Leo Werner strikes up Mountain Pointe’s bands

Leo Werner returned to Mountain Pointe High School as its band director two years ago after a nine-year hiatus from the school’s program, which he started when it opened. In those nine years, he started a band program at one school and revived the band program at another. (Pablo Robles/AFN Staff Photographer)

Mountain Pointe High School’s band and orchestra are soaring in achievements and numbers and no one is more thrilled than their director, Leo Werner.

He is in his second year since returning to the school where he started the band and orchestra programs when the school opened in 1991.

He has followed through on his stated goals to improve competition scores and ensure his students learn to perform to the best of their abilities.

“We’re trying to improve our performance every time we take the instruments out of the cases,” said Werner.

It’s been Werner’s heartfelt mission even before he started his second stint at Mountain Pointe after a nine-year hiatus.

During those nine years, he had teaching stints at Combs High School in San Tan Valley, where he established their band program, and Brophy College Preparatory, where he revived and restructured their band program.

As he prepared to return to Mountain Pointe in 2017, he told AFN: “We want to come off the field feeling we made something special happen. The awards and trophies then usually take care of themselves — at least they did the last time I was here.”

He was both prophetic and self-confident.

Under his direction, the Lionhearts Marching Band leapt from a 10th ranking in Arizona Marching Band Association last year to fifth place this year. At the Arizona Band and Orchestra Directors Association State Festival, the Lionhearts missed qualifying for championships by less than a tenth of a point.

The Wind Ensemble earned its first “superior” ranking since the 2010-11 season, and the indoor drumline finished its season in the middle of an extremely competitive state division.

Yet, mention these and other accomplishments, and Werner deflects kudos, pointing to everyone else – from his students to their parents to the band boosters to even Centennial Middle School band director and Mountain Pointe Marching Band co-director Ian Grzyb (pronounced jib).

Werner admits he’s happy to be home, even with his unwieldy title of “Fine Arts Leader of Learning, Director of Bands and Orchestra.”

“I couldn’t ask for more enthusiastic, dedicated students: every single time I have to ask more of the kids — more practice, more effort, more time, they just continue to level up. That’s any director’s dream situation, right? To have kids that are eager to learn, work hard and support one another,” he said, adding:

“And the parents! They’re fantastic, and every bit as committed as the students. So while the band enrollment has grown by about fifty students, and our performing groups like marching band, jazz band and concert band continue to excel competitively, the band boosters have grown and are excelling too.”

The founding director of Mountain Pointe High School’s award-winning band, choir and orchestra programs from 1991 to 2008, Werner says his student’s families and fellow boosters are invaluable to the continuation of the programs — especially the Lionheart Marching Band and the expenses it entails.

“We’re especially proud of how determined our Mountain Pointe Band Boosters group is to help individual students and families who might not be able to participate in marching band because of the costs that the school district can’t cover,” said Werner.

“We’ve got about a dozen families regularly involved in projects throughout the year, and for our invitational last November, we had nearly 100 volunteers,” he continued. “We already know we will be hosting our AzMBA division marching championships next Nov. 9 and the boosters are already planning.”

“They’re unstoppable - and a lot of fun,” he added.

Werner praised the parents’ willingness to open their pocketbooks even though “we’re a bargain, compared to nearby marching programs.”

“We collect about $225 per student over the course of about six months, to pay for materials, clothing and items the kids will use and keep,” he explained. “Nearby programs are charging three to five times that.”

“To be fair, they all do a huge number of things with the funds they collect, and there are phenomenal programs across the country where the costs are even higher — absolutely no disrespect to our sister schools.”

“We just want to make sure any and all Mountain Pointe kids who want to be successful and have a great time in marching band can do so at an affordable cost.”

New this summer season is a two-for-one bargain offer for siblings and even friends wishing to be a part of the Lionheart Marching Band — which holds summer preseason camp July 17-20, with regular season rehearsals stepping off July 22-27.

“The 2X1 siblings idea came out of a discussion with boosters about how we could help families with more than one student in the marching band. And we’re also extending that to current students who get a friend to join the marching band. Finally, the $225 is not just for camp — but for the entire 14-week season.”

An interesting note about the Lionhearts Marching Band, it was Werner who came up with the name in the early 2000s.

“It seemed every band was ‘the pride of something’ so we came up with ‘Lionhearts’ as our band name, and the logo with the lion face and heart-shaped mane,” he recalled.

He laughed when reminded that his first name, Leo, is Latin for lion.

Werner said he’s proud of a lot of things happening in his department. “I have to talk about the rest of the music program here — there are some exciting changes coming for the whole department,” he said.

“Our campus administrators have been steadfast in their support of re-growing all the music groups, and they’ve helped us expand our piano and choir classes into a full-time position. We just hired an energetic and experienced person to take over those programs next year,” he said excitedly.

“The orchestra and guitar classes are also growing and we hope to expand those into a full-time position in ‘20-’21 to allow us to bring in another teacher for those programs, he continued, adding:

“Our winds, brass and percussion enrollment are up too, so we will share a percussion teacher with Desert Vista High School next year, since they needed an extra class to fill out his schedule. It’s a big win for our percussion students.”

And because Kyrene Centennial Middle School is a feeder school for Mountain Pointe, Werner keeps his eye on their growth as well.

He’s enthused.

“Great things are happening each and every day at Centennial Middle School in their music programs. Ian Grzyb has grown the band at Centennial larger than it’s ever been, Scott Green is doing incredible teaching in orchestra, Ben Rabinowitz has their choirs singing unbelievably well,” said Werner.

“They’re all so talented and they get their students excited to be involved in music. Everyone sees the huge hours they put in,” said Werner.

“Next year we hope to travel on the same weekend with all of the middle school and high school music groups — it will be a blast for everyone involved!”

Werner recalled that Facebook memory recently reminded him of his announcement that he was returning to Mountain Pointe.

“It sure hasn’t felt like two years, and I’m looking forward to many more,” he said.

Werner, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Music Education at Arizona State University, has lived with wife Melissa and their two children near the high school for 24 years.

As Werner said in his return-to-Mountain Pointe interview two years ago, and reiterated in this one, “It’s not about me. It’s about the kids.”

And as his students, present and past, will tell you, he means what he says.

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