WEBSTER SPRINGS, W.Va. — After making history last year, Webster County’s elementary schools are working hard to overcome challenges in creating a successful school band.
Fifth and sixth graders of Hacker Valley Elementary School and Webster Springs Elementary School make up the Highlanders of Tomorrow band, directed by their general music teacher Josh Tharp.
Last year, the students were the first elementary school band in the state to go to a WVSSAC band ratings festival event.
“We got superior ratings from all three judges for our performance. The kids were very excited,” Tharp said. “It was a very historic moment for not only for our program, but for the whole school and Webster County as well.”
Tharp said it didn’t take long for parents and other community members to ask if the program would return this school year.
“As long as the kids have fun, they give me great effort and are willing to do it, I think we’ll be just fine,” he said.
The Highlanders of Tomorrow then returned to the Region 8 Concert Band Festival, once again receiving all superior ratings.
“It definitely is a big deal,” Tharp said. “A lot of kids were excited, especially the kids that were going for the first time this year. The students that went last year were more calm, more relaxed, and they served as mentors for me. They would mentor the fifth graders or the first year band students.”
But this year’s success didn’t come without challenges.
“Half the kids that were in the original Highlanders of Tomorrow Band moved on up to the high school as seventh graders,” Tharp said. “We had some kids who got homeschooled, and we had some that moved out of county due to parents taking another job or finding other opportunities outside of Webster County.”
While last year’s band was comprised of 70-plus students, Tharp was concerned that numbers would already slip.
“It affected our band enrollment a little, but when kids leave the county it also hurts the school enrollment as well,” he said. “The population in the whole county is declining, so that’s been the biggest challenge is trying to maintain the percentages, maintain the numbers despite lower enrollment.”
However, to Tharp’s surprise, participation percentages remained steady.
“At Webster Springs, we had like 47 kids participate in band in fifth and sixth grades. That’s about half of the class,” he said. “Then we had 14 students over at Hacker Valley in grades 5 and 6. That’s basically every student in fifth and sixth grade.”
Though Tharp recognizes that the Highlanders of Tomorrow is simply a beginning band for students, he said there’s great value in getting them started early.
“I just want them to develop fundamentals and gain the confidence for performance as they enter Webster County High School as seventh graders,” he said. “I want them to develop into great musicians, and I want them to have a solid foundation of not only music but life.”
Students are then more prepared, rather than overwhelmed when joining the high school band.
But it’s not only music that these students are learning.
“The biggest thing I emphasize is responsibility,” Tharp said. “The kids have to be responsible for getting their instruments to and from the school. A lot of them practice at home. They have to learn how to maintain their instrument, how to clean it, oil their valves, grease them, and also maintain their music and folders.”
And most of all, it provides a sense of unity.
“It teaches them social skills, how to work together as a team and as a family. I really encourage people to help each other out because that’s what band is — it’s a team. And just like any other sports team, it takes a team effort,” Tharp said. “If we all work together and help each other out and encourage each other, we can get a lot of things done.”
While the next school year is still months away, Tharp already has some goals for the next Highlanders of Tomorrow beyond just the spring concert and the band ratings.
“Honestly, our goal is just to maintain the level that we’ve achieved the last two years and maybe do some bigger performances outside of Webster County — maybe perform somewhere in Charleston, like the town center during Christmas, or somewhere at like a bigger event where we just put on a few pieces for a small concert,” he said.