The Heart of Texas Concert Band’s program in September piqued my interest to the point where I decided to meet the conductor, Mark Rogers, and learn more about what I found to be the best kept musical secret in San Antonio. The evening’s program was not an amateur production, but a top-notch concert band featuring some of the best musicians in the area. That performance highlighted motion picture music; Rogers told the audience that movies are the major format for modern composers.
While Rogers is an adjunct professor at San Antonio College (SAC), the band is an independent organization that enjoys a special relationship with SAC. The band uses the McAllister Auditorium for rehearsals and concerts and, in exchange, SAC music students fulfill a college requirement by playing in a band under professional supervision. A dozen college students and two high school students currently perform in the band.
Many members of the band seek and require challenging music to showcase their talent. On Nov. 22 the Heart of Texas Concert Band will have the opportunity to perform at the highest level, the reward for attending rehearsals every Tuesday, with Barry Hearn, associate principal trombone of the National Symphony Orchestra, and play “T-Bone Concerto” by Johan de Meij. They also will perform Alexander Borodin’s “Second Symphony,” a major piece transcribed for the concert band.
Rogers explained transcription in some detail to me, which, in a nutshell, means to convert music from an original form to a different format without the listener being aware of the conversion. Rogers assured me this concert will be one of the highlights of the season.
Rogers knows that a successful community music group must have a special relationship between the leader and the musicians; the Heart of Texas Concert Band is a product of this relationship. The average band member has more than 40,000 hours of experience, assuming he or she has played four hours a day for 30 years. This far exceeds the 10,000 hours needed for expertise theory. Even the youngest members of the band have around 2,000 hours of practice. Rogers himself has more than 40 years of experience.
He attended high school in Littlefield, Texas and studied music at Texas Tech University, which evokes images of football country. Not so for Rogers. He played bassoon in high school, and while courted by one of the nation’s top engineering schools, he knew that music was his calling.
He is the product of a quintessential musical family. His parents met in high school band. Rogers met his musician wife in college, and all of his children are musicians married to spouses who are also musicians or have assisted with band. His wife and son play in the Heart of Texas Concert Band.
Rogers also performs with the Corpus Christi Symphony, the Victoria Symphony, the Laredo Philharmonic, the Mid-Texas Symphony, and the Austin Symphony. He travels 25,000 miles a year for his obligations to these Texas groups, and still finds time to sing in his church choir.
The band brings together a wide array of volunteer musicians. The most veteran has 62 years of experience and the youngest is a high school student. One-third of its members are active or retired band directors. Rogers said they play for fun, not for career advancement or trophies for their bands.
Concert bands consist of wind and percussion instruments. The only string instruments are a bass and harp. High school band directors pursue a career path that requires them to win contests and obtain scholarships for their students, much like football coaches. These students advance and play in college, play for small bands or drop out of music.
The band’s members who don’t have musical careers clearly love music. They include several physicians, engineers, a medical technologist, a speech therapist and a hydro-geologist. The five community bands in the San Antonio area draw from the same pool of musicians, in addition to musicians who are band directors, music teachers or otherwise in the professional music business. The concert bandleader’s goal is to bring excellent music to the community with musicians who play because they love music.
Rogers is judged by two main criteria: Does the audiences enjoy his work, and do the volunteer band members stay with the band for long periods of time? If the music is too easy, band members become bored and leave. If it's too challenging, they move on to ensembles that perform music easier to master. If the music is too ordinary, the audience is uninspired. If the music is too complex, the audience feels ignorant and speaks with their feet. Roger’s challenge is to find a balance of musical pieces to suit both constituent groups.
I had the opportunity to visit with two of the volunteer musicians during a rehearsal. On the surface they are completely opposite, but share a few similarities. Tom Rudwick at 80 years young is returning to his love of music and Taylor Smith is just starting a musical career.
Tom played saxophone at Brackenridge High School and at Trinity University, and for a brief period played in both bands at the same time. He also played in small professional groups for 10 years during the 1950s. He left music to pursue a 41-year career in the Air National Guard, retiring as a colonel. At his wife’s urging he took a continuing education class in 2010 and soon after was invited to join the Heart of Texas Concert Band. He took private lessons for the first time in 2013 to sharpen his skills. Playing in the band seems to have put a spark back into his life.
I also spoke to Taylor Smith, a sophomore at Medina Valley High School. Taylor was invited to join the band when he was in middle school and has performed with the band four years as a French horn player. He is in awe of the other musicians who respect him despite his age because of his dedication and potential. Taylor says Rogers cultivates him and the other young musicians and is great leader, as is his high school band director.
Both Tom and Taylor are focused on music, one returning to an earlier love and the younger just commencing his journey.
*Top image: Heart of Texas Concert Band during a recent rehearsal. Photo by Warren Lieberman.