DSHS band director begins final season

Keith Lancaster conducting a spring concert.

By: 
Alice Adams

If you'll recall, River City was never the same after the Music Man came to town. The same may be said for Dripping Springs, after Keith Lancaster steps down as director of the Dripping Springs High School Band.

Lancaster is retiring at the end of the Fall semester. He leaves a stellar legacy of marching band and performance excellence, a plethora of trophies and accolades, and a lifetime of sharing his passion for music with thousands of students.

"For me, a passion for music began as a sixth grader, when band directors came to our school to make a presentation about the band and recruit young musicians," the director recalled during a rare free day during summer vacation. "I remember going home and asking my parents if I could be in the band."

Growing up in Kyle and attending Hays Consolidated schools, the youngster chose the trombone as his instrument. "The choice was my own," the director said. "My great-grandmother played piano but no one else played an instrument. Later, I switched to the tuba because the director thought I was on the wrong instrument."

Smaller than many boys the same age, the youngster took a loaned tuba home over the summer. "When I went back to school the next fall, I was more successful," Lancaster recalled, "earning the coveted first chair in the first band."

After Lancaster became drum major his junior year in high school, he knew his career would be connected, in some way, with music. Band director was definitely an option, thanks to some strong mentors "who were always pushing us to reach higher." That same year, he began thinking about college and selected Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State) because of its strong music education program.
"I come from a long line of teachers," the director explained. "My mother is an elementary school teacher, and my uncle was superintendent at Hays when the schools consolidated.

Lancaster said his main reason for pursuing a career in education was the challenge of working with students and helping them learn to do something with confidence, something that would elevate their belief in themselves.

At Southwest Texas State, Lancaster performed with the SWTSU Bobcat Band for four years, was principal tuba in the top concert group (Wind Ensemble) for three years, and played in the orchestra for one year. He was selected Bobcat Band drum major and was a member of the Blue Knights Drum and Bugle Corps in 1985, and a member of the Sky Ryders Drum Corps in 1987.

"I was pretty set in my direction," he said, looking back. "Once I got to college, I never questioned my major, and I was fortunate to be mentored and encouraged by John C. Stansberry, the Bobcat Band director."

Graduating at Christmas, Lancaster knew it would be difficult to find a job. So when he was offered an assistant's job in Weslaco (a 5-A school in the Rio Grande Valley -- the RGV to locals), he gladly accepted. "I took the path of going to big school and being an assistant," he said. "So there were 10 band directors and I was number 10, but I went to work, grateful I could learn from my colleagues' nine different skill sets and approaches to teaching.

"During the two years I was at Weslaco, I saw what I liked and what I didn't...why one approach got results and one didn't," the director explained, adding he taught tuba private lessons all day, every day and never was in front of the band, much less held a baton.

His experience at Weslaco fueled Lancaster's aspirations to become a head director. He spoke with his RGV mentors, who counseled that his next step should be either to move to a large school and another assistant's position, or to find a small school needing a head director.
Following this advice, he accepted the head director's post at Woodboro High School, in a small town (pop. 1,800), between Corpus Christi and Victoria.

"I went from being number 10 on large staff to being number one -- the only one," Lancaster said. "My duties included teaching beginning band (6th grade) as well as the middle and high school bands. Being the only director was a bigger culture shock than moving to a small community.

"It was exciting," he continued, "but being the only person forced me to figure things out. " My first year, the band earned first division ratings in marching band and concert bands, but we were far from the suburbs, so simple tasks like finding pianists for the solo and ensemble contest was enormously difficult. There also were no private lesson teachers for the same reason."

Lancaster remembers one of his first jobs as Woodboro's head director: "They had this beautiful, grassy field behind the school, so I asked, 'who puts the lines on the field so the band can practice?' Coming from a 5-A school in Weslaco, we had someone from the maintenance do that.

"When I was told I would have to do it, I had no choice. I learned to line a field...and that was only the first new skill of many that I added to my director's toolbox. But the skill I became best at was organization, because I had to be organized. Good organization was essential if the bands were to be successful," he said.

Lancaster, during his time in Woodboro, became friends with Bill Stephens, a sales rep and co-owner of a music store. "On one of his visits in the spring semester of my second year, Bill asked if I'd be interested in another job," the director remembered. "He had heard Mathis, a 3-A high school, 45 minutes from Corpus, was looking for a head director."

