Michael Roberts starts his inaugural season as artistic director of the Houston Pride Band.
By Rich Arenschieldt
“I looked at my phone one evening and I had a message notification from—of all things—a dating app,” Michael Roberts sheepishly admits. “Something I found a bit strange, and even more so when the other party asked: ‘Aren’t you a band director?’ From an earlier conversation, he had remembered that I am a professional musician and a conductor. He informed me that the Houston Pride Band was looking for a new director, and suggested I apply.” After a process that included an application, interview, and some trial rehearsals, Roberts got the job. (No word on what happened to Roberts’ mysterious online dating prospect.)
Michael Roberts grew up in Arkansas, went to college in the Texas Panhandle, and received a music-education degree studying oboe and saxophone. “I was lucky enough to start working immediately after college as an assistant in a large music program.”
Some years later, Roberts reconnected with Dr. Jack Stamp, a musical mentor he had known since high school. “He had originally suggested that I obtain an undergraduate degree, teach music for a few years, and then pursue additional training,” Roberts says. “I eventually applied to study with him and returned to academia, obtaining a master’s degree in conducting.”
On the advice of several colleges, Roberts then came back to Texas, joining a school district where music education was not merely an elective, but a part of the curriculum that was highly valued by students, teachers, administrators, and parents.
Seeking additional opportunity and responsibility, Roberts then moved to Houston, where he has worked for the past seven years. “Living in the Texas Panhandle for so long, I knew that eventually I needed to be in a major city—a place with an established community. I wanted to be able to enjoy my work and my life. My current school’s program is amazing and very well supported—it’s a wonderful job, and I love living in a cultural center.”
The Houston Pride Band was formed in 1978, ostensibly to march annually in the city’s Gay Pride Parade. The band eventually became a nonprofit organization and now performs several concerts a year as a full 50-member ensemble under the direction of Roberts and assistant artistic director Deborah Hirsch.
“As I researched the band, I realized what an extraordinary group it is,” Roberts says. “I was impressed by how much they care about music—and even more by the numerous small-group activities they undertake in support of Houston’s LGBT community. Band members are always doing something to benefit others.”
These smaller activities are part of the band’s “Spotlight Series” that provides a musical presence at numerous community activites. “In addition to our main-stage concerts, we provide music for celebratory events, memorial services, banquets—anywhere we’re needed. These performances are optional, and our musicians are happy to assist when they can. Since we are comprised of volunteers, I never want players to feel overburdened by the work we do.”
Roberts jumped into his new job during a very heady time. In short order, he had to manage a season finale, a marriage-equality celebration, and an historic Pride Parade. Immediately following his appointment, Roberts conducted two pieces at the season’s final concert. “Of course, it was a medley from The Wizard of Oz,” Roberts says. “The only thing more cliché than conducting that particular score was that I wore a pair of ruby slippers while doing it! Even though I was ‘the new guy,’ I had an absolute blast with the musicians and audience.
“Shortly thereafter,” he continues, “the annual Pride Parade, coming on the heels of the historic Supreme Court marriage-equality decision, was a huge event for the band. Our sister organizations in Dallas and San Antonio joined us for the celebration, giving us 80 players in the parade. For me, it was a hoot to be a drum major—again—at age 36!”
In addition to the parade, Roberts creates programs for the group’s concert season, conferring with his assistant, Hirsch, and others from the group. “This year was easy,” he says. “Obviously, we had to do a marriage/wedding-themed program. Our holiday program is comprised of entertaining works, and our spring concert (just before Pride) is always something with a strong LGBT theme.”
The band tries to vary its programming when planning their mainstage concerts. In recent years, they’ve worked to incorporate narration, video, and different theatrical offerings. “In this forum we can utilize many things to entertain audiences,” Roberts says. “Right now we are collaborating with a film composer, commissioning an original silent-film score. This is brand new—something we have never done. As a result, our March 2016 concert, featuring a Charlie Chaplin classic, will be very exciting.
“Membership in the band is on an upswing,” he says. “We have a full complement of players, and ideally I would like to continue to increase the size of the group. This will enable us to broaden our repertoire and also expand opportunities for resources. Many of our musicians want to perform with us but do not own instruments—especially the larger, more expensive ones.” Roberts expressed an interest in obtaining a full set of concert tubas (apparently they are hard to come by) in case any OutSmart readers have one to spare.
“The music we play is very solid, and we are constantly improving our musical product. It would be wonderful if the group could perform at a professional music convention (such as the Texas Music Educators Association annual convention) as an LGBT group. That would be an excellent way to showcase our musicians and advocate for our mission, one that expresses unity through music.” 2017 will be equally busy for Roberts and the group. “Houston will be hosting the National Lesbian and Gay Band Association annual conference,” Roberts says. “That organization is comprised of Pride bands from around the country that will gather in Houston to meet and play together. Typically, several hundred people will perform at and attend these events. It’s a huge undertaking for us, and as one of the founding bands in the association, it’s important that we make a good impression.
“The Houston Pride Band members play great music, and our audiences always have lots of fun,” he continues. “Concert attendees thoroughly enjoy themselves and everyone seems genuinely happy to be involved. This is definitely something that I wanted to be a part of, and I am thrilled to be chosen to work with the organization.”
The band is open to musicians of varying skill levels, and rehearses on Wednesday evenings, 7:30–9:30 p.m., at Bethel UCC, 1107 Shepherd Drive, near Washington Avenue. You can contact them through their website at houstonprideband.org.
Rich Arenschieldt is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.