On a Thursday morning after Sparks High School students have finished their final exams, they are antsy as they count down the minutes until school gets out and Christmas break begins. In the band room, students are hanging out, finishing up some work, cleaning out their cubbies, and playing Uno. Meanwhile, Band Director Garrett Spalka discusses the recent first place win at the November 9 Nevada Band Championship and what it means to the students and the City of Sparks.
It all started for Spalka three years ago when he was finishing up his degree in music education at University of Nevada, Reno. He was studying in the mornings and student teaching in the afternoons, working at both Dilworth STEM Academy and Sparks High. Spalka started with 18 students in the marching band in the 2017-18 year, and then it doubled the following year to 36. “Now we have 45 kids or so, the sophomores are my biggest class,” he says.
The number of students currently in the marching band is a great accomplishment considering that the program was cut about seven years ago and has struggled to get its feet off the ground ever since. However, while it may be extra work for some teachers Spalka believes that there are several reasons why marching bands are important for a school- especially for one as diverse as Sparks High.
“Your school doesn’t get exposure when you don’t have a band. Marching band is a big part of your (school) identity. Football is a big one too, but it is limited to the field whereas a marching band is out in the community. You can take a marching band everywhere and it’s something that the general public can relate to. Plus, the band can play whatever they want- from pop hits to classical- and it improves the whole atmosphere,” he advocates.
When Spalka came into his position at Sparks High, he didn’t know how well a marching band would go over with its large Hispanic population, but he says that when he re-introduced the marching band and mariachi program, the students went nuts.
“It’s time they get to spend with their friends and improve their skills at playing their instrument. Some have even asked if they can extend practice an hour,” Spalka says about their dedication to the band. “Their personalities are so different; they devote themselves to it and they are really driven,” he adds.
The Sparks High marching band enters several competitions throughout the school year and gets second place in many of the events. However, clinching first place at the recent Nevada Band Championship took the Railroaders to a whole new level. It was the first time it happened in 40-plus years, and it greatly boosted the band’s confidence.
Spalka once told his students, “Winning isn’t everything, but it’s a lot more fun than second place”. The students took that quote to heart and have actively vied for first in competition- even just a half-point shy of the title in a previous competition.
“Last year we just wanted to get a band on the field, but this year it’s evolved to so much more,” Spalka says. He explains that it’s turned into more of a dance, an entertaining theatrical show. Marching band members learn several ballet positions, sometimes there’s props, they’re all in uniform, and their personality tells a story. The general public may notice that they’re all in step and they may recognize the song, but there’s a lot more going on in a competition.
In this year’s Nevada Band Championship, the Sparks High Marching Band competed in the Single A division against three other rural schools. Bands may enter any division they want (not knowing who else will be in their division), but it makes sense to compete against other similar-sized marching bands.
In the show that won the championship, Sparks High played around a theme titled “Nightmare” which served as a short story about a girl having a bad dream with the band playing around her. Sparks High set a bed up on the field and the band played a score around her that included Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and the “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel, ending with her waking up to “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as the band fades off the field.
Spalka had help from a staff that specialized in drumming, woodwinds, color guard, and costuming to help pull it all together. The most exciting part for Spalka, though, is seeing the progress and development of the students.
“This band has gotten so much better. This relationship is so different; we spend so much time together and these kids want to connect with their band director. This is their room, their safe place to be, where they can hang out with people they relate to. They eat lunch in here every day.
“To see them go from these antsy freshmen who can’t control themselves to seniors who are preparing for their careers- I love seeing that. We don’t just teach them music, we teach them how to be adults,” Spalka says.
For instance, if the school lets a student borrow a $10,000 instrument then they’ll hope that the student will take care of it. Along with learning responsibility, students dabble in leadership and even receive pointers on how to iron their uniforms and look presentable in public. In marching band, the students come together, take it upon themselves to learn the music, get together outside of practice if necessary, and get it done.
When you think about it, there’s a sharp learning curve for being in a marching band over a regular one- all the sudden a football game will pop up in two weeks and everyone needs to learn the National Anthem, pep songs, placement on the field, put on a uniform, and learn how to play outside standing up and moving around. It’s a lot of pressure.
But Spalka thinks back to his own high school experience, getting to travel to the City of Sparks’ sister city in Longford, Ireland when he had a once-in-a-lifetime experience playing with the Reed High School band, and Spalka wants to provide that kind of experience to his own students.
“We have to protect music in our schools. They’re learning new languages, new skills. This school, it’s a challenge. We struggle for funding, but these kids have made it clear that they want to do this. We took 30 kids to Disneyland last year, and watching their eyes light up…most of them have never been out of Reno. We’re making them more well-rounded people and we get to do important, fun and cool events, things you’d rarely get to do outside of that kind of band environment,” Spalka says.
“The kids who continue playing music after college on their own, that’s so important to me. This job is fun and rewarding. When kids say that they know what they want to do with their life and they want to keep playing music, that’s so awesome,” he adds.
Spalka emphasizes that the marching band wouldn’t be where it is today without City of Sparks residents backing them up, though.
“We’re so grateful for a supportive community and helping us raise this group from the dead. With their generous contributions, we’ve been able to get new music, repair/ update instruments. It’s really given rebirth to this program. These kids come from humble backgrounds and when they feel supported by the community, they light up. It makes a huge impact on them,” says Spalka.