Lancaster submitted his application, was called for an interview, and then offered the head director's position at Mathis. "In retrospect, I probably wouldn't have gotten the job at Mathis if I hadn't been a head director...and the high ratings the bands earned really helped."

Joining two other directors, Lancaster spent five years at Mathis. "There were two highlights there. One was the growth of the marching band, which had struggled at times to achieve the top ratings at UIL," he said. "But before I left, we made the area marching contest. The other accomplishment was the number of all-state students - we had six - and that's a lot for small school."

Wanting to be closer to his family in central Texas, the director knew it was difficult to get a job in Austin. But as luck would have it, there was an opening in Dripping Springs - a 3-A school that would go to 4-A in 1998.

"There were right at 100 in the high school band when I arrived," Lancaster said, "but I was particularly impressed with the student's training. They had strong fundamentals, and had been taught to play with a good sound. If those two elements are missing, it takes about five years to develop them. Fortunately, Dripping Springs has a long history of having a strong band program."

The director has high praise for his colleagues at Dripping Springs Middle School. "As with any high school band, the success of the group depends on the middle school and high school directors working as a team. In Dripping Springs, the Middle School directors had done, and continue to do, an outstanding job in preparing the students for the high school band experience.

"When I arrived at Dripping Springs, I was fortunate to collaborate with directors - at the Middle School and the assistant directors at DSHS - whose roles and importance in the band's success cannot be emphasized enough.

"While the director stands alone on the podium, it truly is the work of the entire team with our students, each and every day, that has created the success of the DSHS band. I applaud the excellence in teaching, musicianship, and collaborative spirit as well of the talent, enthusiasm, energy and quality of each individual director contributing to this band."

As with any new director, Lancaster's greatest challenge was building a new culture. "It's not about winning," he emphasized. "It's a culture of working hard, supporting each other - all the time, learning to appreciate music and understanding why it's enjoyable to perform it. To be successful, there must be the dynamic of working together among the students to create something artistic."

Looking back 20 years, the director has accomplished the culture he envisioned, plus much more. The DSHS Marching Band, for example, has consistently received superior division ratings at the UIL Region Marching Contest, and has been a class champion and finalist at many of the most competitive invitational contests across Texas. The Dripping Springs Marching Band was UIL 4-A State Champion in 2009, the 4-A State Silver Medalist in 2011, and a 5-A State Finalist in 2015...and this is only a partial list of the band's many achievements.

So what does it take to move the now almost 200 band and color guard members down the field, marching in perfect step and cadence, performing intricate drills and choreography while playing demanding musical scores week after week, during the fall football marching season?

"Directors begin work on next year's half-time show in December, when the concept takes shape and we pick the music," he said. "We have a music arranger write the woodwind and brass parts, another person writes the drill (formations), and this year, one of our assistant directors --Jason Dye -- is writing the percussion parts.

"Most of the show music is completed by the end of August and, of course, we spend a lot of time preparing the show," the director shared. "The kids return to the band hall and practice field on July 26."

Welcoming new band members, and getting everyone on the same page with the same goals, is the first task of the new season. This is accomplished with the help of strong student leaders and upper class veterans, so everyone knows what to expect -- and what's expected.
"My ultimate goal is instilling pride - in ourselves and in our band," Lancaster said. "Ours is a tradition of being very good, individually and as a group. The pride our students feel? It comes from being together, but we also promote getting better every week, not just winning this trophy or that contest.

"The kids realize, we were better this week than last week. This mentality goes a long way to developing pride in getting better," the director explained. "We realize, as teachers we also are role models. You never know how what you say will impact a student, so everything we say and do becomes important."

Lancaster said his plan to retire came from a decision he made several years ago. "I didn't want to teach until I was burned out. I wanted to walk away while I still enjoyed it."

"I told the kids I knew what I wanted to do when I was 16 or 17. Now I want to try something else. I will miss the band, but I know I can go to a half-time performance or a concert, see band from different angle, and be able to enjoy the music.

When asked what kept him involved and engaged with marching bands and music for more than half his life, Lancaster is quick to answer: "The thing that's kept me going is seeing students move from the beginning practice of a new show or a piece of music, then challenging each student, then seeing the end-product and how much the kids grow and develop through that. That's the best."

When Keith Lancaster steps off the DSHS podium for the final time, he leaves behind a rich legacy of excellence: his outstanding musicianship, his indelible mark on the lives of a generation of Dripping Springs young people and guiding his bands to reap the satisfying fruits that come from lifting themselves and their bands to the next level. He will be missed.

Go Tiger Band!

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