WAXHAW – The Cuthbertson Band started when the school opened in 2009 with only one class of 20 musicians. Eleven years later, the program spreads across Cuthbertson middle and high schools with nearly 500 students involved, earning awards and accolades along the way.
High school band director Todd Ebert has been with the program since day one. He directs the high school students, while his wife directs the middle school program. Now that the program has grown so big, a third director was brought in a few years ago for both of the schools.
While a typical class practice includes going over new music and practicing until it sounds perfect, a significant part of the program is intended to teach beyond the music.
“We’re using instruments to teach things like loyalty, dedication, attention to detail and striving to work toward 100% of a goal, not just getting by with mediocre,” Ebert said.
Another important lesson Ebert teaches is teamwork. He said while many parents would be elated if a child came home with a 95% grade on a test, it would not be the same in band because they are working together to achieve a goal.
“We build a lot of teamwork into the program because everybody has to succeed,” Ebert said. “If everybody in band gets a 95, that means everybody made five mistakes. Well, if you have 70 people in class make five mistakes, you can imagine what that sounds like. So, we really build that teamwork of striving to get 100%, no mistakes. Everything is perfect.”
Ebert said there have been studies that show the lessons taught in high school band programs are part of the reason why students in these programs perform better on college entrance exams. He said band programs are one of the only types of programs that have these life lessons built into them.
The intensity and difficulty of the program does not veer students away; it draws them in. Ebert said many of the students start the program in middle school and grow within it through their senior year of high school. Some have gone on to teach music after graduating college.
Because the band meets so frequently and travels to competitions and performances together, Ebert said there is definitely a social aspect of being in the band program. Beyond that, he believes so many students stay in the program because of the freedom of emotional expression.
“Very few places do students get to explore and experience emotions in a safe environment,” Ebert said. “If we’re working on a happy piece, of course we’re going to discuss happy emotions and talk about things that make us happy and try to portray that emotion to the audience.”
On the opposite side, if the students work on a more somber piece, they are given the opportunity to explore deeper emotions. Ebert said when students worked on a piece about the Soviet invasion of Prague, they discussed emotional topics, like how it would feel if their homes were invaded.
“We explore those emotions in a safe environment in the band room and they learn to cope and understand what those emotions are so then they can portray them to the audience in the musical performance,” Ebert said. “They understand that it’s a journey and they want to go on that journey, so I think that keeps them there. Constantly wondering what’s going to come next.”
Nyah Woland is a sophomore French horn player in the Cuthbertson band who is also involved in some of the smaller chamber groups. Her father and stepmother, Aaron and Suzanne Woland, encouraged her to join the Cuthbertson band, despite the fact that she transferred from Parkwood Middle School and had not been involved since the beginning.
Suzanne Woland said since joining the band, Nyah has fallen in love with music all over again.
“At Parkwood, she felt like she was going to stop playing music,” Aaron Woland said. “We convinced her to give Cuthbertson band a try when she got to high school … Now, she lives and breathes it again and just loves music. It’s just such an incredible program and they really put a lot of focus on it. As difficult as the program is, it does a lot to drive her love for music.”
Suzanne Woland also said Ebert’s program has taught Nyah how to work even harder to accomplish her dreams. She said Ebert is not afraid to challenge his students to get the best out of them.
“I think that really helps with Nyah striving to be better and keep trying to get better,” Suzanne Woland said. “I’ve never heard someone be more into the symphony and the orchestra and wanting to see it at the Blumenthal than Nyah, and that’s all because of Mr. Ebert and his program.”
Watching students get better and excel at their music performance is one of Ebert’s favorite parts of the job. He believes students must learn how to fail before they can succeed. When they fail, he encourages them to use those lessons to get better.
The program’s challenging method works. The Cuthbertson High School band has previously been selected to perform at state convention, in the honor band at the University of South Carolina and the University of Georgia, as well as the National Band Concert Festival, which is one of the top-performing events in the country.
This year, the band was recognized by the Foundation for Music Education as a mark of excellence program. Ebert said they are the only band in North Carolina to receive the commended winner designation. The band was recently named a semifinalist for The American Prize, a nonprofit that puts on a large-scale competition for the arts. They will also perform by invitation at a national chamber and percussion festival in Indianapolis later this year.
With so many awards and recognition, Ebert said it can be challenging to find a place to go from here. He always strives for the band to go above and beyond. Moving forward, he hopes to work with composers so students can play original music. However, this will take sponsorships and funding in the future.
While he is proud of his success as the high school band program’s director, Ebert is even more proud of his students, who have achieved their own success as well. One of his students, a drum major from the school’s marching band, was recently accepted to march in the Rose Bowl with the National Ensemble.
Ebert hopes to provide more opportunities for student in the future and find ways to highlight the hard work they are putting into their passion for music.
“These students work so hard and they do such a great job,” Ebert said.