“Music is in our DNA”: Band directors on values, setlists, and the arts in New Orleans

March 1, 2019

There are more than 70 parades each Mardi Gras season. In addition to the colorful floats and festive krewes, school bands are a highlight of each one. Students march in many parades each season, walking long distances with heavy instruments, rain or shine. They play song after song for cheering crowds, performing for hours on end. They practice all year for this moment, guided by one person above all—their band director.

Band directors are heroes in New Orleans. They help preserve and shape the culture that keeps our city so strong. They are powerful educators, but they are also role models, local leaders, and talented musicians in their own right.

We spoke with two of New Orleans’ band directors: Chris Herrero of Edna Karr High School and Charles Jackson of Lafayette Academy Charter School. Their reflections shed light on the importance of school bands in our city.

Band directors are an enormous part of their school community and students’ lives.

“It’s very much a full time job, 24-7. There’s not a point in time that I’m not a band director. I might have a parent or student texting me at any time with a problem, and I do my best to help them out.

With the students, I’m more than a teacher. I’m a role model. I help set the standard. We’re all a close family and I’m never off the clock. Even when I’m not with the kids, I’m always planning in my head—what can I do better tomorrow than I did today? It’s non-stop, but I love it; it’s what I signed up for.” – Chris Herrero

“My students inspire me every day to try to be a better teacher. They motivate me to find innovative ways to keep them engaged in band. You don’t want to keep doing the same old thing. You don’t want to only do what you, as the band director, think is best for the band—they’re in the band too, so their voice matters, their opinion matters.” – Charles Jackson

Band isn’t just about music. It’s also about passing down important values and supporting personal growth.

“They learn pride. Self pride, pride in their program, and the ability to carry themselves a certain way. At Edna Karr, we always talk about pride; our school motto is “second to none,” and it doesn’t always necessarily mean you’re the best every single time—even though that is our ultimate goal—but you’re the best version of yourself possible. The hardest thing to do in life is be better today than you were the day before. I try to instill that in my students. I want that work ethic to carry on post high school, into college. We’re building up young men and women into productive members and leaders of our community.

I also want them to have love for themselves and love for everyone around them. I want them to never forget the relationships they build in this band room. It’s a crazy world out there, and I want this to be a safe haven for them, where they can escape the harsh realities and just be themselves.” – Chris Herrero

“I try to teach discipline, responsibility, accountability, and respect. You always want them to be better—they’re good, but you want them to be great. You want them to be the best they can be.” – Charles Jackson

Being in the band involves long hours of practicing and lots of hard work.

“As soon as they get back from Christmas break, they hit the ground running, and put in in all those miles practicing and marching around Algiers.

The kids of the Edna Karr High School band are a disciplined bunch. They’re being trained to be productive leaders in society. They work hard—academically, musically, and in their community.” – Chris Herrero

Band directors are strategic about their set lists, but there’s one spot where every band takes the chance to show off.

“You have to cater to everyone when you’re coming down the street; it’s kind of like a party everywhere, but the crowds are different. On the route, you can play “Don’t Stop Believing,” and you can play a song off the Billboard Top 100.

But under the bridge, it’s the band-head crowd. They want to hear a song they played when they were in high school or middle school or college. The acoustics amplify the sound, and if you’re not bringing it, that’s your judgment day. You forget what anyone else on the route thinks, once you get under that bridge.” – Charles Jackson

“We have a big song list for when we’re marching. We carefully pick what songs we’re going to play under the bridge, or onto Canal, or on Napoleon and St. Charles—those big spots. The biggest highlight for the bands is the part under the bridge—that’s band central. By Gallier Hall, you play for the politicians, but for the community and the culture, it’s under the bridge.” – Chris Herrero

New Orleans needs its bands.

“The arts are very important and need to remain in our schools. It’s a musical city. If you take band away from the city, you would have a lot of kids who are just aimless. It would diminish the culture of New Orleans tremendously.You wouldn’t have as many brass bands, either—most of the brass band players I know, I marched with them in high school or they marched with other high schools. If you get rid of music or band in the city of New Orleans, the culture of New Orleans would die. It would be a good place for seafood and the Saints, but that would be it. “ – Charles Jackson

“What differentiates New Orleans’ Mardi Gras from other cities’ is our band culture. It’s very competitive and lively—it’s the mecca of bands. The music is in our DNA.” – Chris Herrero