Longhorn Band alum Cliff Croomes celebrates his first year leading the Showband of the Southwest
by Rebecca Johnson
Cliff Croomes just completed his first year as director of the Longhorn Band — a year filled with COVID-19, controversy and, ultimately, triumph. He’s ready to dive into his second year with enthusiasm.
“It’s been a year of challenges,” he said, “but it’s actually been a great year to get to know the students and staff. Everybody was so eager to get the band going again, so we came out just loaded, and the kids performed great all year.”
A Longhorn Band alumnus himself, Croomes served on the drumline. He graduated from the Butler School of Music with a Bachelor of Music Studies degree in 2001.
From there, Croomes went on to direct bands at the middle school and high school levels at schools in Pflugerville, Bastrop, San Antonio and Georgetown. Along the way, he taught at UT’s Longhorn Music Camp from 2001 to 2014 and taught percussion for various groups in Drum Corps International, having been a member of the Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps himself.
Ultimately, Croomes headed to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to pursue a D.M.A. “I’d never lived outside of Texas, so in a way, I was nervous,” said Croomes, a Houston native. “But I got there and the people in Louisiana, they’ve got such a great spirit. It’s close in geography to Texas, but it’s so different.”
After Croomes earned a doctorate, LSU hired him as the assistant director of Athletic Bands, and LSU won the national football championship during his first year in the position. After a couple of years at LSU, Croomes was offered the chance to return to Texas to head the Longhorn Band.
“Being back here — it’s just been the dream of a lifetime,” he said. “Of course, I was in the band 20 years ago, and seeing some of the traditions that are still happening today, but updated — it’s like being a parent and on Christmas day watching your kids open presents and seeing Christmas through their eyes.”
But the band is embracing changes, too. Croomes is the first Black director in the band’s 123-year history.
“I have to say, it’s a huge honor to have that distinction at such a world-renowned institution,” he said. “I think being in the band [as a student], and then being on this side would be an honor, regardless. But being an African American, just really shows me the university’s commitment to diversity. And I think it shows our students moving forward, especially those in the African American community, that it gives them a model and says, ‘OK, I could see myself in this type of position.’ And that’s why representation matters, right?”
Croomes is a founding member of “And We Were Heard,” a national initiative to promote performance of band music by diverse composers. And he has served on the advisory board for the Dr. William P. Foster Project, a collaboration to support bands in historically underserved communities.
When Croomes took over the Longhorn Band in May 2021, it was facing multiple challenges. The pandemic had disrupted the band (and all UT courses) during the 2020–21 academic year. It posed unique challenges, though, to classes where band students’ individual performances are meant to join into a harmonious whole and classes that usually involve travel as an integral part of the experience.
Croomes also entered amid a controversy surrounding the university’s alma mater, “The Eyes of Texas.” It had become known that the song debuted at a 1903 campus minstrel show; such shows traditionally featured white students performing in blackface. Some members of the Longhorn Band declared they would not play it. After a committee found the song was “written in a racist environment” but itself had “no racist intent,” the university affirmed the song would remain as the university’s alma mater and that the band would be required to play it. UT President Jay Hartzell also committed to significant investments in long-term funding for all university bands, resulting in increased performance options and reduced financial burden for students.
As Croomes joined UT that summer, he needed to unite and heal the band for the 2021-22 football season.
“In the end, we played ‘The Eyes of Texas’ and played it well and represented the university,” Croomes said. “I told the students we are not defined by one song. There’s so much other repertoire, and we’re trying to be more intentional about inclusivity by asking the students what other things would enhance [their] experience. We’ve added some updates to the music that they really enjoy.”
In particular, the band’s collaboration with Mariachi Paredes de la Universidad de Tejas during Hispanic Heritage Month was a hit. “We added a halftime show to reflect and represent that culture during that month,” Croomes said.
“That was the first time that we had done that collaboration, and everyone loved it. The stadium just lost it.”
Croomes sees more collaborations in the band’s future, including with Texas Cheer and Pom.
“They’re such a visual part of the spirit of UT, and we’re such a musical part of the spirit of UT. I think it’s just natural that we collaborate at some point,” he said, noting that the organization’s head coach, Blair Brown, also is enthusiastic about the idea.
“We want to bring in guest artists when we can to just entertain the fans at DKR as much as possible and give our students the highest-level experience that we can.” As the students return to campus this fall for another year of Longhorn Band, Cliff Croomes is up for the challenge.
Rebecca Johnson is an Austin-based arts writer.