Hitting All the Right Notes
Tom Smyth is a busy man; a dedicated educator who is more than happy to tell anyone who will give him an ear and a few minutes’ time how the Helias High School marching band has risen from the ashes and resurrected itself, restoring a glorious sound to the Friday nights of football season.
To be fair, who could blame him?
When Smyth took over the band program in 2015, the number of band students wasn’t at its lowest point, but the task of rebuilding still sat firmly at his feet. He credits his predecessor Dr. Christopher Lair for laying the foundation and getting the ball rolling to help regrow the band program.
Lair was the school’s band director from 2013-2015.
Even with Dr. Lair’s efforts and the numbers beginning to trend upward in the right direction, Smyth still faced a daunting task of helping the Helias band regain its identity. During the early years of this past decade, the band was a shell of its former self. Not enough members to compete, not enough interest from the student body, not enough new members coming up from the feeder schools, and thus a dwindling presence during what many would argue is a high school marching band’s premier showcase – football Friday nights (and the occasional Saturday).
Fast forward to these days and the Helias marching band seems light years beyond what it was just a few short years ago. Gone are the guitars. There’s a full-blown color guard and even a color guard director on staff. They have an amplified sound system for their performances, which themselves are more becoming more advanced and choreographed. Basically, they’re starting to look and sound more like a high school marching band should look and sound.
Perhaps the best part? Their sound actually filling Ray Hentges Stadium on gamedays.
So why the turnaround?
Smyth is very quick to point out that the credit for the current state of the Helias marching band doesn’t rest solely with him. Without the efforts of current band co-director and St. Martin Parish School band/music director T.J. Higgins, and former director Dr. Lair, Smyth says the Helias band as it is now wouldn’t be where they are and their goals wouldn’t be nearly as lofty. It just wouldn’t be possible without their help and hard work.
Through their efforts and by coordinating with Smyth, the parochial schools that feed into Helias and that serve as a source of fresh, eager music students, their programs have grown and become more organized, all while sharing a goal of preparing students for the next step in their musical education – becoming active participants in the Helias band program upon entering their freshman year.
So far, the efforts have paid off. Since reaching a program low of 12 student members in 2012-2013, and several other years with participation in the teens, the band’s size has swelled to 66 members this year.
Under Smyth’s leadership, the number of Helias band members has grown each year. Possibly more important than the numbers though, the band has regained its “band culture,” something Smyth said was noticeably absent from the program when he first took over.
Even with the growth and measurable improvements, Smyth still sees hurdles along the path between where the band is and where he would like it to be. As with any growing program, budgeting for growth is a huge factor in future plans.
Current operating costs associated with creating a show, paying for the music’s copyright licenses, writing and choreographing show movements and paying for the small, be it improved staff, the band’s budget is stretched, despite Smyth and his staff being as cost-conscious and financially conservative as possible. Still, Smyth has high hopes and big plans for improvements in the Helias band program.
One of the more pressing issues facing the band is transportation. Presently the band is too large for the trailer they own. Compounding the situation is that even if the band is able to purchase a larger trailer, they don’t have a tow vehicle for a larger trailer, or at least have one that they would know to be consistently available. That would force them into relying on the availability of band parent vehicles to do the job… and the availability of band parents to drive those vehicles.
Smyth said that means the most financially viable and realistic option may be to look to purchase a converted moving truck or semi-trailer, and possibly leasing a cab to pull it. Doing so would eliminate the need for multiple vehicles, multiple small trailers, and multiple drivers.
Another challenge, which Smyth puts at the top of his list, is fundraising to outfit the band with new uniforms. The band’s current dry-clean only uniforms were purchased in 2003, meaning they are in their 16th year of usage (a typical high school band uniform life cycle is 10-12 years). At their age and usage, their condition has forced Smyth, his staff and many of the band parents to operate in a state of constant repair. Zippers, seams, stitching and other small items which break down often are usually tended to by parents with sewing skills. Smyth said he doesn’t allow any of the band members to wear the uniforms when loading, unloading, or travelling; they’re strictly for performance usage so as to minimize any potential wear, tear and further damage to the woolen standards.
