By the time Ricky Brooks was in the fifth grade, he knew he wanted to play in the band. But his mother couldn’t afford to buy him a horn.
“The band director had this old silver baritone with no case,” recalled Brooks, director of bands at the University of Central Arkansas. “It had duct tape all over it. He said, ‘If you can play this, you can stay in band.’ My goal for the next year was to have a horn with a case. I was able to get one, and I thought I had arrived.”
Brooks, 58, was inducted into life membership of the American Bandmasters Association in March at its national convention in Tampa, Fla. He joins approximately 300 band conductors and composers in the United States and Canada. He is the fourth collegiate band director in Arkansas to receive this honor; the other three are retired.
“I’m not sure how I was considered or elected into that position,” he said. “Each profession seems to have an
organization that is for the elite — the NFL (National Football League) has its Hall of Fame; the singers and actors have the Grammys and the Oscars; and the band directors have the American Bandmasters Association.
“I’d always heard about it as a young director, about its legacy. But it never, ever, crossed my mind that I would ever be conducted into the ABA. I’m still not sure why,” he said.
“I’m not one for the spotlight. To be in that group with famous conductors and composers especially is very, very humbling. I have to wonder how in the world I was chosen.”
According to a news release from the American Bandmasters Association, founded in 1929 with John Philip Sousa as honorary life president, it “recognizes outstanding achievement on the part of concert band conductors
and renowned composers. The review and rigorous examination of prospective members’ professional activities and band performances extends over a period of two or more years before a ballot vote is taken to extend or refuse membership to prospective candidates.”
Brooks said there were 20 to 30 nominations for the class of 2013, but only nine or 10 were selected. Membership is by invitation only.
Brooks’ wife accompanied him to the national convention. “Wives are a big part of the ceremony,” he said. “She was with me when I was inducted.”
Brooks grew up in the small Mississippi town of Lexington, raised by his mother, the late Joy Brooks, and his grandmother, the late Geneva Wynn. He graduated in a high school class of 33 from Central Homes Academy in Lexington. “We had a band of about 40 members,” he said. “And of that, four or five went on to be band directors.”
He said he never “had anything in mind” as far as a career while he was in high school, but that when he got to college he had to have a major.
“Looking back on it, I didn’t have a dad in the picture so I didn’t have a male role model,” he said. “My high school band director took an interest in me and he became my role model. So when I got to college and had to put down a major, I chose band. I played the horn and loved the band and decided that I wanted to continue with it in college.”
He attended Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., where he earned both Bachelor and Master of Music degrees. It was there he met his wife, who is from Greenville, Miss., and they were married in June 1979. Sheila also is a band director, teaching and directing in Conway at Carl Stuart Middle School and the junior high.
They taught together in Mississippi and Arkansas public schools, including Heber Springs and Arkadelphia, for several years. It was while they were in Arkadelphia that Brooks decided he wanted to teach on the college level.
“While I was at Arkadelphia High School, the band directors at Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University would ask me to rehearse their bands when they had to be away from campus,” he said. “That sparked my interest in becoming a college band director.
“Thanks to my wife, we pulled up roots in 1991 and moved to Louisiana for me to get my doctorate at Louisiana State University,” he said.
He graduated in 1994 from LSU and they moved to Kentucky, where he taught for a year at Murray State University.
“It’s odd how God works things out,” he said. “We never thought we’d ever get back to Arkansas. But Gilbert Baker gave me a call and told me about a job opening at UCA, and he thought I needed to apply for it. I did, and the one stipulation of the job was that you must have college teaching experience. That one year of teaching at Murray State satisfied that requirement.”
The couple moved to Conway in 1995.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Brooks said. “That was fate. I plan to stay here at UCA until I retire, the good Lord willing and UCA still wants me.”
During Brooks’ high school teaching days, his bands often received all superior ratings at contests and festivals. While collegiate bands do not compete in the same way high school bands do, the bands at UCA have received some notoriety throughout Brooks’ leadership.
“Our wind ensemble has played at Carnegie Hall in New York City and at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.,” he said. “And most recently, we performed at the International Music Festival in Austria, playing four concerts in Vienna and Salzburg. That was quite an honor.”
Brooks said the UCA band will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2014. “We’ve already started planning it,” he said. “To be a part of a program that is 100 years old is an amazing thing.”
Among those activities will be a performance by the UCA Wind Ensemble at the Meyerson Symphonic Center in Dallas; the commission of a major band work by a major composer; and auditioning (via a compact disc) for an appearance at Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City.
“The year 2014 will be a banner year for us,” Brooks said.
In addition to his duties as director of UCA bands, Brooks also directs the Dixie Band Camp, which UCA has hosted for 25 years, during the summer months.
Brooks has been minister of music at his church, Friendship Baptist Church, since 1996. “It’s like my second career,” he said. “It’s not a job, it’s a calling, just as teaching is.”
As a tenured and full professor, Brooks is not required to attend workshops or take additional classes. However, he said he attends workshops and national conferences when he can.
“If you’re not advancing and keeping up, you’re going backwards,” he said. “And you have to keep up with the social media. When I first came here, we had to print posters and flyers and mail them out when it came to recruiting (students). Now it’s all done through social media — email and Facebook. We have a very active website; when I first came, there was no such thing as a website. You’ve got to keep up with the world and with the kids.
“You’re always learning,” he said, “mainly from the students.”
Brooks continues to play a horn — “trombone, tuba, baritone, all low brass. I’m at the end of the gene pool,” he said with a laugh.
“I play with the Conway Community Band, which Tim Cunningham, director of bands at Conway High School, and I revived about four years ago.”
He said they play from April to July 4 on the Kris Allen Stage in Simon Park and perform three concerts.
“It’s a blast. We really do a good job,” he said. The first concert will be at 7:30 p.m. May 24.
Brooks is a past president of the Arkansas Bandmasters Association and a past president of the Arkansas chapter of the College Band Directors National Association. He was named the 2008 Arkansas Bandmaster of the Year.
“You know, when you start out in a career, you want to prove yourself,” he said. “But as I get older and have done all that, I realize it’s the relationships with the kids that count. I now have children and grandchildren of students I have taught. That’s what gives you joy, seeing what’s happened in their lives and keeping connected with them. Teaching has not been a job for me; it’s paid me for doing what I like to do.”