Even as a child, I knew of Curtis Ikard. The Russellville Marching 100 was widely-recognized as the best high school band in North Alabama, maybe the entire state. And Curtis Ikard was a force of nature known for his commitment to perfection and stylistic flare.
The Russellville Marching 100 was a success, in large part because one man would settle for nothing less.
Small towns take pride in their successes.
I remember visiting the home of family members one Friday evening when I was about 6 or 7 years old. My third-cousin, Edie Hester, was in her band uniform about to leave for the football game. I thought that seemed really cool and I must’ve filed it away. I don’t recall thinking about joining the band again, until the opportunity came as I entered junior high.
I first met Curtis Ikard at the beginning of my sixth grade year. I was still 10 years old (I started first grade when I was 5). He was at the junior high school to interview students interested in joining the band and I’d convinced my parents to let me join.
Mr. Ikard asked me what instrument I wanted to play.
“Trumpet,” I replied.
He proceded to open my mouth and look at my teeth.
That’s the first thing I remember about meeting Mr. Ikard. I guess I passed inspection.
When I showed up for my first band practice, I met Donna Taylor. She was an 8th grader and was also joining the band at the same time and would be playing trumpet. We both had Forbes band student horns.
I’m pretty sure that Donna and I were the first girl trumpet players in the Marching 100. (I have been corrected. There was once another female trumpet player in the Marching 100. Early 70s. I will update with correct information as soon as I find it again).
I learned quickly and moved from last seat, third section into the first section. Mr. Ikard was a demanding teacher and he could be gruff, but I never had a problem with him. I knew his expectations were high and so I worked hard to meet those expectations. I think adults sometimes expect too little of kids and teens, not too much. Mediocrity is not a word in Curtis Ikard’s vocabulary.
As we prepared for the Fall 1976 football season, I found out that I’d get to do a trumpet solo during our halftime show. I’d be playing the first verse of “Amazing Grace” and then the rest of the band would join in. I was going into the 8th grade. I felt pretty special. And my parents were thrilled.
When I told them about the solo, they promptly drove me Forbes Music to buy a new, serious trumpet. Mr. Ikard met us at the store. I left Forbes with a top-of-the-line Bach Stradivarius silver trumpet. That was way cool. At that time, I was the first to play a Bach Stradivarius, although it became the standard trumpet for committed students thereafter.
Later than year, the Marching 100 went on to win the “Greatest Band In Dixie” competition during Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Curtis Ikard’s reputation as the best high school band director around grew stronger.
Curtis Ikard: Innovator
One reason, I think, is that Mr. Ikard brought in experts. When he decided to move into the Drum & Bugle Corp style (just after I joined), he brought in experts to lead drum camp. He added flags and rifles and brought in experts to teach the flag and rifle corp.
Our drum corp played really cool grooves, unlike any other high school band at the time. Goodbye John Philip Sousa-cadences—we marched to the rhythm of “George of the Jungle.” And some other beats that had names I’m forgetting.
Mr. Ikard brought in some guy named Rip (another name that eludes me this morning).
We learned that “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.”
We also sold Drix. I think my parents still have bottles of Drix in the garage.
Mr. Ikard personally designed majorette uniforms made of gold lamé and new tuxedo-style band uniforms that included ruffled-shirt dollies, not overlays, and German-style military hats, not those English Royal Guard 3′ tall furry tube things. Our new uniforms were black pants, crimson jackets with a bit of gold and black trim, rather than the traditional school colors. Except the drum section wore something entirely different. He also designed summer uniforms so that we didn’t have to do parades in full gabardine wool. We wore spats. You don’t march out of step when wearing spats.
In 1976, Curtis Ikard completely changed the sound, style and appearance of the Marching 100 and, likewise, other high school bands throughout the Southeast. More accomplishments, more reason for hometown pride and individual self-esteem.
The Marching 100 was a close-knit family and we were respected by peers, parents and other schools.
There was no such thing as a “band geek” in Russellville, Alabama.
Curtis Ikard: Horizons
Mr. Ikard didn’t stop with the Marching 100.
Other schools had choirs. Curtis Ikard created the RHS Singers. A show choir. We sang AND danced, accompanied by a instrumental combo we called the jazz band.
Mr. Ikard asked Jan Massingill, our school’s best-trained dancer, to learn some of the choreography from A Chorus Line and then teach it to the best dancers. As with the band, he brought in other show choir and choreography experts to help us move forward.
We sang music by Stephen Sondheim. I knew that “Send In the Clowns” was more than a radio hit sung by Neil Diamond.
And that leads me to the main point of this entire essay.
Curtis Ikard introduced me, all of us in those years, to a world far beyond anything we would have otherwise experienced growing up in a small town in Alabama. This isn’t a criticism of our other teachers during that time. We had incredibly talented and interesting teachers in the Russellville School System in the 1970s.
But I think that part of the reason our education was so solid during those years is that we were blessed to have visionary teachers like Curtis Ikard who could see beyond the mundane and who knew that innovation and risk-taking, combined with discipline, work and perseverance would lead to success.
To Sir, With Love
Over the years, I’ve kept in touch with Mr. Ikard, mainly through the occasional exchange of Christmas cards. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him or talked with him. So I’m really excited that I’ll be able to attend a reception this evening in his honor at Russellville High School. Several former band members, led in part by Trent Stephenson (I’ll have to confirm who else is involved), have planned this event and established the Curtis Ikard Performing Arts Scholarship in his honor.
Several years ago, while living in Oklahoma, I came upon the idea of writing a letter to Mr. Ikard, thanking him for all he did to shape my life by opening my eyes to the bigger world around me and expanding my horizons. Procrastinator that I am, I never got around to writing that letter, despite having it in the not-so-far-back-of-my-mind ever since.
I’m a big fan of old movies. I first watched the Sidney Poitier film, To Sir, With Love in the late 1990s, although I’d long been a fan of the theme song. The film struck a chord with me because it reveals that students really are influenced by teachers in ways that teachers don’t realize. And we students don’t usually say thank you. Or, if we do, we just say the words without explaining the meaning.
Curtis Ikard, thank you for taking me from crayons to perfume. Thank you for expanding my world. Thank you for opening my eyes to art and culture that I might not have discovered until much later in life, if ever.
Thank you for teaching me that I should never settle for just good enough.
Thank you for inspiring me and showing me that hard work matters, that winners never quit. And thank you for letting me come back—after I quit in a moment of petulance.
Thank you for letting a 10-year-old girl play trumpet at a time when girls didn’t play trumpet.
Thank you, Mr. Ikard, for shaping my life far beyond anything to do with high school band.
I wish I could write all this across the sky in letters that would soar a thousand feet high.
Since I can’t do that, perhaps these words here will suffice.
Thank you, sir, with much love.