When the Sam Houston High School marching band takes the field later this month, its members will bring with them a year of hard-won experience along with a sense of accomplishment and triumph.
Bruce Adams, the storied show band’s director for the past 15 years, typically worked with 40- to 50-member bands year after year. But at the start of the 2021-22 school year, the East Side band’s roster listed four students, with only one returning senior.
Adams blamed the coronavirus pandemic for decimating his band. And unlike wealthier schools that have a strong pipeline that feeds students into high school band programs from middle school ensembles, Adams had a group of true novices to teach.
“We hadn’t learned to march, most of the kids that came in had never even played an instrument,” said Adams, a 1988 alumnus of Sam Houston. “It was probably one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever had in my life.”
“Students will come in from other schools and not know how to play … other schools can afford to send the students to private lessons. There are some parents at Sam who pull their kids out of band because they have to pay the [$300] band dues.”
Sam Houston’s marching band is known across the nation in musical circles for its energetic, show-stopping performances. It has performed in the Washington, D.C., Memorial Day parade and in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. The hallway leading to the band room features a jam-packed trophy case that stretches from floor to ceiling.
That kind of reputation carries great expectations, but the band — now with more than a dozen members — wasn’t ready for the football team’s season opener. During the first week of school, Adams said he repeatedly turned down requests for the band to perform at the season-opening pep rally.
Then came the first football game.
Adams said students’ nerves made the band late to the first game, causing them to miss their scheduled performance of the national anthem. It was the only song they knew how to play, even if it “sounded like we were at a funeral,” he said.
“It was horrendous,” Adams said. “At the last football game [before the pandemic] everybody remembered us playing song after song after song.”
Said 15-year-old sophomore percussionist Jayla Bender: “We sucked in the beginning, I’m not gonna sugarcoat it.”
As the school year progressed, Adams was able to build the band’s skills through morning rehearsals, one-on-one sessions and practices during lunch and after school.
“The teachers here sometimes don’t really have the patience to sit down with their students and actually help them, but [in band] they do,” said Sydney Graves-Davis, a freshman cymbals player. “And I don’t feel embarrassed to not get something.”
Graves-Davis said she was on the verge of giving up on learning the snare, but encouragement from assistant band director TeAiris Majors kept her from abandoning the program. Instead of the snare, she focused on cymbals.
With the football season under their belt, the band began preparing for its next big challenge: performing during Fiesta at the Battle of Flowers Band Festival, the scene of many memorable Sam Houston performances.
Three days before the festival, Adams had the band rehearse its routine at least a dozen times, reminding his 19 students he expected them to wow the crowd.
He reassured them, too. “Don’t be nervous — you’re the show.”
The “Pride of the Eastside” wowed the crowd, and the judges, too.
Performing a cover of I Bet U Won’t by rappers Mouse and Level, the band turned into a blur of bright orange and green as the students sprinted, spun, jumped and jammed out in front of thousands of cheering spectators at Alamo Stadium.
At the end of the competition, Sam Houston’s band took home two more trophies — first place in the 4A Division and the Chairman’s Best Entertainment award — to add to its collection.
After their performance, the group was met with more praise from band members of other schools.
“I just performed for Fiesta, like what?” Graves-Davis said incredulously. “Things like that make me feel happy. … I’ve really come this far.”
This article has been updated to correctly reflect that Bruce Adams has been director of Sam Houston’s band for 15 years.