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Small band, but big sound

10/30/2012

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

By DIANE GASPER-O'BRIEN

dobrien@dailynews.net

Chris Johnson said he thinks the best way to build a high school band program is to give students the opportunity to participate in honors band.

That keeps them challenged, he said.

Sweeping superior ratings across the board at the fall season finale doesn't hurt, either.

Dighton High School, the smallest school participating in Monday's High Plains Marching Band Festival at Fort Hays State University's Lewis Field Stadium, was one of four high schools that received the top rating in all categories.

The other high school bands to accomplish that feat? Class 6A schools Junction City and Manhattan, which have more students in their school than the entire town of Dighton.

Class 4A McPherson, which has 10 times as many students as 1A Dighton High also accomplished the feat. The only middle school to earn superiors in all categories was Lakewood out of Salina, which has an enrollment ofalmost 800 students.

"This is pretty cool for us," Johnson said of the honor. "We've not done that before."

Bands are rated by six different judges -- music I, music II, marching and maneuvers, general effect, percussion and auxiliary -- then are totaled together and averaged. Dighton was not judged in auxiliary because it did not have a twirler, dance team or flag corps.

Because Dighton plays eight-man football, its band even had to bring along yard markers to simulate the smaller 80-yard field on which it is accustomed to performing.

"Our (field) hash marks are different, too," Chris said. "So it makes it interesting."

No matter.

The Hornets' marching band still received loud applause from a crowd that was dwarfed in the spacious stadium as the band performed to music arranged by Johnson and his co-director, his wife, Makenzi.

Then, during the awards ceremony, Dighton joined in the applause and cheering when it was announced it had received superior ratings in every single category.

"That's the most I've heard them cheer since I've been here," Chris said.

Both Chris, who grew up in Leoti, and Makenzi, a native of Plainville, participated in band from fifth grade on. Makenzi said Plainville didn't participate in the High Plains festival while she was in high school, and Chris remembers his school, Wichita County High in Leoti, coming to Hays for the performance just once.

Nonetheless, the High Plains Marching Band Festival -- and Fort Hays State University, period -- hold a special place in their hearts.

The two met in 2004 at two-a-day band practices at Fort Hays, where both were on scholarship.

They married in 2009, and Chris took a job in 2010 at Dighton, where he teaches choir, band and psychology.

While Chris was living his dream of becoming a band director, Makenzi was living in Hays during the week, finishing up her degree at Fort Hays, and joining her husband in Dighton on weekends.

The next fall, they joined forces in USD 482. And participation numbers keep rising in band, which had less than 20 members the year before Chris came to Dighton.

This year, 41 of the 66 high school students are in band, as well as 35 of the 40 junior high students.

"Next year, we're looking at 50 (in high school)," Chris said.

Makenzi teaches fifth- and sixth-grade band in Dighton, "and he helps," she said of her husband.

"I have junior high," Chris said. "And I help," Makenzi added.

And the couple co-teaches the high school students. Chris played mostly trombone and tuba in high school and college, while Makenzi played clarinet and saxophone.

"I'm the brass specialist, and she's the woodwinds specialist," Chris said. "It works out pretty well."

"It's a unique situation," Makenzi said, "and we're really thankful for it."

Chris also is the Hornets' golf coach in the spring, and Makenzi is assistant volleyball coach in the fall. So they are well aware of the time management required of the students.

"We understand how busy they are, especially in a small school where (students) are in about everything," Chris said. "So we're flexible. It's all about building relationships with the kids."

On Monday, that building foundation got a little bit stronger as the co-directors sat with their students while watching other bands perform.

"They love to stay and watch the big bands," Makenzi said of their students. "They ask, 'Can we do this?' and 'Can we do that?' They want to try new things, do what some of the big bands do."

On Monday, they did. And in the process, the Hornets accomplished something a lot of bigger bands didn't.