Community profile: New Rifle High School band director amplifies the drum line

Rifle band director Bill Ishee plays the saxophone Wednesday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Bill Ishee keeps a close watch over his three fantasy football leagues, two of which he runs himself. Fellow participants include former students of his. Amid picking his starters, Rifle High School’s newest band director also orchestrates his drum line during Bears varsity football games.

“This year, one of the very first things that I did was I replaced all the heads on the marching drums for the first time in what might have been years,” he said. “The kids are really enjoying that.”

Ishee took over this fall for former RHS band director Jeff Chmay, who’s pursuing law school. Ishee, 32, instructed band for the past eight years at Iowa High School, in his hometown of Iowa, Louisiana. There, he directed about 36 band members. Here in Rifle, 55.

He also attended McNeese State University, a smaller four-year institution in Lake Charles, Louisiana. After college football season, the university hosts what’s called the Band Spectacular, when the marching band plays a concert highlighting every piece they played during football season.

Band students were off attending other classes early Wednesday afternoon, leaving Ishee’s high-ceiling band room empty, except for some instruments. In its quiet, Ishee carefully removed a shiny alto saxophone — his go-to instrument — out of its trunk, cleaning the pieces before attaching them, bit by bit. He then played a few high-pitched, seemingly perfect notes.

He’d aso talk about what it’s like to move from Louisiana to the Western Slope and how his current band sizes up to his previous musical pupils.

“It’s a unique situation for me,” he said. “These kids are way more advanced musically than the program I took over last.”

Rifle band director Bill Ishee assembles his saxophone Wednesday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

The state of Louisiana is prime time, marching band territory. Mardi Gras, Louisiana State University football, Bourbon Street, Southern Jazz. They’re all rolled into one and intertwined into many facets of Louisiana culture.

Unsurprisingly, Ishee wants to turn Rifle High School into a drum line powerhouse in Colorado. His aim is to have Bears band compete, like his former high school competed: In at least 3-4 marching competitions per year.

In late September, he brought Rifle band to the Colorado West Marching Invitational at Stocker Stadium in Grand Junction.

“I understand this program is used to conducting a fall concert,” Ishee said. “But especially moving forward in future years, I expect to be in the thick of marching season around this time.”

This week, Rifle High School band is hosting a concert emulating McNeese State University’s Band Spectacular. The Bears are set to play all their marching pieces they played — or didn’t get to play — throughout football season.

The free concert is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Oct 20 at Rifle High School. It’s free to the public. 

“One of the downsides to this year, we didn’t get to finish the show. In fact, we only put out the first movement on the field,” he said. “So this is really going to be the only opportunity for the crowd to ever hear the second and third movement.”

Rifle High School senior Joseph Ceballos, 17, plans to study engineering in college. Also a percussionist in Ishee’s band, he said the transition to new band director has been fun and there’s been more focus on the drum line.

Rifle High School senior Joseph Ceballos steps off the field after performing in marching band during the Bears game against Basalt on Oct. 7.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Ceballos is looking forward to Thursday’s marching band concert.

“Those songs are fun to play,” he said. “Marching on the fields I think is the harder part, so since we’re not marching, we’ll be fine.”

Ceballos has participated in music programs since middle school, and, as a percussionist, visits CMU’s Best of the West Festival, which really emphasizes drums.

Ceballos said Ishee puts a lot of effort into what he does, including introducing band students to new things, like competing in marching band.

“Even the small stuff, like replacing the drums,” Ceballos said of Ishee. “It’s like a small thing, but it’s really cool do see new drums, and that just makes it a lot more fun to play.”

When it comes to instruments, Ishee plays them all. For the past two years he was without a percussion instructor and, by necessity, acclimated himself to the world of one device hitting another. He also knows how to run a Color Guard and ran a jazz band the past few years.

Looking forward, he talks about how Front Range band programs are more like football teams when it comes to instructors on staff. Here in Rifle, it’s just him.

The Rifle High School marching band performs during the Bears game against Basalt on Oct. 7.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Ishee said there’s a big correlation between well-funded band programs that have a core staff of directors, and there’s a good correlation between that and competing really well at state championships.

While in his band room Wednesday, Ishee pointed out a broken key on a xylorimba. The instrument is garbage, he said with an unstoppable energy.

That energy, his students agree, is why they’re excited for the band. 

“I’ve got a lot of energy about building programs,” Ishee said.

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