While we often hear about how studying music improves students’ academic achievement, music education programs can also play an important role in building community. A strong music education program can establish a trusting and nurturing community of students and families who look out for one another during challenging times. Houston Symphony musicians see this frequently in their work with schools throughout Greater Houston, and we’d like to shine a light on the example set by Waltrip High School’s band program, under the direction of Jesse Espinosa.
Espinosa has been at the helm of the school’s band program for over 10 years, not only teaching but also serving as a mentor and friend for students and their families. Earlier this month, we had the chance to speak with him about some of the lasting impacts the band program has had on the wider community.
Jesse Espinosa, Waltrip High School band director:
“I put developing strong relationships with our students at the forefront of all that we do because the music and learning comes much easier when I’ve already established a strong rapport with the students. Because of the trust that we’ve gained, we’re able to help the students connect or stay connected, especially during challenging times. It’s an important role that educators have to bring some normalcy to the students and to make them feel comfortable enough to continue feeling excited about learning music, as well as learning in general.
In the band world, or the orchestra and choir worlds, we have multiple years to work with the students, so it does make it much easier on our end to have that kind of relationship with trust built in. As our students are trying to establish themselves as young adults in high school, we’re trying to teach them, in a very professional way, how to interact with their teachers and give the other teachers a chance to get to know them. Students start to feel comfortable enough to open up about issues and concerns that they have—whether they are dealing with things at home, in other classes, or stuff that’s happening in the hallways with their peers. I just go ahead and take it from there to offer whatever advice I think fits the situation.”
Espinosa on raising up members of the band community:
“I can think of some real big-time moments that we’ve had to go through with students, and the biggest one is probably a young man, Jose Tovar, who needed a heart transplant. We literally carried him off the marching field his sophomore year. We found out that it was his time, he needed a new heart, so the Ram Band took on the task of helping raise money for him to have this surgery. But what was he doing in the hospital the whole time? He was calling businesses and different people, trying to get donations for our band program because he had known what we were missing all the time. Jose’s heart was so into what the band was doing for him that he just couldn’t lie there in the bed and wait.
He was also proactive in continuing to work on his music. Jose was determined to get back on that field before he graduated. Then, thank goodness, a heart was found and the transplant happened successfully. He’s graduated now, healthy and enjoying life. We thought we were going to lose him at that time—it was very important for us to be a part of that and we’re so glad that we were able to see him through.”
“After Hurricane Harvey, we found out that a family with students in the band was hit badly. They were actually in a pretty dire situation before Harvey hit, but I had no idea. Soon after the hurricane, my wife saw the mother of the family walking down the street and offered to take her home. When she dropped her off, my wife was just blown away by how bad the situation was, and I went later to go check it out. We’re talking about huge holes in the walls and the floors, no running water—these people were showering outside with a bucket at 2 a.m. It was horrible. I called another Waltrip alum, Bishop James Dixon, around 10 p.m. that night and he agreed to help. That night, we took them to a hotel and Dixon helped them stay there for a week while we figured things out.”
That was another situation where that dynamic of being in the band and having that relationship allowed me to lend a helping hand. I always ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and when they respond with ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ I’m able to go farther and say ‘No, really, how are you doing? What’s happening? What’s going on with your folks? What are we doing for dinner?’ and the answers start to creep out. The next thing you know, you’re finding out some stuff that needs attention.”
“Recently at Waltrip, during the pandemic, we’ve had a number of situations. Unfortunately, we’ve had several students dealing with family members that have passed because of the virus. The kids are needy. They’re needy for social interaction, for attention, for education, but they’re also afraid of the general population of the school. Some students feel that coming to school during the day isn’t in their best interest. However, they feel safe enough and trusting enough of our situation in the band program that they come after school. The parents will make the extra effort because they know how much their kids need us right now, and they figure out how to get off work early or to leave work for a little bit to make sure their kids show up after school at 4:15 p.m.
Every year, we have a slogan that we come up with for the program. After the onset of the pandemic, we sat and talked to our student leadership team about what the slogan would be this year and we came up with ‘Adapt, Overcome, and Achieve.’ Music education has offered the opportunity and flexibility for them to be able to do those three things. It’s been a challenge to keep them engaged, but we’ve been fortunate enough to find some things to help them with that.”
This month, we’re honoring the outstanding work of music educators in Houston and beyond, with the annual Spec’s Charitable Foundation Salute to Educators Concert on March 20, during Musical Storytellers: Winds of the Houston Symphony, led by Principal POPS Conductor Steven Reineke.