History making: How TJC wind ensemble became the first junior college to take the stage at TMEA

Tyler Junior College’s band director Jeremy Strickland waited two years for his wind ensemble to fulfill a history-making achievement.

Strickland, who is in his seventh year as TJC’s director, applied four times before his band was invited to play at the Texas Music Educators Association’s convention. 

The venue at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio played host to about 30,000 attendees once a year in February – the nation’s largest music conference of its kind.

The convention, founded in 1920, typically invites a few select university groups to perform. But last month, fifty-five TJC wind ensemble students

became the first-ever junior college representatives to take the TMEA stage. 

TJC band director Jeremy Strickland. 📷 CBS-19

“The typical stigma around junior college band programs is that we’re not good enough. We wanted to be the first group to help change that,” Strickland said. 

Strickland said he submitted a recording of the band in the spring of 2020. When he received news the band made a place at the convention, TJC – like Tyler and the state of Texas – were in a COVID-19 lockdown.

When the band  finally performed for TMEA in 2022, only five of the original band members remained.

Meanwhile, TJC band’s reputation skyrocketed. “Over the last two years, the recruiting has just shot through the roof,” Strickland said. “As the band got better here, it attracted a better player. So it’s just this ever-growing awesome thing.”

Strickland said he had two goals getting into TMEA.  “I wanted to make sure that we set the standard –  just go and push – but I also wanted other junior colleges like Navarro and Kilgore to have that opportunity.”

TJC Wind Ensemble drum majors Bree Williams, left and Emily Dean, right. 📷 courtesy Bree Williams and Emily Dean

Emily Dean, a music major from Bullard, Texas who plays percussion, participated in the ups and downs of the band’s last three years. “It’s been very much quite the ride,’ Dean said. “There was so much growth that happened for all of us as individuals and especially as an ensemble and as a program.”

A drum major, Dean witnessed her instructors face multiple challenges, including COVID-related obstacles. Her respect and admiration grew.

“I just got to see behind the scenes constantly the ways that they were figuring out, How are we going to make wind ensemble happen? How are we going to give them the experience they deserve despite these historic circumstance? They have fought for us and never backed down to give us the best opportunities possible,” Dean said.

Dean mentioned a group of band directors and instructors who have made a positive impression, including Strickland, Eddie Airheart, Danny Chapa, Tom McGowan, Heather Mensch Gjergji Gaqi and guest composer George “Buddy” Strickland, Jeremy Strickland’s father.

Dean is especially proud of the groundbreaking invitation and performance at TMEA.” I am proud of the way that we have challenged the status quo…doing something that’s never been done before,” she said.

Jett Schnackenberg, tenor sax player. 📷 courtesy Jett Schnackenberg

Jet Schnackenberg is a student from Mansfield, Texas. He is currently the only music major who plays tenor saxophone.

Schnackenberg is proud of the opportunities TJC has provided him and his bandmates. “Most of us don’t even study music and we can accomplish something like going TMEA. Being accepted in something like that is so huge,” he said.

Schnackenberg also is pleased with the quality of his music instructors. “The instructors here…are really good people who have doctorate degrees…like Dr. Gaqi and people who are really nice and connected with the students here,” Schnackenberg said.

Olivia Lester, flautist. 📷 courtesy Olivia Lester

Olivia Lester is a student from Carrollton, Texas who plays the flute. She seeks a general studies degree with plans to study occupational therapy. 

For Lester, TJC’s band leadership contrasted to her high school band experience. “Mr. Strickland does a very good job of focusing on the enjoyment of the students whereas in high school, it’s focused on the competition,” she said.

Lester said Strickland and her other music instructors emphasize feeling good about a stage performance rather than worrying about the audience’s opinion.

“In high school it’s typically either you’re having fun or you’re good. And here, we’re good while having fun,”  Lester said. 

Drum major Bree Williams is a music education major from Mineola, Texas, who plays the flute.

Williams felt the support of the entire school behind her as she prepared for the TMEA performance. “We went and talked to the board of trustees like the other day. [The support] just pushed me to work even harder,” she said.

Williams knows her musical performances can matter after her time at TJC. “Whenever we do transfer, we are competing for scholarship money and trying to get into schools which sometimes very few people get in.”

Nonetheless, Williams said she has found time to both work hard and have fun. “We all know what we need to get things done … but we also just have fun, like during rehearsals, we’ll just laugh at different things. It’s just amazing,” she said.

Fifty-five members of the wind ensemble performed for a crowd of about 1,500 amid multiple ovations and cheers at TMEA on Feb. 11. 📷 Kristi Kuczkowski

The TJC Wind Ensemble took the stage for the first time for about 1,500 people on Feb. 11 at the Lila Cockrell Theater at TMEA. They premiered “On Shores of Endless Seas,” commissioned by composer Kevin Day. 

“[There was] wild applause and multiple standing ovations at the end,” Strickland said.

“We couldn’t stop smiling on the stage together.”

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.