She knew something had to change. After a freshman year filled with every performance group she could be in, she switched to the music education program for her sophomore year at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Music is Art

Bear Creek’s marching band is known in the Denver area for taking some fantastic titles, from most improved to finalist. In fact, since Ahmed’s arrival, the marching band has been named Colorado State semifinalists seven times. In 2010, they became finalists for the first time in 10 years, reaching eighth overall.

Ahmed sees band directing not only as a job, but also as an art. “My job is sort of to paint with sound,” she says. “Every time I walk into the classroom, I feel like there’s this blank canvas.”

With performance, she says that she “always got to paint with just one color,” but with conducting, “you got all the colors in the group to play with, and that to me was very appealing too,” Ahmed says.

Two Jobs, One Woman

With 11 years at Bear Creek High School, the thing that always keeps her going is “definitely passion.” With two sons and a full schedule, things can get a little crazy. But in her words, “I wouldn’t trade one for the other.”

The solution to working with double shifts as a band director and a mother of two boys (ages 9 and 7) is what Ahmed believes to be compartmentalization.

“When I’m at school, I’m focused on just school, and when I’m at home, I don’t do work when my kids are awake,” Ahmed says. “They go to bed every night at 8 o’ clock. Both my husband and I work full time, so they’re at after care, or they’re doing extracurricular activities after school, so they’re wiped by the time we get them to bed.”

With the two boys involved in numerous activities including soccer and violin and her band performing in competitions and football games, she often finds herself in difficult situations. But she stresses to young women to never say that they can’t do it. Along with “an army of people who help,” she gets through it and even finds time for another important job: taking time for herself, she says.

Challenge Accepted

Although conducting is still a maledominated profession, Ahmed believes that women should never be deterred from this potential career. As long as there’s passion for what they do, “nobody should cut that out of their life,” especially if they think there’s not enough time, Ahmed says.

She encourages women to follow their dreams with the simple mantra: “You can.”

About the Author

Samantha Berley graduated with honors from California State University, Northridge, with a B.A. in English and a strong passion for anything musical. As a teenager, Samantha ate, slept and played music for seven years through concert and marching band. She is currently finding new ways to combine all of her passions through writing.

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