The magazine for the Department of Music & Theatre at
Iowa State University

Fun is instrumental

During the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, Alexa Gibbs (’12 music education) asked her South Hamilton Middle School band students in Jewell, Iowa, to set goals for the year.

“They wanted to place first at Adventureland Festival of Bands and make IBA for middle school band,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Adventureland – that’s somewhat doable.’ I saw ‘IBA,’ and I laughed. I thought, ‘There’s absolutely no way, but if they want to try for it, we will try for it.’”

Alexa Gibbs (
Alexa Gibbs ('12 music education) with her South Hamilton band students.
(Submitted photo)

Months later, the Iowa Bandmasters Association (IBA) president informed her that South Hamilton had been selected to perform at IBA’s 2018 conference. It’s one of the highest honors for Iowa bands.

“I was in shock,” Gibbs said. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. Our middle schoolers showed me they were capable of something so great, and that is when our program started to shift. I learned not to slow my students down. My students had these big dreams, and I was not dreaming big enough. I appreciated how some very young teenagers could show me that.”

Pride and joy

Their success sparked a new fire in the program. The South Hamilton High School band, which Gibbs also directs, followed with its first IBA performance in 2019 and its second in 2023. The program has earned numerous other accolades this year, from a Division 1 Rating at state contests to a Class 1A Best of Class Award at the Adventureland Festival of Bands. 

“They were so happy with what they had achieved,” Gibbs said of her high school students’ spring IBA performance. “After the concert, my first chair tuba player, who had a solo, came up to me. He goes, ‘That felt so good,’ and I said, ‘I know, you played so well,’ and he gave me a huge hug. It’s moments like that that stick with our students. How does it feel in the moment? Who did we get to share our music with? There was pride and joy.”

“She fills every room she’s in with fun and laughter, and my best high school memories are of days spent with her in the band room."

As the band teacher for grades 7-12 at South Hamilton, Gibbs is quick to praise her students’ efforts and ambitions. What matters most to her isn’t the honors, but their hard work and happiness. 

“She fills every room she’s in with fun and laughter, and my best high school memories are of days spent with her in the band room,” said former student Emily Willadsen (’23 music education).

Alexa Gibbs directs one of South Hamilton
Alexa Gibbs directs one of South Hamilton's band ensembles.
(Submitted photo)

Willadsen will teach band at Humboldt (Iowa) High School this fall and said she is grateful to have Gibbs as a mentor and role model. 

“Ms. Gibbs cares deeply about each of her students and knows how to bring out the best in them as musicians and people,” Willadsen said. “It was her influence that inspired me to become a band director myself, and as I enter my first year of teaching, I hope to create a fun and safe environment for my students to express themselves the same way she did.”

Leading with heart

Gibbs first fell in love with music education at West Delaware High School in Manchester, Iowa, where during her senior year, she was a cadet teacher for a middle school band.

“I knew for the longest time I wanted to go into education, but that was one of the first times that I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I could pursue music education because music was always a passion of mine,’” she recalled. 

Alexa Gibbs in Simon Estes Music Hall.
Alexa Gibbs in Simon Estes Music Hall.
(Alyson O'Hara/Iowa State University)

Although Gibbs thought a state school for college would be too big and impersonal, her dad persuaded her to visit at least one. She immediately met a familiar face on her campus visit to Iowa State.

“I ran into Mike Giles in the office, and he gives me that look of ‘Hey, I remember you from somewhere,’ and I was like, ‘I remember you from somewhere, too,’” she recalled.

“It seems like yesterday that Alexa arrived on campus. She was a true joy to teach, and I could sense early on that she would blossom into somebody pretty special.”

Giles, teaching professor of music, had judged Gibbs’ All-State Music Festival band audition. He encouraged her to visit again for a lesson to help inform her college decisions, and the pitch worked. 

“It seems like yesterday that Alexa arrived on campus,” Giles said. “She was a true joy to teach, and I could sense early on that she would blossom into somebody pretty special. As a student, Alexa made me want to be a better teacher. She is a gifted musician, maintains a steady work ethic, and leads with a big heart.”

As a Cyclone, Gibbs was a member of the ISU Wind Ensemble, the jazz ensembles, and numerous other groups. Now, her former professors and mentors are her colleagues and a favorite classroom resource. Music faculty members Michael Golemo, Sonja Giles, Nathan Dishman, and Christian Carichner have all shared their expertise with South Hamilton through band clinics and solos.

Well-deserved recognition

Gibbs said the successes at South Hamilton, combined with an excellent band educator for their fifth and sixth grade students, have fueled the band program’s retention rates. Since she started in 2015, the high school band has added 30 students, making it a squeeze to fit everyone on stage for a photo. Gibbs also started a jazz band, which grew from hosting home concerts to placing in the Iowa Jazz Championships.

Alexa Gibbs in Simon Estes Music Hall.
Alexa Gibbs in Simon Estes Music Hall.
(Alyson O'Hara/Iowa State University)

“It’s not all about the placings, but I think the kids are encouraged that we started something from scratch. They are doing great, and they love it,” she said.

Gibbs was recently recognized for her leadership in Iowa band education with IBA’s 2023 North Central District Karl King Active Distinguished Service Award. Gibbs said she was shocked and humbled to receive the award at this stage of her career. 

“It’s just overwhelming because you’re in the grind every day, and you’re just trying to create music,” she said. “You’re trying to succeed, and you’re trying to get it to the best level, and you’re trying to invest in your students and show each student that they matter and make them good individuals for our future and our world. You don’t think about accolades.”

With school out for summer, Gibbs now has a short break before leading a student tour of Europe with the Iowa Ambassadors of Music and a 250-member ensemble. Then it’s back to work – and fun – with her South Hamilton students.

“Continuing the level of excellence that we have is important,” Gibbs said. “And it’s important to create a band family, and it’s important to have fun.”