SPRING HILL — At Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, band is big — really big.
Currently, the school's top band has 58 seventh- and eighth-grade members. And that's just the Navigator Band. The school also has a beginning band open to fifth- through eighth-grades, a concert band for sixth and seventh grades, and a seventh- and eighth-grade jazz band.
The students have various opinions about why band is so popular at Challenger. They give the teacher, band director Michelle McCarthy, 28, a lot of credit. They say she makes it fun. She has clever ways of helping them remember the correct way to play.
And, "Ms. McCarthy makes it easier for us," said seventh-grader Rolando Garza, 12.
But there are other reasons.
Eighth-grader Keith Scott, 13, plays marching sousaphone and credits band with helping him do better in math. He joined in sixth grade and said his math grades are higher now.
"Studies have shown it can help with math," he said.
He seemed convinced.
Eighth-grader Jenna Bahnken, 13, plays the euphonium.
"It's important to me to be in band because it helps me relax," she said, "and I'm passionate about music, and it's fun."
Jenna also does her part to build the band's numbers.
"I meet fifth-graders and tell them, 'Hey, you should join band this year.' "
Seventh-grader Iris Bui, 12, who plays alto saxophone, commented similarly.
"I think older children encourage the younger children, and they see how cool it is," she said.
Seventh-grader David Bond, 12, plays the clarinet and likes band because, he said, "band is like a family because we all care about each other. I convince a lot of my friends to join and my little brother."
Eighth-grader Rachel Lee, 13, seems to have landed in the band as a result of her background.
"Since I come from a musical family, I decided to take the opportunity, and I made a lot of new friends," she said. "Most of my friends are in band."
Eighth-grader Misa Viveiros, 14, plays trumpet.
"We play pop music that people like, and we work really hard to play it well," she said.
Seventh-grader Hope Miller, 12, plays trumpet.
"We're dedicated," she said. "We can make great music."
Said seventh-grade flute player Anusha McKinney, 12: "I'm in band because I like music, and I always thought it was pretty snazzy."
Seventh-grader Tristan Carsillo, 12, is in the band because, well, he had no choice. The saxophone player said his mother stuck him in beginning band in fifth grade. He isn't keen on admitting she was right, but he acknowledges she was.
"Originally, I wasn't very happy about it," he said, "but now I'm very glad."
Zachary Bombly plays French horn, and the 13-year-old eighth-grader appreciates the band's travel opportunities.
"You get to show off what you do to other places," he said.
His most distant trip so far has been a performance at Disney World. The band had a special rate to go to the park, and they received Mickey Mouse ears with "performing arts" written on them.
McCarthy is in her sixth year as Challenger's band director. Students choose band, probably for many of the reasons band members mentioned. But she suggested another factor contributing to the band's size and success.
"I was lucky to walk into an established program," she said.
Many of the district's middle school and K-8 bands are in rebuilding mode.
She also does recruiting of her own. When the guidance department talks to fifth-graders, she takes the band so they can check it out. And she invites fourth-graders to see them.
Students see the band at the annual Veterans Day program, the winter concert and football games.
"And I will sometimes go to classrooms to visit or send notes home. Any opportunity I have to play for kids," McCarthy said, "I do."
With a band this size, McCarthy mentioned, she is always on the lookout for instruments, particularly tubas and baritone saxophones, just in case any are lying around the house and need a good home.