HICKORY RIDGE MIDDLE _ Steven Stevens is one of five finalists for Cabarrus County Schools Teacher of the Year because he is an awesome band director. Interest in the program has accelerated since he took over at Hickory Ridge Middle School three years ago and it is pretty clear the music has gotten better year after year.
But for Stevens, music is just a “side product.”
Yes, he is absolutely passionate about music and wants his students to be just as enthusiastic, but for him, he wants his kids to strive to be better people first and the improvement in music will come along with it.
“Music is just the tool or the avenue that I use to help kids become great people, and successful people, and productive citizens,” he said. “That's kind of my philosophy wrapped up pretty tight.
“Music is the avenue, the tool that I use to teach kids how to be happy, productive, kind citizens. And when that happens in the band program and I’m treating them like that they start to treat each other like that, and they are treating me like that, and treating their parents like that, and treating their teachers like that, it becomes infectious really, really fast.”
Since taking over the Hickory Ridge Middle School Band three years ago, the change has been quantifiable.
Stevens was integral in generating interest for the school’s pep band which could be seen at basketball games throughout the year. In his first year at Hickory Ridge there were 16 people, now there are 110.
When Stevens started with the band in general there were 120 students in the program and now there are more than 400.
The school’s band is growing and the common denominator is Stevens who has been all about growing this group as a family.
“We focus a lot on leadership, providing students with leadership opportunities, we focus a lot on community as a group, teamwork as a group, but one of my favorite ones that I really drive home and work with the kids on is humility,” he said. “Being humble, that’s a hard thing for musicians to understand and to do especially when you’re really good, it’s hard to be humble.”
He continued: “But when you really think about it, it really opens the students’ eyes, you can’t really make music with other people if you don’t humble yourself. You’re sharp, they’re flat, you both gotta humble it out, get humble, find that middle ground and get in tune with each other, so there’s a lot of character traits like that.
“Trusting each other, being able to be reliable, there’s so many of those character traits that make you a good person, right? That we train. And we’re really, really specific about incorporating that into what we’re teaching and how we’re teaching it to get that end result of an amazing performance.”
After sitting down and talking with Stevens it is easy to come away with the conclusion that he was meant to do this.
And he wasn’t just meant to be a band director — though he is clearly called to do that — but he is meant to teach and he knew it from when he was about the age of the students he is working with now, even if it wasn’t entirely on purpose.
“I was in sixth grade band; I was placed in band by accident. They didn’t have space for me anywhere else and I had moved during the summer time so they just threw me in band,” he said. “I came home and I said, ‘Hey dad I’m in band,’ and he said, ‘You know, I have a clarinet in the closet, let me go get the clarinet for you.’ And so we got the clarinet and we had to go buy a new mouthpiece because it was broken and we had to go buy some reeds and he showed me how to get started, and I started band in sixth grade and my band director, Mr. Spiker, was phenomenal, he was amazing.
“And I left after my sixth grade year and moved to a different school. And seventh grade, I was one of the best ones in the section and I quickly became a leader in helping other kids to get better and my high school director at the time, Mr. Eason, he put me charge of a lot of little sectionals and helping kids out and I found that joy of teaching kids how this works and then when they could do it and the smile and how happy they were to be able to pull that off, I was hooked.
“And so it was December my seventh grade year and I came home and I was like, ‘Dad, I’m going to be a band director. Like, this is what I’m going to do.’ So I’ve known for a long time this is what I want. And it was just getting that little piece of helping someone else out to do it and when you see that growth and you see how much joy they had after doing it, it was over.”
Stevens takes every opportunity he can get to teach.
Every Tuesday and Thursday morning he hosts an open band room where students can either work together or he can step in and help if they need it.
Students don’t have to be there, but they choose to be and that is the kind of passion for music is what Stevens lives for.
“An hour before school starts the band room opens and it’s open and kids come in and get one-on-one help, they get small group help, they can just goof off and have a good time, and a lot of times they’ll swap instruments and start teaching each other how to play their instrument,” Stevens said. “It’s really cool to see that, to see that light up in them.”
Stevens sees this as only the beginning. Not just for him but for his students.
He is very proud of the connection his middle school band has with the one at the high school and loves that he can see his students continue to grow once they move on from his program.
“The high school band director (Chris White) is one of my best friends and a mentor and he’s down at the middle school all the time…I’m up at the high school all the time (with co-director David Rivero). There isn’t a big bump between eighth-grade band and ninth-grade band, it’s really, really fluid, and we’re really strategic about that,” Stevens said. “So we have high school students down in our band room all the time, they know it’s an open door policy. They come down whenever they want to and they get to help out the (middle) school students and vice versa, the middle school students will go up there.
“Any chance we get to get those two bands combined, fundraisers we combine, Friday night football games, we bring them together for some of those, we do combined concerts, anything like that we do, and we have plans in the future too, continue to be really strategic about that connection between eighth grade and ninth grade and I don’t know if there’s many programs that really put that much focus on it. It’s really easy to kind of go into your own caves and deal with your own stuff and that’s something that we try to break down and really connect the two.”
Stevens wouldn’t be able to do what he does without White at the high school. The same goes for Rivero who is right out of UNC Charlotte and helps out Stevens every single day.
“The teamwork that we have between the three of us is second to none,” Stevens said. “And when we first got started and things really (got) going, other band directors would say things like, ‘I’m so jealous, or you’re so lucky that you guys have this little thing,’ and I look at it now and it’s like, ‘Yeah, this doesn’t exist, this is phenomenal what we’re able to accomplish as a team.’”
The teamwork between band directors is very reminiscent of the work students do together in open band. It’s about working together and growing together so the music won’t just be better, but so they can be better people.
That is what Stevens wants.
“It’s really, really rewarding to watch a student and to have a student throughout middle school and high school and to build that relationship and that bond and that connection and then to see their music grow and to see their personality grow and just to see them become awesome people,” he said. “And you kind of see that culture working, and hopefully, one student at a time we change the world right?”