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Lippman: And the Band Leader Played On

I talked to Howard Crawford the other day, and I couldn’t miss either his smile and his enthusiasm for his job as director of the South Pasadena High School band, or his passion for his students.
And he’s still got a laugh that bubbles up after 34 years at the only full time band job he’s ever had.
It has to be a gift — a gift to the thousands of students who have gathered around him in the band room over the years, and who still keep him in their thoughts.
“Howard is one of those teachers on campus who incorporates a part of the soul of the school in what he does daily at SPHS,” said Principal John Eldred. “He is the keeper of the flame of an important program on campus and we all look to him and his students at assemblies, rallies, games, and other community events and presentations for the music that is the soundtrack for any high school.”
“The keeper of the flame.” “The soundtrack for any high school.”
That’s the score for a successful career.
It’s not a case of Crawford just waving his arms and the music begins to play.
“The week is exhausting,” Crawford said. “I teach half of the band as a class one day, and the other half another day,” Crawford said. “Then we have practice from 6-9 p.m. Monday and Wednesday, and then a football game.
“On Saturdays, beginning in October, we have competitions with other bands.”
Those competitions are often held in other counties where there is enough space for six or seven bands to compete. Getting instruments on and off the bus, competition, and then getting everything back on the bus can mean days of 10-12 hours. Sometimes, Crawford doesn’t get home until midnight.
But he loves it.
“It keeps me young, hanging out with kids,” Crawford told me.
In addition to being band director, Crawford teaches and directs the 17-student orchestra, which performs three concerts a year and participates in local, regional, and national competitions. He also works with the color guard, winter guard, winter percussion and jazz band. He partners with Band Boosters, a parent group. And he has brought many performers like the musicians from Preservation Hall in New Orleans to have sessions with the students.
“In his time at SPHS, Howard changed with the times and as a result, he expanded the program into one that is almost impossible for one person to teach,” said former principal Janet Anderson. “Still, the one person who can pull this off is Howard.
“Howard is unflappable. He can be amidst what others would call chaos and never register a negative reaction or much of a reaction at all. That stability and his equanimity are some of the qualities that make his band room ‘world’ a safe place for students to learn and hang out.”

Photo courtesy Howard Crawford

Crawford said that he wants to be the kind of teacher whose door is always open so that the students can come in and talk about anything that is on their minds.
He describes the band room as a place where unity is developed. They eat together. The seniors might help the younger students with their homework.
“There’s a special closeness,” he said.
A friend’s son got into the band after he started high school, and she said the experience helped him get better grades.
“I don’t think band affects their grades in a negative way at all. In fact, it helps them to develop time and management skills. A lot of the band members are 4.0 students,” said Crawford, who graduated from Howard University and did graduate work at UCLA.
At this stage of his career, you’d think that Crawford could afford the luxury of sitting in the bleachers at practice. But, he admits he’d rather be on the field, sharing his knowledge of music and of playing an instrument.
Crawford told me that he never figured he would make teaching a career. He wanted to be a woodwind player — specifically, a saxophonist.
He still loves to play the saxophone, but with all he has to do, he admits that it is often hard to find time to play in a group.
But, by being out on the field, his band knows he walks the walk. He teaches, and he plays.
“No one even comes close to second place as a teacher,” said Kenny Woods, who played the trumpet in the SPHS band from 1996-2000. “He has this ability to connect and he knows what he’s talking about. He’s a musician when he’s teaching. He’s doing what he does, not teaching from a book.
“He’s a good listener. He gives people time and space to express themselves, and he turns that into ways for people to maximize their potential. Even when I was in high school, he found ways to discover talent and give an outlet to students. He gives students room to showcase themselves. Deep down, he knew what they were capable of. He had a sixth sense about things like that.”
Woods, who now lives in Montebello with his wife who also played in the SPHS band, is a producer, composer and musician, and he said that Crawford helped him achieve his goal.
He remembers a time when he was deeply disappointed that he didn’t get into the college that he wanted. And counselors did not offer hope for him to achieve his goal.
“He showed me anything was possible. I followed his advice and got into the school I wanted and it propelled me into the career that I wanted. Thanks to him, I had the wherewithal to do it,” said Woods, who ended up going to UCLA for undergraduate work, and USC for his master’s degree.
Woods said that Crawford has the gift of reaching a student who was otherwise unreachable, or who was the quiet student who sat in the back of the room, without saying much. He recalled one such student who was selected as drum major, and “ended up being the sparkling leader who has done well for herself as an adult.”
It’s been years since some band members last wore their black and orange uniforms, but Crawford said they gather for picnics in the park. Now, however, they bring their families, rather than their instruments.
“It is always heart-warming to see my former students and meet their spouses and families,” Crawford said.
It’s not surprising that Crawford continues to keep an open-door policy even after students have graduated. Woods remembers that his favorite teacher would often linger and talk to his students as long as they needed him.
“He created this space for all of us,” Woods said. “He was like a parental figure in a lot of ways.
“And he’s the same guy as he was in the mid-‘90s. There’s no change in the enthusiasm.
“There’s the same love and energy that he’s always given.”
And the beat goes on.
“I’m not sure everyone understands the complexities of Mr. Crawford’s program or the unrelenting schedule he keeps,” Anderson concluded. “I do know that if he ever decides to leave SPHS, the school will be hard put to find anyone as hard-working and solid as Howard Crawford. His impact on the lives, futures, and careers of so many students has been, and continues to be, one for the records.”

The SPHS marching band takes to the field at a recent football game. – Photos by Raymond Quan / The Review

First published in the October 6 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

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