Unlikely trio inspiring students to reach new octaves

By SHELLY WILKISON

Liberty Hill Band directors Karen Dyre, John Perrin and Kevin Baird on the sideline during a Panther football game last fall. (www.ThunderstruckPhotos.com)

One of the first major decisions a young student makes is choosing an elective class outside the required public school curriculum. There, among teachers passionate about the subject and knowledgeable in their field, students find new interests, discover hidden talent and grow into leaders.

In the band halls of Liberty Hill schools, there is a trio of teachers turning young people into musicians.  But it doesn’t stop there.

“Going into my senior year this fall at Texas Tech (University), I realized that all of my choices since the sixth grade have been influenced by music and band,” said Dylan Schneider, a 2009 graduate of Liberty Hill High School.

Schneider, a percussionist who played snare drums for the Panther Marching Band, is pursuing a degree in music education. He says his career choice was inspired by John Perrin, Karen Dyre and Kevin Baird — educators with very different backgrounds and talents who found their way to Liberty Hill.

With 370 students on three campuses, the trio of band directors who each work an average 70 hours a week for more than half of the school year, say they have the best jobs in Texas.  Motivated by the “ah-ha” moments of their students and professionally inspired by each other, they say it’s fun to come to work in Liberty Hill every day.

With 29 years of teaching experience — the past 16 of which have been in Liberty Hill — Ms. Dyre’s tenure and knowledge is at the heart of the band program.

With a keen eye for detail and the ability to turn teaching and performing into an organized process, Ms. Dyre brings a talent for turning ideas into reality. She brings those skills to marching season by developing the high school halftime shows. She writes the drills, carefully crafting the steps and motions of each student on the field — all to the rhythms and themes of the music.

Ms. Dyre came to Liberty Hill ISD from Giddings where she taught band for nine years.

She describes herself as “strict and disciplined” — qualities that work for her and get results from students.

While some younger students may not be up for the challenge, Schneider said that while Ms. Dyre “puts up a stern focused model for students to emulate, she loves her band kids very much. In my personal opinion, I think she’s just a softy.”

“We all come from different backgrounds and different types of experiences. We come at things with different perspectives, and always, always, Karen is right,” said Perrin, who directs the high school band.

“There isn’t a situation that comes up when Karen Dyre doesn’t know the answer,” said Baird, who joined the Liberty Hill teaching staff several years ago. “This is a valuable mentoring team for me. There is a lot of comfort in knowing that this is being done right.”

Baird, a saxophonist, worked 12 years for The Austin American-Statesman before “discovering” his true calling. While working as asssistant manager on the loading docks at night, Baird, who has a master’s degree in music education, taught music at a private Austin middle school during the day.

After earning a master’s degree in Kansas City, Baird joined the U.S. Air Force because he wanted to play saxophone in the Air Force Band. Stationed in Kansas City, Baird traveled throughout the Mid-Western United States and other parts of the world as part of a 48-piece band.

Today, Baird plays saxophone in an Austin-based swing band during his free time.

Over the years, he has developed a knack for hearing melodies in his head and arranging the music in writing. With the help of computer software, Baird arranges music for all of the bands and puts together parts for ensembles and solos in preparation for contests and concerts.

He also directs the jazz bands at the high school and junior high teaching music students various styles and encouraging them to participate in jazz ensembles. At the high school level, he is teaching jazz musicians the art of improvisation.

Baird wrote a song for the Junior High band, “Panther Prowl,” which the jazz band played during a school concert last year. Recently, he has writen a march for the high school band, which has not been introduced to students yet.

“There is a lot of satisfaction in having a group play something I put together,” he said. “For every student I spend time with, I learn to love and appreciate something new about music. And teaching them things they think they don’t like — well, that’s a lot of fun.

“I don’t know what I do (to inspire students),” Baird said. “I like to put my sax on the podium and demonstrate the sounds. I also like to teach them (sixth-eighth graders) to play things outside of the traditional pieces. They enjoy playing ‘Pink Panther’ and the ‘Flintstones.’”

“And he can back a trailer,” adds Ms. Dyre, who says the skill Baird mastered while working at the newspaper is in high demand — especially during football season as the marching band travels to games across Central Texas.

She said when Perrin interviewed for an opening on the staff six years ago, it was one of the first questions she asked him.

“I couldn’t do it, that’s why we have Mr. Baird.” Perrin quickly interjects, joking.

While the band directors take their jobs seriously, it’s no secret that they enjoy the camaraderie they have with each other, and the rapport they have with students.

Baird and Ms. Dyre attribute much of that to the influence of Perrin.

“John brings a different angle to it (teaching). He’s like a breath of fresh air. I see what he’s doing and it makes me think about things in a different way,” Ms. Dyre said.

Perrin, who occasionally wears a t-shirt offering that “I listen to bands that don’t even exist yet,” exhibits an energy in the classroom and the ability to communicate with young people that inspires them to work harder and think creatively. It doesn’t hurt that Perrin, a percussionist,  also enjoys some of the same music that teenagers enjoy.

