HARLINGEN — They were just kids.
Exuberant, vitality pulsing through their young lives, eager for musical exploration, they filled the halls of the newly-opened Harlingen High School South ready to begin a new legacy.
And that they did — and continue to do so.
Seven alumni of the Harlingen South band program in the late 90s and early 2000s gathered recently to speak of their successful music careers and where it all began. They Zoomed in from across Texas and other parts of the country.
“I think that we just all had so much fun,” remembered Vanessa Gardner, now director of marketing and communications at the Toledo Alliance for the Performing Arts.
“We were a family,” said Gardner, 39. “I don’t know why so many of us went on to become musicians or have careers in the performing arts or arts education.”
Perhaps the quality of that family’s members served in the formation of some polished musicians. It stands to reason. If you want to be successful, you have to surround yourself with successful people, said Kara Hoeflinger, coordinator of fine arts for the Comal Independent School District.
“We just happened to be in this little microcosm of a lot of natural talent,” said Hoeflinger, another one of the seven. “I mean, Vanessa and Matt were these amazing people who just practiced all the time and set a standard for that.”
Her band mate, Matthew Timm, is an accomplished trumpet player in New York City. With his busy schedule as a performer in the Big Apple, he was unable to Zoom in. But he had this to say about his days at South a few days later.
“I think probably one of the biggest things is that it helped just giving me a foundation for an appreciation and love for playing trumpet and music and art and everything,” said Timm, 37. “Having that camaraderie as well as friendly competition and the environment with so many other great musicians really helped drive me to want to be better as well.”
Being in contact with the other bandmembers has given him a renewed appreciation for those early years. Gardner was feeling “nostalgic” about the reunion, even though it was all virtual.
“It definitely feels that not very much time has passed looking at everyone’s faces,” she said. “We all look exactly the same.”
“I’ve got the yearbook,” quipped Shane Strubhart, spokesperson for the Harlingen school district.
“Noooo, no, no, no!” returned Reagan Brumley, director of performing arts for Irving ISD in North Texas.
Brumley recalled the newness of it all, the novelty of a new school with fresh opportunities to succeed. He remembered himself and fellow band student Mario Luna entering the band program in the fall of 1994.
“That was only the second year that the school had existed,” Brumley said. “I think we were very much trying to form our own identity as a program and as a school.”
Erika Uribe, director of the jazz program at Vela Middle School, remembers how the city was split by the creation of a new campus. Harlingen High School had been the centerpiece for generations of students, and now this new school had arrived on the scene.
“There was a big schism in Harlingen when the schools split,” Uribe said. “If you were on the green side you wanted to make yourself known. Coming in as freshmen, we were all in the same band, fall of ‘97 and ‘98. There was an energy about the band. We were wanting to set a standard, wanting to make a name for ourselves.”
And that they did. Just ask Shane Shinsato, band director at Harlingen South. He was assistant band director to Hoeflinger and her bandmates back in the day.
“At every UIL contest they all made ones,” the highest score, Shinsato remembered. “Kara Hoeflinger was a region one player, and she was drum major for the first band that went to the state marching contest. Vanessa Gardner was a state solo and ensemble participant, region player, and featured soloist for the band. Mario Luna was a state solo and ensemble participant and section leader for percussion, and …”
The list goes on and on.
Luna is now the director of fine arts for the Forney Independent School District near Dallas. He took notice of the stellar success of so many.
“We just had good instructors that cared for us and pushed us to excel,” he said.
Brumley credited Shinsato with influencing his teaching style, specifically how to manage challenging situations with high school students. He recalled many instances in his teaching career in which he almost lost his temper. Then, he’d remember how Shinsato dealt with him when he himself was being difficult back in high school.
“He would show grace,” Brumley remembered. “He would call me into his office and go like, ‘That wasn’t the right decision. Have you thought about X, Y and Z?’ And he’d be calm and supportive and everything. There have been more times than I can count that I thought, ‘OK, I wanna be for this kid the way Shane was for me.’”
Shinsato reflected on his students-gone-professionals so many years ago.
“These are the students that stood out daily,” he said. “They were always willing to volunteer to do things or would go above and beyond and making sure that what the program needed they were able to accomplish.”
The potent and compelling band program motivated Roy Barajas to change his career path from computer science to music. He recalled the powerful influence Brumley, Luna and Gardner had on him and the band program.
“When they graduated and we became seniors three years later, we still had these extremely vivid memories of what kind of leadership we had,” said Barajas, a band director for Brownsville ISD.
“They are the ones that kind of propelled us forward whether they did it consciously or not,” Barajas said. “By the time we were seniors I was like, ‘Music is good. I don’t want to be computer science and engineering anymore. This is it.’”