Darlington High grad returns home to revamp marching band

Darlington High grad returns home to revamp marching band
Brendan Johnson

DARLINGTON, S.C. – Brendan Johnson sat in his side-room office on a Tuesday, minutes after the Darlington High School (DHS) dismissal bell signaled the end of another school day. A large window offered him a sweeping view of the school’s band room, which elevated from beyond his office, stadium-style.

Instrument-wielding students flowed into the room, and Johnson tapped away at his laptop as he peered up at a projection board. He worked on updating the Marching Falcon Band’s new website while delivering orders to band members amidst the bustle.

“I need you to sign this, son, and turn it back in,” he said, handing a permission slip to one student.

“Please get started on rehearsal,” he told a group as they passed through the double doors. “Everyone find a room and begin. We have to play the national anthem tomorrow.”

It was a fitting scene, Johnson managing the various needs of the marching band while a hodgepodge of notes reverberated from the tuning of instruments. Such is the life of a band director.

However, the seamless preparation for a routine rehearsal served as a reminder of just how far the DHS band had come since Johnson stepped on campus in mid-July. He arrived for summer camp to find his band had 35 student-members.

While sitting in his office that Tuesday, he could count 81 on his active roster. Johnson more than doubled the band’s size in 3 1/2 months, and he did so with focus.

“My main goal for this band is not just to develop the students musically, but to implement professional development, personal development and educational development,” he said. “We’re trying to build a well-oiled machine here.”

Shortly after arriving at DHS, Johnson began a tenacious recruitment campaign, initially by distributing flashy posters. Then he launched a schedule of events for the year that featured competitions in which DHS had never participated, and he focused on opening one-on-one channels with parents. Existing members of the band pitched in, too.

“If you can get them here,” he told them, “I can get them to stay.”

Johnson wanted to expand= the program significantly, and he sought to revitalize its foundation of tradition.

A DHS graduate, Johnson joined the Marching Falcon Band in 2004 as an eighth grader. He absorbed all he could under the direction of then-director Ernest Stackhouse, who now supervises band programs in Georgia. Johnson played tuba for the Falcons until he graduated in 2009. His former instrument can still be found in action at DHS.

Johnson came to understand the precision and dedication necessary for a marching band to excel. A portrait hangs in his office of the 2008 Marching Falcon Band that boasted nearly 100 members.

Marching opened a door to higher education for Johnson, and he left Darlington after graduation for Daytona Beach, Florida. He enrolled at Bethune-Cookman University and joined the marching band.

“We played during halftime of a Super Bowl, played for the Miami Dolphins, the Jacksonville Jaguars,” he said. “Bethune-Cookman opened me up to a lot of exposure and experiences.”

While marching, Johnson earned a Bachelor of Arts in Music Education. The university eventually hired him to an administrative position, where he oversaw initiatives and educational opportunities for male students.

He accepted the offer to become the band director at DHS earlier this year. At 24 years old, Johnson returned to Darlington with all of the marching band and administrative experiences from his last 10 years.

“We have to develop a brand and a reputation,” he said. “Right now, we don’t have everybody’s attention. We need a pilot light. I told the students, ‘In order to light a heater, you must have a pilot light, and you don’t ever turn that flame all the way off.’”

Johnson took his band on a trip to Charlotte soon after school began to see the Queen City Battle of the Bands at American Legion Memorial Stadium. The competition was an experience for his students, Johnson said, like many of them had never seen. The event featured the likes of North Carolina A&T University, Alabama A&M University, Talladega College and, Johnson’s favorite, Bethune-Cookman.

“To see those massive bands and to hear the sound – the sound is like nothing you’ve heard in your life,” he said. “If they play the tuba, there are 30 tubas on the field. If they play the flute, there are 30 flutes on the field. It really showed our kids expanded opportunities.”

A month later, DHS traveled to Emporia, Virginia to compete in the Greensville County High School Band Competition. The only band from out-of-state, the Falcons finished first in their division.

DHS went on to compete at the 11th Annual Dillon Battle of the Bands at Dillon High School in early October and, soon after, the Gotham City Band Competition at E.E. Smith High School in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

The crown jewel in Johnson’s first semester at DHS may have been attending the S.C. State University Homecoming Parade on Oct. 31. It marked the first time in two years DHS played in the parade. The Falcons were even selected to perform on field during the S.C. State football game against Hampton University later in the day.

As for academics, Johnson implemented expectations at the school. The band holds study hall each Wednesday at the beginning of rehearsal. Sometimes the studying lasts an hour, sometimes it lasts most of rehearsal, depending on the students. More than 60 percent of his students made the A-B Honor Roll for the first quarter.

As an exciting first semester of progress nears Christmas break, Johnson has no problem describing his ambitious goals for next year. He wants the band to grow to 125 students. He plans to reach that figure through expanding access.

He will begin by teaching a second introductory band class at the high school. His assistant band director, Amanda Green, works at Darlington Middle School, which provides band classes for sixth, seven and eighth grades.

Johnson’s dream down the road, though he knows it sounds like a stretch, is for a crowd of 200 students taking the field under the Marching Falcon banner.

“We can be the talk of South Carolina,” he said. “We can be the talk of the Pee Dee. We have a great thing going on, a very great thing going on.”

Johnson is working out the details for the DHS band to begin a concert series at local churches, and the band is doing as much fundraising as possible. He will continue to lean on those already a part of the band and promote interest throughout the school.

“We have a phenomenal booster club and phenomenal alumni,” he said. “We’ll open the door for whoever wants to come.”

For more information about Johnson or the DHS Marching Falcon Band, please contact the DCSD Office of Communications at 843-398-2284.