By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV
Last year, the Pocahontas County High School Band had 38 student members and a full-time teacher. But over the summer, their director took another job and the school board had no applicants for the vacant position.
“It was such a downer,” remembers Jadyn Lane. “But we were given a choice.”
Principal Joe Riley told them they could sign up for other electives, or find a way to make the band work.
Most students signed up for other electives, but ten students decided to stay–Hailey Fitzgerald, Miya Johnson, Emilynn Hall, Miles Fitzgerald, Kaidence Cutlip, Jayden Lane, Reggie Whiting, Eric Dibble, Olivia Hamilton, & Sabrina Leyzorek.
“It wasn’t an option to quit,” says Hailey Fitzgerald. “I’ve been in the band for seven years. I love it! It’s too important for too many reasons.”
“Yeah, you’ve gotta have a band,” Hailey’s twin sibling Miles Fitzgerald added.
The students nominated Hailey as director, a position she accepted on the condition they would all work together and share responsibilities. They recruited Casey Griffith and Jennifer Nail-Cook to be their official faculty advisors. Casey does the paperwork, and Jennifer helps with the music.
“They direct themselves,” says Casey, who teaches math at Pocahontas County High School. “Have they told you about their rules?”
Front and center on the band room whiteboard are a set of rules which they students created themselves.
Rule 1–Be ready to play with your instrument within five minutes of arriving at class.
Rule 2–Follow the director’s lead. (No complaining about which songs they’d play.)
Rule 3–Keep the band room clean. (No sugary drinks which might hurt the instruments.)
Rule 4–Take your instruments home on the weekend to practice.
Rule 5–Only play your instrument.
In addition, they made a calendar of their upcoming gigs–football games, Homecoming, and Veteran’s Day. It included a daily countdown to each event so they’d be prepared.
Perhaps most importantly, they decided which instruments were necessary to make a band of this size work–clarinet, trumpet, alto, tenor, and drums.
But they still had one big problem. Most of them were drummers. And they weren’t a drumline. (They considered that option, but decided it wouldn’t best meet the community’s needs.)
How could they play those instruments with the people they had?
“Several members switched instruments and some even learned brand new ones,” Hailey says. “We aren’t even big enough to fill a closet, but we have instruments and uniforms and we are a band.”
How’s it going? ‘Swimmingly’
The time came last month for their first public performance. It was a home football game against Richwood. They had no idea what to expect. Would it work? Would the crowd cheer them on? Would they amp up the football team?
“It was a struggle to know when to play what song,” confesses Casey Griffith, one of their two faculty advisors. “Who knew there were rules for that?”
But overall, it went very well. “Swimmingly,” as Emilynn characterized it.
To their surprise, a group of students made posters for the band and hung them at the entrance to the football field. As they walked to the game, they saw the posters for the first time.
“We thought some people didn’t even know we still had a band,” says Jadyn. But their classmates had been paying attention and wanted to make their first game special. “This is the most support we’ve ever gotten.”
The Pocahontas County Warriors won the game. Coincidence, I ask?
“They won,” says Hailey as she shrugs her shoulders, “it was the only one we went to.”
Challenges & opportunities
Taking on the task of directing themselves has seen challenges and opportunities.
Kaidence says this version of the band is easier in some ways. “We can help each other directly with instrumentation.”
“It is hard to find music, though,” Hailey adds. “The skill level isn’t the issue; it’s our size and instruments.”
Jadyn also says they’ve had to learn to improvise. “We’ve gone from higher grade pieces to lower grade pieces just because we don’t have many instruments in our band. We’ve become very creative!”
Ratings will be ‘a win-win’
Hailey isn’t holding back as director. She set an aggressive schedule for the band. “We’ll do all home football games, a Veteran’s Day event, and ratings.”
Ratings is an annual event which every band in the state is required to attend. They are graded on their performance.
“If they didn’t do ratings this year, they’d be put on restrictions next year,” adds Casey. “If you don’t do well at ratings, you get put on an improvement plan. We call it a win-win.”
Across the state and nation, a teacher shortage is leaving more and more students without a certified teacher in their classroom. The latest estimates from the West Virginia Department of Education show that there are more than 1,500 in certified teaching positions across the state.
In most of those cases, an uncertified substitute is hired to step in and fill the position as best they can. Hailey says the school board is still trying to find a band director. She appreciates that they’ve explored every option to find someone.
But even if they can’t, she’s not worried. “We’ll keep doing it,” she says.
“Band is a weird family,” her twin Miles chimes in, “but a family nonetheless.”
The room explodes in uproarious laughter. This family of bandmates may be unique, but they wouldn’t have it any other way.