It's about dedication, having lofty goals and always raising the bar. Toss in a bunch of kids with a love for music and you have the recipe for a successful band program.
That would be the case at Stewart Middle School. In the three years since Scott Leahy took over as director, that band program has sprouted from about 64 students to more than 170.
It's not just about numbers. These young musicians are good, whether Leahy is coaxing the beginners through Ode to Joy or leading the advanced band through Locomotive Chase.
That rolling piece, complete with clanging bells and whistles, "is breathtaking," said principal Jackson Johnson Jr.
"It's hard to describe in words just how good they are," he said. "One only has to hear them."
Their great sound has been built with a "can do" attitude and countless practice sessions in which Leahy compliments students on their "nice syncopation" in between grilling them on music dynamics.
"I am very strict," said Leahy, who was recently nominated by his peers for the esteemed Tom Bishop Award for rebuilding the program. "I push them very hard."
It has paid off in tangible ways: consistent "superior" ratings in group and solo evaluations, a Best Marching Band trophy in the Zephyrhills Holiday Parade, Best Overall and National Grand Champions awards for performances at the Dynamic Music Festival and a State Level Winners award in the Mark of Excellence, National Wind Band Honors Project. One of the two Pasco students who qualified for the 2008-09 All State Band came from Stewart. Just last week 17 band members qualified for All County Band, with seven earning the coveted first-chair spot.
No doubt Leahy has something to do with that.
"He's one of the most passionate teachers I've ever had," said trumpet player Matthew Jennings, 13.
"He dedicates a lot of time to the band," said French horn player Katie Hill, 13. "He's here after school and before school to help you with whatever you need. He even helped me with math so I could get my grade up so I could try out for All County Band."
"He's a really good teacher, but he's like a counselor, too," said flute player Ben Green, 13. "He makes us show him our progress reports and report cards and he doesn't like to see any C's. He's always telling us to get up to the A's and B's."
"He is a phenomenal music teacher," said Karen Marler, the principal at Lacoochee Elementary, where Leahy taught before moving on to Stewart. "His enthusiasm and ability to inspire students is way beyond the norm."
"Saying he was dedicated would be an understatement," Johnson said. "It's just impossible to reach the level this band has without total commitment, and that's what he gives it. He's here all the time.
"The band performs a lot around the community. I sometimes worry about him because he does so much."
Leahy can't see doing it any other way: "I have to be dedicated as much as I possibly can. There's just no other way to do it."
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It's a different world than the one Leahy grew up in back in Ohio, where his mother was a trumpet-playing youth choir director at a Lutheran church. Leahy became versed in voice as well as piano early on. He took up the trumpet in middle school, moving on to percussion after he got braces.
"In middle school we had a nine-period day, so I was able to be in the choral and the band programs," he said. "I took home economics and shop and P.E., too. And that was all separate from my core classes."
Because Florida funds only a six-period school day, exploring multiple electives isn't an option for students. Those struggling academically often have to take intensive reading or math classes in place of those electives.
"My experience as a kid was just tremendous. I think it's a shame that we don't offer that these days," said Leahy, citing facts, figures and studies that prove that students who study music benefit academically.
"I feel that the impact of music is greatest on these children who struggle in school, and it is often those children from whom it is taken away," he said. "We've tried to adapt, but I cannot provide for these kids what I was given as a child."
Leahy does what he can, even tutoring students to keep them in his class and encouraging others to consider online classes so they can fit music and required intensive classes into their schedule.
He has seen success: 22 eighth-graders are eligible for the high school International Baccalaureate program; 90 students made first-quarter honor roll.
"What I personally have noticed over these years is tremendous: at-risk students who have stayed in school or simply become better learners because of their passion for the band program; students who couldn't pass the FCAT in sixth grade now making the magical 3's in all subjects."
It's an uphill battle, but Leahy promises to continue to challenge students because that's what works.
"These kids are becoming brilliant because we continue to raise the bar," Leahy said. "My goals are lofty, and we just continue to grow."