You know you’ve done something right with your band program when middle school students are clamoring to get in the door. When making the band is kind of the thing.
Over the past 10 years, Cockrill Middle School Band Director Gary Williams and Assistant Directors Matt Harp and Robin Winter—as well as former Assistant Director Ken Moses—have fostered a culture of support, camaraderie and individual responsibility among their students that has taken on a life of its own.
In December, they became one of only three bands in the country to earn the highly prestigious Sudler Cup from the John Philip Sousa Foundation. To put the award in perspective, there have only been 52 bands which have received the national honor since the foundation began awarding it in 1985.
Ten years ago, the Cockrill band program started with about 130 students. Now, there are around 400 kids in and out of the band hall every day.
These kids are carrying the torch of the groups that have gone before them—and illuminating the path for those who will follow in their footsteps. Williams credits the students with lighting that fire; he and his colleagues just stoked the flame.
They talk a lot about legacy around the Cockrill Band Hall, and the current iteration of the band is doing their part to keep that legacy going.
“It happened 100 percent organically,” said Williams. “You don’t want to put kids in here and make them be here if they don’t want to be here. I’ve got several kids who come in at 7 o’clock in the morning, and they practice…and they’re happy to be here. They’re happy to help. It’s just really neat. It’s all organic. One hundred percent.”
The Sudler Cup was established to “identify, recognize and honor junior high school and middle school concert band programs that have demonstrated particularly significant high standards of excellence in concert activities over a period of several years,” according to the foundation website.
The standards are quite rigorous, and the award is presented only when the foundation’s panel of judges deems submissions worthy of the honor. There’s no guarantee that anybody will receive the award. Some years have seen up to four schools honored. In other years, only one. In 1998 and 2009, no recipients were chosen.
“It basically rewards a program that has consistently shown a high level of performances,” said Williams. “Not even just performances, but the overall program in terms of the individuals playing at a high level. The health of the program is really important, and we basically had to submit a portfolio of everything that our program has done in the past few years.”
The process requires that a director has accumulated at least seven years at a school before a band’s submission will even be accepted. Other requirements include submitting concert programs, recordings from the previous year, photographs, press clippings, written recommendations from nationally recognized conductors. The band has to have performed at regional, state, national and professional “meetings of significance” and received superior ratings from qualified evaluators.
Check. Check. Check, Check…
“It’s pretty amazing,” said Williams. “You don’t realize all that you’ve done until you start compiling a portfolio like this, and it’s really interesting to look back at all the names of future All-Staters that have come through our program. It’s pretty inspiring.”
Many of those past band members have moved on to the programs at McKinney North and McKinney Boyd. But, they tend to come back and visit. They care about the legacy at Cockrill—and about maintaining the legacies at their current schools.
A group of Boyd band members was there during class to help out the current players—and also to encourage the eighth-graders headed to Boyd next year to continue with the Bronco Band in high school.
For Boyd sophomore Savannah Brito, coming back to Cockrill was a rewarding, but at times, awkward experience.
“Coming back here now, it’s pretty amazing to see what the kids here have accomplished,” she said. “They come up to you and they’re like, ‘You’re Savannah! I know you!’ And, I’m like, ‘Oh…’ They talk about past pieces [that we played], and…it’s really an honor just to be a part of that.”
Boyd freshman tuba player Kaylan Ahmed played in the Cockrill Band that was chosen to perform at the Midwest Conference in 2016. “I think this Sudler Cup award is really special because during [my eighth grade] year, we obviously had this crazy…middle school band program that everybody thought was super magical. It will always hold a special place in my heart, and it’s good to know, coming back, there was no drop off [in performance]. It’s still always going to be like that in this program. It’s always going to be something crazy, something that everybody is always going to admire, and I think that’s just amazing.”
The current players thought it was pretty amazing, too, when they received news of the Sudler Cup award.
“I sat down and the girl next to me said, ‘Oh my goodness, we just won the Sousa Award!’” said eighth-grade bassoon player Madison Blackson. “And, it didn’t even register in my mind. I was like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ And, then I was like, ‘Oh, my goodness! That is crazy!’ I was at a loss for words.”
The award prompted McKinney ISD Superintendent Dr. Rick McDaniel to stop by Cockrill and encourage the Honors Band to continue pressing forward. “Thank you for representing Cockrill Middle School and the work that your directors do. All I can say to you is keep doing what you’re doing. Fine arts in McKinney ISD is [well-known] not just citywide, not just in this area, but I’m telling you—nationwide. Our fine arts programs are something special and you’re a large part of it — you’re a large part of the reason for that.”
For Williams, the accolades have always been great, but they have been the by-product of the band’s work ethic. Any time they began to focus on winning awards, he said, the program began to suffer. He is more focused on what he and his colleagues are building into their students each day—and how it is going to impact the future of those students.
“The legacy is what our kids are doing outside our band hall walls,” Williams said. “We have kids that are in college right now. We have kids that are going to be band directors. We have kids that are in high school in leadership positions. We have kids making All-State. We have future All-Staters. We have future professional musicians. We have future drum majors.
“And, not only that, we have future doctors and lawyers and everything else sitting in our band hall as well. The pursuit of excellence is going to be something that carries on no matter what job they have. I think that’s something that they can learn by being in our band hall.”
And, if that’s the lesson they’re pushing, the kids seem to be passing the test with flying colors.