Mighty Marching Yellowjackets band director pushes students to academic success

“People don’t realize that kids involved in anything musical, if started young, are going to excel in math and science.”

By Jill Draper

As band director at Schlagel High in Kansas City, Kansas, Reginald May was proud that band students often earned more college scholarships than the athletic department. Now he’s in his fourth year as band director of the Mighty Marching Yellowjackets at Center High in south KC, and he wants to replicate that success.

“I’m gonna get that going here,” he says. “People don’t realize that kids involved in anything musical, if started young, are going to excel in math and science.”

May claims he can fumble through most instruments, but trombone is where he shines. He took lessons as a child at Quigley Music Company on Troost Avenue, and later played professionally with a couple of bands, including BWB Show Band.

“We were big-time for a while. We did the Jay Leno Show in Hollywood and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas,” he remembers. “That was an awesome experience for about 10 years, but it ended around 2001 or 2002. I totally get why bands break up.”

At Center, May works with about 60 band students, including auxiliary dancers. The band has no theme show this year, partly because more than half of the kids are in other activities, he says. “It’s hard to put a show together, but it’s a good problem to have.”

Reginald May works with about 60 Center band students, including auxiliary dancers. Photo Center High School.

Instead, the students play across the spectrum—mostly R&B, hip hop and rock. They also dance while they play.

“We do southern style—the high knee lift. The audience loves it,” says May, who learned the step while marching in the band at Florida A&M. “Band is a sport, especially the way we do it.”

May notes that 18 band seniors graduated last year, “so this is like our rebuilding year.” But the band still has competitions and performances planned. This fall they’ll take part in the Boone County Marching Festival and visit St. Louis for the River City HBCU Classic. Closer to home they’ll greet 5K runners at the finish line at the Red Bridge Shopping Center on Oct. 8 during the South KC Block Party. Band members also will perform on Nov. 18 at Ward Parkway Shopping Center for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony.

The biggest challenge is trying to know each student individually, May says. “I try to keep them motivated, and find a connection through cars, cowboys—whatever it takes.” Sometimes he talks, sometimes he jokes (“Don’t let the gut fool you, man. I was all neighborhood”) and sometimes he makes sounds—whistling, shouting “Ungowa!” or calling out “Ready, move!”—that he describes as instant communication.

Another challenge is the size of Center, which is one of the smaller public high schools in the area. “It’s a much richer experience for the kids, but the sports, theater and music teachers have to be cooperative,” May observes.

He also finds it harder to read music after an eye disorder that required two cornea transplants. Success now comes from interacting with students and hearing them say thanks years after graduation.

“One kid who got out of prison made his first stop at my house,” May says. “You didn’t think I was listening, but I was,” the former student told him. Now he’s back on his feet and married. 

After retiring from a long career at Schlagel, May decided to work a few more years and was introduced to the principal at Center High. He was impressed by the school’s strong parental involvement and ample facilities. 

“It was truly a blessing,” he says. He then gestures toward four practice rooms and the large band room filled with students warming up on their instruments. “Whoever set this whole school up knew what they were doing.”

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