Strike Up the Band

Writer Amanda Christmann
Photography by Bryan Black

Touchdowns, cheers and school fight songs—it’s as American as apple pie and the Fourth of July. Yet in Cave Creek, the sound of the band has been nearly non-existent in recent years. Budget cuts all but amputated funding for music, and the high school band program tapered down to a dozen or so students.

Enter Kevin Brady.

Hired in 2014, Brady is breathing new life into music programs at Cave Creek Unified School District. As director of marching, jazz and concert bands, and guitar teacher at the high school, he is the face and the beat behind public performances at football and basketball games, pep rallies, parades and competitions.

The numbers may be small, but they are mighty. The high school concert and marching band now has 21 students and is growing steadily with the middle school feeder program Brady and a music educator Karen Dolezal are building. At Sonoran Trails, where Brady teaches concert band, 65 students are enrolled, with more signing up each year.

“That’s been kind of a major win for us,” Brady said, his youthful face lighting up with the accomplishment despite a shy smile. “It’s still small and it’s going to be building for a while.”

Of course, growing is a priority, but Brady is finding that there are some advantages to being a small band program.

“It was small, and it’s still small, but one of the great things about the size of our band is that kids are so close,” he explained. “They refer to themselves as a family. They really have to work together in ways that don’t tear each other down.”

Those relationships and skills are part of what drew Brady into music education to begin, and they’re a big reason he stays.

A native of Ronkonkoma, New York, Brady’s parents emphasized the importance of music.

“My parents decided when I was at a young age that I should at least learn some stuff,” he says with a laugh. “I started with piano lessons at 5 or 6 years old, and I learned a little piano. Then I started learning to play the trumpet, which was really fun—I took to that. I had friends who took to that, too, and when I was in elementary school, music was fun for me. It was cool because I was around other people who thought it was fun, too.”

That “fun” turned into something more.

“In high school, I was a pretty nervous and self-conscious teen. In band, I became more and more confident. I see that in my students now. Band is a place where they belong and fit in.”

He went on to study trumpet at SUNY Potsdam, and graduated with bachelor of music degrees in music education and music business. Fresh out of school, he looked for a job near his Long Island home before Arizona came calling.

“I’m just not that patient of a person,” he said. “I told myself that, if I could find a job anywhere teaching band full-time, I’ll go there. This was the first place I came to, and it seemed right.”

It’s been good for Brady, who since met his fiancé Emily beneath the desert sun; but it’s been an even bigger win for his students.

Though none of them had ever taken the field in marching band before, they fell into step and carried their tune well enough to earn a Superior rating at their first competition.

They went on to bring home additional Excellent ratings for the school. They even worked their way to state competition in concert and jazz band festivals—not too shabby for a fledgling program with a brand new teacher at the helm!

“Part of the beauty is that they have grown up with the program being the way it is,” Brady explained. “They’re one on a part, so every note they play stands out. They’re accomplishing these things that high-level bands are accomplishing, and they’re doing it because they have to.”

Individually, students also seized the opportunity to shine. Four students played their way to regional band, and two joined the prestigious Phenom Drum and Bugle Corps. Another student auditioned for Young Sounds, a Phoenix-based elite youth jazz ensemble.

The intrinsic value of teaching music-related skills is priceless, but even more valuable is the understanding that creating music, solely for the sake of music, is enough. For Brady, that passion that he sees in his students is the reward that means the most.

“The way those kids come together and work together—they try, try, try, try, try. They have a super strong drive to be the best that they can be and to create something together, and that’s really exciting as a director.”

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