Stephanie Wilcox doesn’t have to talk loud for her students to play good. The 25-year-old director of instrumental and choral music for McKee Middle School looks at them from behind her steel-rimmed glasses and they play. Play harder and better than they have in their entire 10- to 14-year-old lives.
Wilcox was hired in 2017, and what a difference three years can make. Picture “Stand and Deliver,” “The Karate Kid” or “Lean on Me.” Wilcox, a native of Lapeer, Mich., has taken students from this low-performing, economically challenged school located off South, South Union built in 1941 by the WPA, and whipped them into a crackerjack marching and performing band.
In her first year, Wilcox and the band earned McKee its first Unanimous Superior Rating ever during the concert festival season, then bingoed it the following year. McKee’s drum major won sweepstakes at the Music and Motion competition last year at Centennial and this year won first place in the Tournament of Champions competition at Arvin High School.
Wilcox was hired sight unseen after a Skype interview with McKee Principal Brandon Duncan who was blown away by Wilcox’s passion, expertise and drive. The school was chewing through band directors — three in four years before Wilcox arrived — like a beaver through a cord of wood. The band couldn’t play “Pomp and Circumstance” without stampeding the women and the children.
“The sitting band director was not improving the culture, professionalism or quality of our band program,” said Duncan, a musician and a former band member himself. “I wanted McKee to be second to none. We needed a new director to make that possible.”
Duncan offered Wilcox the job and she packed up everything in her 2005 Pontiac Montana with 180,000 miles on it. “Everything” included her 60-ish grandma, always game for a road trip, and her 45-pound Siberian husky, Nala. The trip took five days and “everything” arrived in Bakersfield and rented an apartment in Oildale across from North High.
Wilcox, who had graduated from Western Michigan University, started her job in August and found a school with about 1,000 students, 90 percent of them Hispanic, 89 percent socio-economically disadvantaged, 14 percent of the parents had a college degree and 19 percent did not have a high school diploma.
No problem. Not with these kids, these parents and this band director.
“The kids were awesome,” Wilcox said. “I couldn’t ask for better. They had a hunger to learn more about music.”
The students were willing but the musical infrastructure was challenging, starting with the stage in the cafeteria that wasn’t big enough to seat two actors in a one-act play.
The band room was a repurposed kindergarten room, there was a shortage of instruments and those they had were broken and in need of repair or San Pedro and the Chinese recycling market. The sound equipment didn’t work, there was no piano and no pictures or photos on the wall.
On the plus side, McKee did have nice marching uniforms.
“We had the skin and bones of a program,” Wilcox said.
With the help of Greenfield Superintendent Ramon Hendrix, Duncan, staff, parents and the students, Wilcox turned the music program around at McKee like Lee Iacocca did Chrysler.
The band has new instruments and works with Ollivier and Greenfield middle schools and with the elementary schools in the district to build stronger music programs.
“Stephanie became a leader and an advocate for music in McKee and the Greenfield Union School District,” Duncan said. “She stays every day after school to work with students on marching, drumline, drum major technique.”
Wilcox is a collaborator. She has relationships with nearly every other band director in Kern County as well as Dr. Leo Sakomoto and the Cal State Bakersfield music program.
People want to help and have. Former students like Eziquel Banuelos, a South High percussionist, who has returned to McKee to coach the drum majors.
Wilcox has taken her charges to see the President's Own Marine Band, the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra and the CSUB Symphonic Band.
Parents show up to the competitions, shows and concerts and volunteer, not easy because many of these parents have two and three jobs.
Wilcox makes it easier for parents and students to get excited because she chooses music that fits the school.
“Her marching song this year had a Spanish origin/flare as opposed to traditional marches (many of which are of American or European origin),” Duncan said. “For Cinco de Mayo, Stephanie put together musical performances representing Hispanic heritage.”
Wilcox’s approach is simple: Be clear about her expectations and the consequences for not meeting them. Rather than forcing students to do anything, she encourages them to accept the fruits of their labor, both bitter and sweet.
“We’re a huge family and every student matters,” Wilcox said. “We come together and stand together as a band.”
Wilcox loves her work and Bakersfield, too. (“I feel like people are friendlier here than in Michigan.”)
Her fiance, Jared Dalgleish, is the band director at Norris Middle School as well as the principal trombonist for Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra. She has found the home she did not know she was looking for.
Recently, I attended the McKee Middle School fall concert. The program included performances by the seventh-grade intermediate band, drumline, the seventh- and eighth-grade advanced band and the McKee Road Runner Regiment. They tackled “Star Splitter Fanfare,” “The Addams Family” theme, “Dark Ride" and highlights from “Harry Potter.”
The cafeteria was almost full. They were proud, and more than one parent taped the entire performance. “They” were the students, their families and the school staff. This musical family could play “Pomp and Circumstance” in their sleep.