Compounding the uniform conundrum, more band members means more uniforms needed. While there hasn’t been an issue of not having enough uniforms yet, Smyth says the band is starting to find itself running dangerously short on uniforms of certain sizes.
One option Smyth has considered is moving to a less traditional, laundered style of uniform for certain spirit events. The uniforms would be easier to wear and maintain, more comfortable, and still display uniformity and school spirit, all while being much less cost prohibitive. Traditional uniforms similar to what Helias band members wear now typically cost around $1,000 per child.
Many larger marching bands across the country use such uniforms, or even warm-up style uniforms during parades, sporting events and other activities, while reserving the traditional wool uniforms for specific, high visibility events; competitions, large or specific parades, etc.
Despite the potential benefits, Smith said such a sweeping decision to move away from something as traditional as the band uniform wouldn’t be made lightly, nor without considerable discussion between himself and school administrators, as well as the Helias Foundation on behalf of the school’s donors.
The growth of the Helias band over the past decade has been nothing short of spectacular. The atmosphere they help provide at spirit events, parades and especially at football games can’t be overstated. If the band’s field program from this year is any indication, the Helias marching band is indeed ready to take flight and soar to new heights.
Perhaps equally as impressive as the Helias band’s growth has been is the similar, if not more extreme growth demonstrated by the school’s choir programs.
Jana Fox, who has been at the helm of the choir program at Helias since joining the staff eight years ago, currently teaches Concert Choir, Chorus, and Impact Show Choir.
When Fox took over the choir department at Helias, there were approximately 35 students enrolled across all three classes. In eight years the program has exploded to count more than 120 students among its members. In addition to, and perhaps thanks to the growth, Fox added both a Women’s Choir and Men’s Choir to the program, formed from all the students in Concert Choir and Chorus.
Fox credits much of the growth and success of the Choir programs at Helias to the visible success and excellence displayed by her students. Students who commit themselves to the program become family and are very invested in its overall success. Likewise, they also become its biggest recruiters. That commitment and talent then gets an opportunity to shine for the entire Helias student body during all-school Mass performances and other events.
Ideally at some point in the future, Fox hopes that opportunity to shine will happen in a dedicated performing arts center at the school, something many feel is sorely needed for both the band and choir programs as well as the school’s theatrical productions.
Sometimes that success and popularity lead to what Fox says has been the only obstacle she’s faced while directing the programs. Many students when first beginning struggle to fit choir into their schedules, especially if they are interested in taking both band and choir. The struggle is usually short-lived though as those students committed to participating tend to figure out how to adjust their schedules to accommodate being a part of the choir family.
Fox hopes to alleviate some of the scheduling conflicts in the future by offering an additional choir class during the day, thus giving other interested students an opportunity to join the choir family who may have otherwise missed out due to restrictions in their schedule.
All the dedication and commitment, mixed with an incredible love of music and some exemplary teaching has led to a laundry list of achievements for the Helias choir program in Fox’s eight years. Numerous students have been named to All-District and All-State Honors Choirs; there have been several show-stopping individual performances at Missouri State Music Festivals and conferences, including 2018 sight singing bee state champion Hosanna Tesfaye; a multitude of State Music Festival exemplary ratings; and continued success at various Show Choir competitions.
Additionally, Fox says that several of her former students have found success in singing long after their Helias days have concluded. There are many graduates from the program who are currently singing in their own college choirs and music programs. She also counts one music teacher and one future music teacher among her graduates.
Fox says perhaps her greatest highlight and honor was an invitation for the Women’s Choir to attend and sing at the Missouri Music Educators Association Conference two years ago. Only five high school choirs received invitations to perform.
That’s some pretty elite company for a group of high school singers; especially when the Women’s Choir program has only been existence for such a brief time.
Because of the success of her students and the choir program under her direction, the Missouri Music Educators Association named Fox the recipient of the 2018 Outstanding Educator award.
But the awards and accolades aren’t what motive Fox. It’s a love of music and inspiring students to be life-long singers and lovers of music. Their passion is what fuels her passion, and it’s what helps carry on the successful legacy Fox has already built as director of the Helias choir program.