Jesse Orta leads the Burbank HS Band in concert rehearsal. Photo by Scott Ball

Show up at Luther Burbank High School music hall at 8 a.m., and you can hear the Bulldog Marching Band playing some  of the best high school music in the city. Don’t expect any honking, squeaking or poorly timed cymbals. The school’s top band is working toward concert-worthy quality performances, and soon they will have an audience to match.  

The band plans to make its national debut before a crowd of thousands this May at the National Memorial Day Parade in Washington D.C. The Bulldogs hope to make a good show as one of the bands representing San Antonio and Texas as they march down the National Mall and Constitution Avenue. Last year only 22 bands we able to participate in the parade, and numbers will likely be similar this year.

“It really is an honor,” said Jesse Orta, the marching band director.

Jesse Orta leads the Burbank HS Band in concert rehearsal. Photo by Scott Ball
Jesse Orta leads the Burbank High School Band in concert rehearsal. Photo by Scott Ball

Taking the band to a Memorial Day celebration in the nation’s capitol holds special significance for Orta, a veteran of the United States Marine Band.

The band’s invitation to participate in the parade originated with a nomination by Mayor Ivy Taylor and U.S. Rep Joaquín Castro. From there, Orta and the students had to prove their mettle, submitting an application that listed prior accomplishments and background. Fortunately, the band already had several UIL distinctions under its belt, as a marching band and in the solo and ensemble category. Since Orta arrived at Burbank three years ago, he has helped the band grow from a small group of 39 students  to almost 140 students. He saw similar success in his former post at Highlands High School. Orta’s track record and the stunning progress of Burbank’s musicians left no question that the band is a success story.

To get their entire band to Washington, the Bulldogs will have to raise $90,000. They have found most of their support from alumni and family so far, but they have a long way to go. Their next installment of $23,000 is due on March 1.

“There’s a lot of things we’re trying to sell to the same people,” joked Isabel Meza, a senior at Burbank, and one of the band’s drum majors.

Isabel Meza (r) and the Burbank HS Mighty Bulldog Band clarinets. Photo by Scott Ball.
Isabel Meza (r) and the Burbank HS Mighty Bulldog Band clarinets. Photo by Scott Ball.

The fundraising will kick into high gear this month, including a percentage sales event at Charming Charlie on February 7. For those looking to support the band, donations can be made through GoFundMe, www.burbankband.com. Checks can also be sent to the SAISD Foundation,1915 N. Main 78212, with Burbank Band in the memo line. 

Meanwhile, the band has UIL concert band competition coming up. They are looking to repeat their success at the UIL marching band competition earlier this school year, where they were awarded first division honors, and participated in the area competition for the first time in almost 20 years.

When we visited the wind section practice, Orta was prodding the saxophones, clarinets, and others toward clarity and emotion.

“No sneaking in!” Orta said to the timid flute as she began her solo.

“Is that how you would sing to someone you love?” he called to the trumpets.

The kids enjoy the banter, arguing over whose tuning app was more accurate, and looking mischievously amused when an unclaimed squeak escaped the saxophone section.

“We’ve all felt like a family,” said Meza.

Senior Richard Johnson (l) plays the saxophone for the Burbank HS band. Johnson is also part of the International Baccalaureate Program, and hopes to head to Yale or Harvard in the fall. Photo by Scott Ball
Senior Richard Johnson (l) plays the saxophone for the Burbank High School band. Johnson is also part of the International Baccalaureate Program, and hopes to head to Yale or Harvard in the fall. Photo by Scott Ball

We gathered with some of the student leaders of the band, juniors and seniors who have helped Orta build the program. Many of them are also part of the Burbank International Baccalaureate (IB) program. For them, band fulfills their creativity requirement, and the trip to Washington will contribute to the program’s emphasis on global awareness.

All of the students plan to go to college. Jesse Orta’s son, Vincent, is senior and a percussionist headed to A&M Kingsville to study music. He wants to be a band leader like his dad. Other students are still waiting to hear back from University of Southern California, Yale, MIT, University of Rochester, University of Miami, and other impressive schools. Most of them planned to continue to pursue music as some part of their continuing education.

“(Music) allowed me to grow as a person as a whole,” said senior Christopher Corona, a baritone sax player.

Corona wants to be a professional musician, but is also aware that this might mean having more than one job to pay the bills. Not one of the students seemed to lack work ethic. One student waiting to see Orta was balancing his tennis equipment with a trumpet case, all precariously piled on his back.

When students discover a passion for the arts, be it music or otherwise, they tend to excel across the board, said Orta. This has something to do with the beneficial effects of art and music, and something to do with the exuberance of finding one’s passion.

“I have almost zero failures (in academic classes),” Orta said.

Orta shares the student’s enthusiasm. Not one to throw up a half-hearted try, Orta wants every competition and performance to be something the band can be proud of, including the National Memorial Day Parade. 

“If we’re going to do this, then we’re going to do this,” said Orta.

Once the band gets through UIL, they will begin rehearsals for their parade pieces. Orta’s selections for the occasion are tributes to the occasion and the band’s identity. He has chosen “San Antonio Rose,” and, of course, “The Marine’s Hymn.”

Burbank HS Mighty Bulldog Band tubas. Photo by Scott Ball
Burbank High School Bulldog Band tubas. Photo by Scott Ball

*Top Image: Jesse Orta leads the Burbank High School Band in concert rehearsal. Photo by Scott Ball.

**Correction: an earlier version of this story contained inaccurate reports by sources within SAISD claiming that Burbank would be the only San Antonio school marching in the parade. However, Tom C. Clark HS (Northside ISD) is also planning to attend the parade. Congratulations to the Cougar Band, and we’re sorry for the error! 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.