Mountain Pointe High School’s Lionhearts Marching Band is on a mission to continually improve and add to its ranks, as graduating senior members mean attrition.
And their main source of recruits is Kyrene Centennial Middle School.
Since moving back into the directorship of the Mountain Pointe High School band program last fall after an absence of eight years, band director Leo Werner has worked to include CMS band members whenever and wherever possible.
There have been side-by-side performances with the Mountain Pointe and Centennial bands, and on occasion, as at the Sept. 21 Pride football game, middle school band members played along with the Mountain Pointe band in the bleachers and on the field at half-time.
Upcoming projects include Lionhearts visiting the middle school to provide free music coaching.
“We want them to feel they have a home here,” said Werner.
That mission is aided by Ian Grzyb who is the Centennial band director as well as assistant director of the Lionhearts Marching Band.
Mountain Pointe High School’s band program has long played stepsister to the multi-award-winning Desert Vista High School Thunder Marching Band.
The Thunder marching band, directed by Josh Thye, has won division state championships seven of the last eight years, including last year. Thye is a 1999 Desert Vista alum and was hired in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona.
The Thunder band’s next state championship competition is Nov. 17 at ASU.
Mountain Pointe High School competes in Division 1-A of AzMBA, a category that includes high school marching bands with up to 49 members. There are 25 high schools statewide in this division. In the Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors Association(ABODA), the Pride is in Division 4, which has up to 54 members.
The Lionhearts Marching Band has qualified for the Nov. 10 AzMBA State Championship.
“We’re trying to better our position. Last year we were 12th out of 20; this year we hope to crack the top 10 or higher,” said Werner, whose return last year was a true homecoming.
It was Werner who developed the band program when Mountain Pointe opened in 1991. The school motto “Purpose, Pride and Performance” resonates with Werner, 52, who has taught music, and directed high school bands, for nearly 30 years.
He is proud of the band and its growth, as miniscule as it might appear to outsiders. He is passionate about his students and their futures, not only music and school, but life.
“We’re trying to improve our performance every time we can while performing to the best of our abilities. We want to come off the field feeling we made something special happen,” said Werner, who has lived with his family in Ahwatukee for 23 years.
“The awards and trophies then usually take care of themselves, at least they did the last time I was here,” laughed Werner of his 1991-2008 stint at Mountain Pointe before heading to San Tan’s Combs High School, where he was once again the founding director of all music programs.
His band room, frequently alive with the cacophonous sounds of the percussionists at practice, reveals walls chockablock with awards from his 17 years at MPHS. Among them are those from the Fiesta Bowl National Band Championship and many state trophies and awards for marching band, as well as jazz and concert bands.
He sets his sights on accruing more, but he’s also a realist recognizing that building a band program takes time and effort.
“We’re taking it in smaller parcels with shorter term goals. We’re hopeful we can grow by another 20 students next year, adding another band class.” said Werner.
But there are the giant steps, too, as befits an award-winning marching band director.
“We’re reviving the Lionheart Invitational that we started when I was here last,” he smiled proudly of the Oct. 27 AzMBA-sanctioned competition at MP’s Karl Kiefer Stadium.
Enabling the growth Werner envisions goes hand in hand with the close working partnership with Centennial Middle School, a feeder school to MPHS.
Grzyb said his duties as assistant band director at Mountain Pointe give his Centennial band students a feeling of continuity.
“I make sure my band kids see I’m involved at Mountain Pointe and will want to continue in band in high school since they know someone there,” he said. “I sent over about 20 kids last year, and approximately 13 joined the first year.”
Grzyb, 26, is already well-known in the state, having served as percussion director at Flagstaff’s Coconino High School while a student at Northern Arizona University, receiving the NAU School of Music Outstanding Graduating Senior in Music Education Award.
A former Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra percussionist, he is currently the Phoenix Youth Symphony’s percussion director and vice-president of the Arizona Percussive Arts Society.
