Periodically, I like to check in on the public schools by going to a high school football game, catching a stage performance at a local school or simply peering in on good teachers doing what they do best (with the school’s and teacher’s permission, of course).
I find that to be the best way to take the temperature of the public-school system of which I am a product and that my daughter presently attends.
On a rainy afternoon this week, I walked into the band room at Miami Senior High, home of the Million Dollar Band, a nickname given to Miami High’s band by famous composer Henry Fillmore, who used to occasionally stop by the school in the late 1940s and early 1950s and work some of his material with the Stingaree marching band. One day, half kiddingly, Fillmore called the musicians a “million-dollar band.”
Walking into Miami High (Miami’s first high school) is always a pleasure because of the majestic architecture and the rich history of the school. The legend of its Million Dollar Band is always atop the bragging list of all Stingaree alumni, for good reason.
For years, the Stingaree music program has produced many significant contributors to the local music scene. Currently, the music program is under the tutelage of a former Stingaree band member and one of South Florida’s most recognized and talented musicians, Juan Turros. I have known Juan for years as a great sax player for a sensational local band, Suenalo. However, I had never seen him work his magic at his day job.
When I walked into the state-of-the-art band room (courtesy of funds raised by the alumni association, principal Benny Valdes and School Board member Raquel Regalado), the students were scattered about in disarray — a horn blowing out of tune over there, a cymbal rattling about over there. All the while bandleader Turros was calmly chatting with me and patiently giving the students a chance to settle in.
Once he took to the dry erase board to jot down the agenda for that day’s lesson, all eyes fixed on him, and not a peep was heard from the students. It was immediately evident that the young men and women in that classroom wanted to be nowhere else on Earth at that moment.
After a rendition of Donna Summer’s classic, disco hit, Heaven Knows, I asked the class what made the Million Dollar Band so special. Senior percussionist Gustavo Cano quickly smirked and responded, “cause we got swing at the High.” Freshman trumpeter Calypso Ponce expressed the sense of family she felt “the minute I walked into the band room for the first time.” She added, “The tradition grabs you.”
The tempo and nature of the music suddenly shifted, and band members didn’t miss a beat as they went into their version of Bob Minter’s swinging gem, Mambone.
When the band took a brief break, Turros explained why he returned to teach at his alma mater. He uttered two words, but the caring expression and sentiment behind them said it all: “It’s home.” And with that I understood the profound connection Turros has with his students.
A seasoned musical veteran who toured with Willy Chirino, KC and the Sunshine Band, David Lee Roth and Maynard Ferguson, Turros, now a father of three, finds great solace sharing the gift that he was once given with kids from his old neighborhood. “Music was always my escape and it led me to get an education and see things and meet people I otherwise would have never been able to.”
The Stingaree Million Dollar Band has once again reached prominence, garnering superior marks for both marching and jazz bands at the district and state levels. Much of this success has to do with a priceless resource — a caring, dedicated, and talented teacher.