McKinney, Texas – It was a bucket list moment for Cockrill Middle School Band Director Gary Williams. Back home, his students were screaming joyfully into their phones at each other with the news.

But, in a meeting room in San Antonio, in mid-July, standing among his peers from around the state, the world stopped momentarily for Williams when he found his band’s name at the top of the TMEA results list.

He almost couldn’t believe it.

They had done it.

All of the work and determination and frustration and hope that had piled up over the last five months had brought him to that moment. Had brought them all to that moment.

Together, they had done it.

Honors and accolades are not a new thing for the Cockrill Middle School Honors Band. They seem to collect some form of noteworthy recognition every year—a tradition that they have forged with unrelenting determination.

Over the last five years, the band has earned plaudits as National Winners in the Mark of Excellence project, had the rare honor of being chosen to perform at the internationally famous Midwest Clinic and, last year, were one of only three bands in the country to earn the Sudler Cup from the John Philip Sousa Foundation. 

But, one coveted honor—and arguably the toughest to grab—had eluded them: the title of Texas Music Educators Association (TMEA) Honor Band.

Until that moment this past summer in San Antonio.

Now, Williams, along with Assistant Directors Matthew Harp and Robin Winter and their band of hard-working seventh and eighth grade musicians are officially the 2020 TMEA CCC Middle School Honor Band. Since last year’s eighth graders are now freshmen, this year’s group will take up the mantle to perform at the TMEA State Convention in San Antonio in February.

The Cockrill Honors Band now bears the distinction of being the first McKinney ISD group to land a TMEA Honor Band title, and it earns them membership in a fine tradition of TMEA Honor groups from MISD. Faubion Middle School in 2015 earned TMEA Middle School Honor Full Orchestra recognition. And, McKinney Boyd High School, Evans Middle School and Eddins Elementary School have all earned TMEA Honor Choir designations—Eddins, three times.

The TMEA Honor Band title means that Cockrill is the best middle school band in the state in division CCC—which denotes the largest sized middle schools—and in Texas, there is an absolute torrent of competition to ford in order to claim that prize.

“The TMEA honor performance is extremely competitive because they only take one out of each category, so there is only one CCC Middle School Honor Band that will perform at the TMEA conference in February,” said Dr. Dan White, MISD director of fine arts. “And, there are strong music programs across Texas, so that audition process goes through multiple rounds. It starts at a region round—where who knows how many bands from across the entire state have gone into that? Then, to area and then to state. So, those 16 bands this year that made it to that state level were all amazingly good bands. To come out number one from that group is spectacular.”

Williams was understandably proud of his students. 

“I can’t even look at a picture of that last year’s band without tearing up,” he said as he sat in his office in the school’s recently renovated band hall, playing sections of the recordings the band submitted to TMEA in late spring. “I was doing a parent meeting the other day, and I choked up. I’m choking up now, again, talking about it.”

The music that sounded from the speakers—“His Honor” by Henry Fillmore, “Laideronnette, impératrice des pagodes” by Ravel/Beck and “Variations on a Korean Theme” by John Barnes Chance—belied the ages of the performers responsible for them.

It sounded authentic and heartfelt and authoritative. There was remarkable technical precision, but also nuanced musicality and emotion dancing among the notes. 

That didn’t come by chance. It was borne of intense determination, some tearful moments and a belief that each iteration of the Cockrill Band is responsible to carry on the legacy—a belief that, together, they could make it happen.

But, the students’ initial reaction to the music that Williams placed before them was not promising.

“We all thought when we got the music, ‘This is impossible. We’ll never be able to play this,’” said eighth grade baritone saxophonist Kimber Schulz. “Like, kids in tears and stuff because of how hard it was.”

But, what Kimber said next provided some insight into how the Cockrill Band went from, “This is impossible,” to the best in the state. “We would practice before school, after school and during lunch,” she said. “We would get groups of people just to practice certain parts that we were all having trouble with. We would work together…”

They supported, challenged and encouraged one another.

“Really the students and the teachers held each other to higher expectations,” said flutist Julia Nolen, who was a seventh grader in the band last year. “And, we all worked hard together, and we all practiced as much as we possibly could.”

Mia Nardi plays the trumpet. “When I would practice,” she said, “I would come to school early and practice before classes, and then I would come during lunch and then after school, of course. We all just really wanted to win and at least get somewhat of a good placing. We really tried to put as much effort into this as we could, and it was an emotional roller coaster.”

So, they were pretty invested when Williams traveled to San Antonio in July to find out the result of their labors. At home, the kids set up stations of laptops, phones and tablets, refreshing the TMEA website every few minutes in anticipation of the results. 

Meanwhile, a panel of five judges was evaluating the entries from the 16 finalists.

“On the day of the results,” said Williams, “the kids were like, ‘Today’s the honor band listening, right?’ Yes, it is. ‘When are we going to find out?’ How do you even know about this? I hadn’t even told you what day it takes place.”

In the final tally, three of the five judges placed Cockrill first overall, which classified them as the unanimous winner.

Williams stood for several moments, considering the results, soaking in the moment, remembering the journey. Proud of his students. And, supremely happy for them.

Together, the kids had become more than they thought they could be. They had done it for themselves and their school—and for each other. They had accomplished what they thought was impossible.

And, with that thought, Williams gathered himself, smiled and walked from the room.

———

Ava Thomas, oboe—“All summer, I was really hoping we would win because I know we worked super hard for it, but I just expected to get hopefully a good score—but not first. So, when I figured out [that we were first], I just kind of sat there and was just like…how? And, then I called my friend Anna, and we started screaming into the phone.”

Anna McCollom, bassoon—“Ava called me and was reloading the page the whole day, and then I took a break to go practice. And, when she called me, I completely flipped out. I was screaming. I started crying. Yeah, I had to calm down…”

Mia Nardi, trumpet—“We were all in a group chat together, so we were rapid texting each other and, like, refreshing the page…and when I saw that we won, I was shaking, and I didn’t know what to do. I was just in awe.”

Colin Pacheco, alto saxophone—“I was surprised, and I was really happy at the same time because…we were all reloading the website to see whatever we were going to be able to find out. I was just really excited.”

Joshua Kern, French horn—“It was so shocking that I didn’t even really know what to do. I was just kind of sitting there in awe.”

Julia Nolen, flute—“I was actually on vacation when I found out, so I was also very excited, and I kind of started shaking because I didn’t really think that it would happen. I wasn’t really expecting it.”

Kimber Schulz, baritone sax—“When I found out, I was very shocked…I was thinking throughout the whole summer, ‘Man, we’re not going to get it.’ I know we worked so hard. I was just thinking, ‘It can’t happen…’ And, then it happened. I just didn’t have any words.’”

Now, with eight pieces to prepare for the TMEA conference in February—and a hefty reputation to protect—the work begins again. But, Ava, Anna, Mia, Colin, Joshua, Julia, Kimber and all the other eighth graders have been down that road. And, they know it’s their turn to lead now.

And, they’re ready to tackle the journey. Together.

For additional information on McKinney ISD, contact Shane Mauldin, MISD Communications Coordinator, at 469-302-4007 or smauldin@mckinneyisd.net.