He, too, works to not only encourage his band students to participate in Pride bands, but visits area elementary schools, demonstrating and teaching about various band instruments while subtly wooing them to join band upon entering Centennial.
It’s a ground-level start.
“I’d say 95 percent of our kids who join band in sixth grade haven’t played an instrument before,” revealed Grzyb. “We take anyone who wants to join band, and I believe every kid has the ability to make music and be a part of the musical community, but ultimately their progress comes down to how hard they’re willing to work.”
He pointed proudly to his program’s growth.
When he started at Centennial in the fall of 2016, he had 116 students in four band classes. This year, he oversees six classes and 170 students.
“It happened with recruitment at elementary schools like Colima, Esperanza and Las Lomas,” he admitted. “One of the best parts of this job is meeting sixth-graders as they enter middle school and giving them a fresh start and helping them to discover who they are through music.”
Mountain Pointe sophomore Michelangelo “Mikey” Walter is one of the students encouraged by Grzyb to enter the Pride band program, a move he found difficult at first – especially at the competition level.
But after a year he’s found his stride – literally – as he serves as this season’s drum major and is clarinet section leader in concert band.
“When I first experienced that transition last year from a middle school band at Centennial to the Mountain Pointe marching and concert band, it was somewhat of a shock. I mean there I was, an incoming freshman without any major prior knowledge to what I might be thrown into. I had heard great things about the overall experience if I were to join the marching program, but I didn’t really grasp, in the first maybe couple of weeks or even month, the amount of work and the intensity of it all,” said Mikey, 15.
“The expectations were higher than the middle school level, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing as it helped in increasing my abilities as a musician,” he added.
The son of Duwayne and Shirley Walter, he credited the 2017-2018 seniors for helping make the transition easier. He refers to marching band as “one big family.”
“A majority of my friends, something like 99 percent of them, are all in the band, both marching and concert, and that’s also really helped my transition as everyone that I knew was in the same boat,” said Walter. “One of the difficulties I experienced was the high school-level festivals that we play at have a more rigorous grading rubric than those for middle school bands.”
Though more unusual, there are students who select to enter Mountain Pointe even though they may be within the Desert Vista boundaries.
Mouintain Pointe freshman Grace Tucker is one of those. A graduate of Akimel a-Al, she selected Mountain Pointe mainly to be closer to her mother, senior English teacher Melanie Bruce. She describes her transition to high school as “nerve wracking” due to what she anticipated in the differences from middle school band.
“But after getting to know the older students of the Lionhearts Marching Band and listening to how their experiences were last year, it made it easier knowing that I’m not alone in just learning how to march and play at the same time,” said Tucker, who plays alto saxophone in the marching band and flute in concert band.
“And I’m very glad I chose Mountain Pointe,” she added. “While I could have gone to Desert Vista, and could still go there if I want to, I think I’ll stick with Mountain Pointe for the win until the end of my senior year.”
For Werner, all his bands are a source of pride – no pun intended. As his marching band prepped to play at the away football game at Desert Ridge High School in Mesa, where their band director, Stephanie Campbell, was a former Mountain Pointe band member under his tutelage, Werner was with his string orchestra at Mesa High School.
Playing at the ABODA Fall Festival – their first festival in “many, many years” – Werner proudly texted their performance had earned them an ‘Excellent’ rating.
Werner’s connection and influence with his band students continue past graduation, he said.
Although the students have to leave Mountain Pointe after four years, he said, “I’m blessed they chose to remain connected and visit often. Witnessing them grow up feels the same as it does with my own children.”
Several weeks ago, he attended the wedding of a former Pride percussionist who now has his doctorate in music composition.
“A few months ago, I was honored to serve as the officiant of two former MPHS students. Two of our current assistants are MPHS alumni who marched drum corps and now have careers in teaching and counseling, respectively. Several local band directors are former MPHS students or former student teachers. After this many years, there are former students everywhere, and I love learning what they’ve accomplished.”