The last month of school is going to be tough for Kathy Johnson.

Sitting at her desk tucked away in the Argyle High School band hall, the head band director's eyes well up with tears when she thinks about her retirement at the end of the year.

"It's going to get worse and worse as the year goes on," she said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. "[This program] is an investment for me. Whether I see it or not, I feel like I'm investing in these kids' lives."

At 60, Johnson is putting down her baton after 37 years as an educator. But whatever heartache she has about it doesn't follow her to the director's podium in front of her band on Wednesday.

As the melody of Percy Grainger's "Lincolnshire Posy" wafts through the room, a half-smile spreads across Johnson's face as a student launches into a solo. It quickly turns into a grimace when she hears a cracked note.

That slight change in expression might have been enough of a reprimand for the soloist because she didn't miss the note again.

"She demands excellence," associate director James McNair said. "She keeps us all on our toes."

That expectation of excellence is evident in the collection of trophies that adorn the band hall. Some are from regional or national contests, and others are markers of the band's success as the six-time state marching band champions. The bulk of the trophies come from the UIL Concert and Sightreading Contest where the band receives superior ratings year after year.

In a few years, there might not be any room left on the shelves for more trophies, but that doesn't seem to matter to Johnson, who calls the trophies a byproduct of what the band does.

"People looking at the program from the outside might think that's my only thing, wanting to win, but that has absolutely nothing to do with it," she said. "I think about the kids when I see those trophies. We strive for excellence and pay attention to what our kids need and nurture them. When that happens, you're going to have success."

The path to success began early for Johnson, but she started off on the wrong side of the stage.

When she was 6 years old, Johnson snagged a spot as an extra in the Dallas Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker. As she was twirling around, she started focusing on the music surrounding her.

"I was really mesmerized by the orchestra, almost to the point of distraction," Johnson said. "It consumed me. From that point on, I knew that I wanted to play an instrument."

She picked up the flute in seventh grade and started playing at her Dallas middle school. During her freshman year, her family moved to Crandall, about 30 miles southeast of Dallas. The district didn't start a band program until Johnson's sophomore year. She joined and continued taking private lessons from a flutist in Dallas.

"I remember my first lesson with her when I heard her play," Johnson said of her private teacher. "I broke down in tears because I didn't realize a flute could sound like that. That motivated me a lot."

Her high school band director took part in that motivation as well, she said. He was a University of North Texas alumnus who often took his students to concerts at the university.

"That made a huge impression on me," she said. "I wanted to be a part of that."

Johnson ended up getting her bachelor's and master's degrees from UNT, saying she was like a "kid in a candy shop" with all the musical opportunities at the college. Upon graduation, she got her first job teaching at middle schools in Lewisville ISD.

After 20 years with that district, she made the jump to high school and joined the already award-winning Argyle band. Under her leadership, the program continued to flourish, but students note Johnson doesn't teach only music.

"She's really helped us with life," said senior clarinet player and drum major Ashlyn Bush. "She taught us how to be on time, how to come prepared and really how to succeed in life no matter what you do."

Inspired by Johnson, Bush's life after high school will include music. She plans to follow in Johnson's footsteps and pursue music at UNT, but Bush is far from the only Argyle student to choose that path.

Johnson said she's had several students go on to study music at UNT, the Manhattan School of Music and Julliard.

She's also mentored student teachers who are assigned to Argyle in college.

UNT senior Kendall Stevenson has been the band department's student teacher for the spring semester and will go on to teach at Cedar Park High School outside of Austin.

She said she's been lucky to watch Johnson these past few months and hopes to take some of those skills with her to her new job.

"One thing that's interesting to watch is how particular she is," Stevenson said of Johnson. "She knows exactly what she wants and how to communicate that with her students."

That communication may seem odd to some if they watch Johnson direct.

On Wednesday, she had her students sing their parts in what she called "Dory talk," a nod to the Finding Nemo character who elongates her vowels to speak "whale."

The Dory talk may disappear at the end of the year as Richland High School's James Bird takes over the program and brings in new methods. The other directors say they're excited for Bird to come in but will miss Johnson deeply.

As for Johnson, she's looking forward to stepping away from the long hours and spending more time with her grandson. She still will play in the Dallas Wind Symphony, serve as a consultant for local band programs and continue to advocate for fine arts programs in schools.

"If there's even a possibility you're going to lose a fine arts program in your school, you need to stand up and say no," Johnson said. "You can change the culture of your school through the band hall, through the choir room, through the art class. That's where you change the culture and climate of your school and it radiates out."

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @CjonesDRC.

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