Mountain Pointe High Band/Orchestra Director Leo Werner is well aware of his uphill battle ahead as he works to regain band and orchestra students after a year of COVID-19 and the resulting campus closures.
“Districtwide, we knew our enrollment overall was declining, but this hit us all at once,” said Werner, who is in the fourth year of his return engagement at MPHS, where he initiated both band and orchestra programs when the school opened in 1991.
Werner originated the Lionhearts Marching Band name.
During a nine-year hiatus from Mountain Pointe, Werner established a band program at Combs High School in San Tan Valley and revived and restructured the band program at Brophy College Preparatory.
While he had steadily increased music program numbers at MPHS, the pandemic helped to dissipate music classes across the board.
“There are kids who haven’t set foot on this campus for more than a year,” he said. “Fortunately, we’d started with SmartMusic software before this all began. I’d say we have 40 to 45 percent of students back on campus four days a week since we got the green light in March. But other students are still doing auditions and classes online.”
In the MPHS music room, he directs students sitting in front of the director’s podium while watching and listening to a group of others on the laptop to his right who play at home.
Since his return four years ago, Werner has maintained that his foremost focus is his students.
And that dedication has remained even as he has, like so many other band and orchestra teachers, tried to maintain some sense of normalcy during the pandemic’s vagaries of life.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the students and what they need. My mantra has always been, ‘This is your band and it’s going to be what you want it to be.’ And we’re continuing that as we work to rebuild.”
Like his Desert Vista cohort and friend across the village, Josh Thye, Werner said the Lionhearts band and orchestra have felt the effects of area middle schools providing band only as an after-school event during the lockdown without an in-school class as before.
“With no band for the current eighth graders, many have fallen away from it. At Mountain Pointe, we’ve remained a class in the kids’ school day,” he explained. “Some of these former middle school band kids are just finding out that in high school, it’s still a class.”
Increasing band and orchestra numbers is a key objective for Werner.
“Right now, we’re trying to piece together specifics to the band; trying to find out why kids aren’t signing up. We want them to join us again,” he said.
Mountain Pointe High School Band Boosters – a group of parents and community members who have been staunch supporters – remain active as the new normal plays out.
“We just met with the executive board of the Boosters this week and at this point, we’re taking most of our cues from the state superintendent and agencies and what they allow us to do,” he said. “If things change again, we’d have to roll with it.”
One word Werner repeats often during his conversation is “hopeful.”
“We have our fingers crossed that between vaccinations and more people masking, we can resume something like normal activities,” he said. “We remain hopeful.”
MPHS senior Ella Werre plays flute, piccolo and alto saxophone and has done so since her freshman year when Werner returned to build the program that at the point had only 20 band members.
She said this year has been “disappointing, to say the least.”
“Over the summer I, and all my friends, were desperately hoping for marching band to happen. I mean, we’re all seniors, and last year we had the most amazing season and we were so excited for it to happen again, and to be even better. Little did we know, COVID would not end with the summer,” she said.
“We didn’t cancel marching band, instead it was online, but all the competitions were cancelled. We couldn’t do in-person practices. And we didn’t really have a show at all. In a year full of disappointments, this has been the biggest,” said Ella, who is on the student leadership team for band and orchestra.
The camaraderie of in-person interaction has been a huge loss for the 17-year-old.
“I love the atmosphere of band practices, how it can be kind of hectic and crazy. And being on the student leadership team, having to keep track of all the freshmen and make sure they all have their instruments and their marching shoes, you felt like it was very important, and it was fun,” she recalled.
“Online you don’t have the opportunity to have that. As leadership, your new responsibility now is just to beg people to turn on their cameras, or respond to you,” she explained.
“Practices were depressing honestly, being alone in your room having to mute and unmute,” Ella continued. “I mean I practice at home all the time, but when you never have the opportunity to get back together with the band and put it all together it sometimes can feel like there’s no point to practicing alone in the first place.”
“Being able to watch the band grow was the most exciting thing all these years and it really felt like we had accomplished something. This year, watching it all deteriorate from something that we had no control over at all, really hurt,” she said.
Marvin Banks, also a MPHS senior, has played bass clarinet and baritone saxophone in the marching band since his freshman year.
“We went from a small group of 20 to about 60 who made it all the way to championships,” he enthused. “Of all my years I would say junior year was the best one because that was our most successful year.
“And then ‘IT’ happened – the infamous COVID lockdown. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t super excited for the whole online school thing. It took us all by surprise and through this whole ordeal things seemed like they’d never be the same, he said.
Marvin said that while he normally tries “to stay as optimistic as possible in situations that seem bad,” his optimism was put to the test.
“Just as things were beginning to look up and we actually started to return to some sense of normalcy, we were once again condemned to Google Meets,” he said. “We still persisted with online practices and sectionals but it felt like everything we did was meaningless.
“For months going ‘to band’ felt more and more like a chore than being part of a group who could accomplish anything,” he said.
Marvin said coming back to school was “a relieving experience.”
“I still have hope for this group. Losing the seniors will be a pretty big loss to the band but I know the underclassmen will definitely bring this group back from this depression,” he envisioned.
“With a band director like Mr. Werner guiding them it’ll be even better for sure. He’s helped me grow as a person and always tries to push us in the right direction.”
For Werner, even having a portion of his students rehearsing with him in-person since March 15 – even if only 45 percent of the band – has been a boon to his spirits and those of his students.
“We’re trying to hit the restart button and get things happening again,” he said. “We may start voluntary after-school rehearsals as early as April 20. We also have an in-person concert slated for May 13 if the students are willing.
“We are trying to keep the students safe, and we hope we’re seeing the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. I hate to keep using cliches, but each move we make is another toe in the water.”
Werner is already working with the Arizona Marching Band Association to have Mountain Pointe host the state championships next November.
“We’re moving forward with our
calendar. Right now we have Marching Band Camp on campus this summer, and we’re hopeful.”
Even though Ella Werre won’t be around for that much-hoped for event, she said the return of even a partial in-person band has been a mood lifter. Like Marvin, she looks to the band returning to its former glory.
“Now that we’re back in person, band has definitely improved. We get to play together, and it reminds me of better times of unity and no-masks,” she said.
“In the coming years I want our band to get bigger. I want the next seniors to not forget how this band works and how we act. My freshman year, there was an attitude of self-deprecating humor….I had to work hard to change that. I don’t want the band to ever feel like that, and I don’t want any new members to ever have to listen to that from their leaders.
“Most of all, I hope that next year the band can all be together again. I want next year’s members to have as much fun as I did, make amazing friends and amazing memories.”
Werner maintains that he’ll keep plugging to recruit new members signed up, and will continue encouraging his present students to enjoy the experience.
“I think my primary goal is to help them find joy in their performance, and be excited about what they’re able to do,” he said. “To be empowered, not just musically, not just in the band room, but throughout every aspect of their life.”
And for Werner, building his band and orchestra again is no tilting at windmills, but a path he’s chosen to follow, regardless.
“For me, this is more than a job,” he said. “It’s part career, part calling and part crazy,” he said, smiling. “That’s just what we do.”