After years of waning membership, the Woodrow band is getting serious again

Chris Walls. Photos by Danny Fulgencio

The first-chair clarinet player walks into Chris Walls’ office at Woodrow Wilson High School.

“These are the ones I told you about,” she says, indicating three fellow students she has recruited for the band.

The students tell Walls they don’t play instruments.

“That’s OK,” he says. “I can teach you something.”

When Walls started as band director at Woodrow two years ago, there were 13 students in the band, and he kicked out six immediately.

“They were riff-raff,” he says. “They showed up, talked to their friends and got a 100 for the class.”

Those days are over now. Walls, who has a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the University of Colorado at Boulder, has since built up the band to nearly 60 students. They are raising money for a May 2-7 trip to Washington, D.C., where they have been invited to play with the United States Marine Band.

Each student must raise about $800 for the trip, so besides teaching them to play instruments and hit the exact same notes, in the same way, at the same time, Walls is teaching them to ask people for money: Stand still, be respectful, speak clearly.

The Woodrow band had seven students in September 2010; now there are about 50.

Walls draws a comparison to the Boy Scouts of America. In band, students learn discipline, organization and integrity. They have to be on time, be in sync, cooperate and communicate.

Walls rules the band hall with a combination of serious intensity and corny humor. He commands respect. When students goof off, he is quick to correct them, and he is capable of shutting them down with just a long pause and a look.

Band is important for a high school because it’s something students can look forward to, Walls says.

“Most kids aren’t excited about going to geometry class,” he says. “Geometry is important, but it’s not what gets them out of bed in the morning. It’s not what makes them not truant.”

Sheila Juarez joined band at the beginning of the school year, having never picked up an instrument before. Now she plays tenor sax, and recently she performed a solo at a fundraising concert.

“I wanted to be more involved in school and be able to experience high school,” the 10th grader says. “I was a little worried about how well I would learn, but I picked it up pretty quickly.”

Some members learned to play their instruments at J.L. Long Middle School, but they say the Woodrow band’s poor reputation kept many from joining.

Lily Burnside is one of them. She started playing flute in sixth grade, but the 10th grader didn’t join the Woodrow band as a freshman.

“There were like five people playing in the band at that time,” she says of her freshman year. “I didn’t want to be part of that.”

But she heard the band had improved, so she joined, and now Burnside is first-chair, the leader of the flute section.

Walls himself wasn’t sure at first that he wanted to take on the challenge of rebuilding this band. He started as a part-timer, clocking out at noon every day. But four weeks in, he was convinced to come on fulltime. Now the band hall is open from 7 a.m.-6 p.m. five days a week. It’s a long day. But it’s fun, Walls says.

“What’s fun is when you see the kids changing,” he says, talking above the cacophony of musicians warming up.

“Two years ago, you never would’ve heard music coming out of this room before class started. They would’ve been sitting there playing with their phones. And it’s phenomenal, the difference.”

Walls is passionate about music, and it rubs off on his students.

Junior Robert Johnson is one of the few who joined the band before Walls. He’s a percussionist, and music is his thing, but the band was disorganized before Walls came along.

“People weren’t committed,” Johnson says. “It was more like a hobby than a commitment. When Mr. Walls came, it was like, ‘Band is a part of your life, and you have to be committed to it.’ ”

Johnson, clarinet-section leader Brittany Hardy and others have been helping to recruit new band members all year.

The band program at J.L. Long is strong thanks to directors Jordan Smith and Caitlin Schmidt. About 175 sixth-graders enrolled in band at J.L. Long this year.

“In five years, we’ll have 200 kids in the Woodrow band, easily,” Walls says.

He recently ordered new marching uniforms, which come in this summer. Walls says he’s not sure whether the students will raise enough money for the trip to the nation’s capital in May. But there’s only one senior in the band, and Walls has a connection in the “President’s Own” marine band. All the money students raise this year will roll over to the next school year if they don’t spend it. So if they don’t make it this year, they’ll go next year for sure, he says. Walls plans to take the band on one trip every school year.

“We just want to let the community know that we’re back, and we’re thriving, and we’re ready to rock n roll,” he says.

Walls is looking for volunteers to offer private music lessons to band members. To volunteer or make a donation to the Woodrow Wilson High School band, email Chris Walls.

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