The directors know how to play all of the instruments they teach, but each has a primary instrument they played throughout their education  and beyond. For Perrin, it’s the drums, Baird on saxophone and Ms. Dyre plays French horn with clarinet being her favored woodwin instrument.

During after-school sectionals recently in preparation for contest, Perrin was teaching a four-student ensemle “Carry on Wayward Son” by Kansas. He said the students chose the song themselves and Baird helped with the arrangement.

“They enjoy playing things they recognize,” Perrin said.

Although one wouldn’t know it by skimming through his IPod Playlist that includes pop bands from the past three decades as well as some indie music, Perrin was in opera class in high school. He enjoys singing and taught choir at the Junior High when he first came to Liberty Hill from Lubbock where he taught junior high band. Perrin grew up in a religious family and participated in church choirs and bands throughout childhood. That heavy influence brought him to music education, and his experience with a few “bad” band directors, motivated him to be better, to make a difference.

Today, while his Playlist is in alphabetical order, Perrin’s top artists are Afro-Cuban All Stars, Bad Company, Billy Joel, BJ Thomas, Black Eyed Peas, Boyz II Men.

“By the fifth grade, I knew I was going to be a teacher,” he said. “When I got into band, I was always the best student, and I was teaching private (music) lessons by my junior year (in high school).”

Ms. Dyre, who grew up listening to Broadway musicals listens to the Broadway channel on satellite radio.

“I guess I have eclectic taste in music. I’m a Broadway musical freak. I think it would surprise the kids, but I don’t listen to classical music because when I do, I start analyzing it,” she said.

Baird said his IPod is full of contemporary Christian music mixed with some jazz favorites.

“We walk a fine line between making the class (band) enjoyable enough so kids want to be there and disciplined enough so we can achieve good results,” Ms. Dyre said.

The directors agree that in a small community where athletics is dominant, fine arts programs find themselves competing with sports for students and resources.

While Liberty Hill’s band program is growing at the sixth grade level and junior high levels, enrollment drops somewhat when band students enter high school.

“Retention in high school is a challenge,” said Ms. Dyre. “Here, we are competing with athletics directly.”

“You hear the term ‘band nerds’ a lot, so I’m sure some of it is peer pressure,” said Perrin, although the directors agreed that this year’s band students seem to “embrace” the label.

“They are proud of that,” said Ms. Dyre.

This fiscal year, as every Texas school district faced cuts in state funding, Liberty Hill was among those that had to make tough decisions.

All programs were cut 40 percent, said Perrin. For the band, it has meant that some expenses had to be passed along to the parents. Meals and entry fees for solo and ensemble contests were picked up by parents, he said.

“I think there is an underlying feeling that band and other extra-curricular activities (like drama or art) are second to athletics,” said Ms. Dyre, clarifying that the perception is prevalent in most Texas school districts.

Perrin said after the school district dismissed classes early on the day the high school girls basketball team went to play in a state playoff game in Austin, one parent said when the band goes to state there could be another district-wide dismissal.

The high school band competes regularly in regional and state contests and routinely come away with awards and recognitions.

In fact, last week, the high school Symphic Band earned a Sweepstakes trophy at UIL Concert and Sight Reading Contest.

Thirteen students are going to State competition with their solo and ensembles.

“Our kids do well at Region Band and are successful at contests. We are competitive and we talk about it to the kids because we are always striving to be the best we can be,” said Ms. Dyre.

Liberty Hill’s high school band is the second largest in District 25-3A behind Burnet High School.

Ms. Dyre said students are learning at a higher rate because they are exposed at every grade level to all three band directors during every class period. While each director has certain responsibilities, they all commute to each campus during seven class periods daily. She said they give up their conference periods so they can all be present for each band class. It makes for busy days, but they realize students are more successful with individual instruction.

“Whatever passion we have comes from our  priority that we do what’s best for the kids,” Ms. Dyre said. “The kids keep us going.”

“Every day, there is the potential for another success point,” added Baird.

“That ah-ha moment — when a student has been struggling with something and all of a sudden they ‘get it,’” Ms. Dyre said.

“Some of those are life-changing,” said Perrin, adding that those moments motivate them to be better teachers. “Every day there’s a chance we will see another one.”

What’s in store?

For Panther Marching Band fans expecting to learn a surprise about next fall’s halftime show, the directors were somewhat silent on that subject.

“We do ask the kids what they think, and we’re hearing lots of ideas,” said Ms. Dyre.

She said the directors listen to all of the input and collaborate on the final show. When students report to summer band in August, the drills will start under the hot summer sun.

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Comments

  1. Meredith says:

    Great Article. “Carry on my wayward son” was my son’s ensemble! Funny we saw you that day. Learned a lot about the band directors. Now I know even more why I appreciate our band program so much!