February 23, 2015
Part 1: A SHARED VISION
Like any young graduate on the first rung of his career ladder, Mike Trull wanted to make a difference. Fortunately, he had a leg up in the person of Bob Buckner, a fellow music major who had landed his first job as Director of the Sylva, N.C., secondary school band. Two years later, Mike joined him as Assistant Director, responsible for the junior high “feeder” band. Together, Mike and Bob were a team with a shared vision and burning ambitions. They were, in Mike’s words, “going to make that band the best in the nation.” A tall order, inasmuch as Bob had taken over the band while doing his student teaching when the regular director resigned. He had inherited around thirty students and on the first day of rehearsal he let them know what he was going to expect of them. By the second week, there were only a handful of students willing to stick it out but Bob told them if they worked hard, they would be the best ten piece band in the land.
Mike’s musical career didn’t begin with his first job. While at Western Carolina University, he joined The Soul Set, and was matched with Frank Kelly, another trumpeter. The group became a popular back-up band for such illustrious performers of the 60s as The Drifters, The Tams, Carla Thomas, Clifford Curry, The Dixie Cups, the Day Dreamers, and others. Their recording of “Will You EVER LEARN” became a familiar dance tune.
The Soul Set was a mixed group, traveling the eastern seaboard at a time of increased racial tension and playing wherever they could get a gig, at fraternity houses, night clubs, beach bars, universities, and African-American clubs. It was the life of a professional musician and although Mike continues to perform (in Winston-Salem catch him at Tate’s or Foothills or wherever jazz musicians in this most musical of all cities are jamming), the life on the road was not what Mike wanted. The call from Bob Buckner was a welcome chance to pursue a musical career of a different kind.
The first challenge Mike discovered in his new life was to raise the number of youngsters with either talent or potential to what was required to field a marching band. Bob’s early actions and with Mike coming on board, word was spreading that two young, dynamic and demanding bandmasters were “doing something interesting” in the basement band room. Soon, one by one, then by twos and threes, more and more students began to pick up their instruments and join the fun. Two years of hard practice, persuasion, and a lot of patience began to pay off. By the time of the next football season, one hundred musicians fast-stepped onto the field at half-time with a new show format designed to appeal to those in the stands by playing facing them instead of just marching past them. This change in marching technique not only projected the sound better, but, along with the solo performances by the more talented members of the band, created a bond between band and audience.
The music, too, changed, with arrangements provided by the duo’s music theory teacher at Western Carolina University, Richard Trevarthan. “It was packed with big cords and interesting solo parts that livened up our performances, as did the addition of flags, spinning rifle teams, triple drums and marching xylophones,” recalls Mike from a thirty-year later perspective.
It had taken more than two years, a time that Mike recalls fondly as a successful learning experience for him that would serve him well in the coming years of a different career.
“I learned to learn from those who were successful,” he says. “Bob and I traveled to Boston to study the drum and bugle corps there to learn why they attracted so many people to their shows. We returned to Sylva and changed the drill portion of our marching program from eight steps in five yards to six steps. This allowed for a much faster movement, which is far more exciting for the audience.”
This willingness to embrace change and think outside the box would come in handy when Mike went into business for himself later. “At the school, we were pretty innovative for the times. The kids even designed carriers for the new drums before the instrument companies started to produce them commercially. In fact, some of the best commercial designs came from ideas the kids had.”
Filling an unmet need is one of the first requisites of a successful business and it was while he was helping Bob build a band that would ultimately win that national championship they yearned for that Mike became an entrepreneur.
“I learned to look for ways to improve not only the big things affecting our band’s performance, but also the small things that bands need. Details are important. As I looked around, I realized I had to work with what I had rather than wishing every musician in the band was a Benny Goodman or a Louie Armstrong. If you’re going to succeed in business, you learn pretty quickly that you have to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative,” Mike says, quoting the Phil Harris song.
The hard work, the support of the school administration, and the enthusiasm and creativity of the young musicians of Sylva began to produce results. Imbued with the confidence and discipline their two teachers had instilled in them, they entered every local and regional competition within driving distance. And won them all. As a result, they were invited to compete at St. Petersburg, Fla., in a national competition that was hailed as a national championship because it attracted schools from throughout the nation. The band from a small mountain town in North Carolina won over some bands that had as many as 300 members.
With the championship trophy safe in its place of honor in Sylva Webster High School, local support and the full attention of the school administration for the band was secured. Parents and Superintendent Paul Buchanan made sure the money was found or raised to buy the best instruments and the finest uniforms. The band was increased to and then limited to 125 members (out of a school population of 600) to ensure that the best of the junior high musicians could be added to the band as they came along. It was also the number of passengers that could be seated in the three luxury coaches the band used when it traveled. A high school band that had been almost an afterthought had finally become the center of attention.
Mike Trull had achieved one dream. Now he was ready to chase the next one.
NEXT WEEK: THE FRUITS OF SUCCESS
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