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Since the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley student body passed the athletics fee referendum in November 2021, the school has taken steps toward fulfilling its goal of establishing a football program, women’s swimming and diving teams, expanded spirit programs and a marching band.
The school recently took another step toward those goals with the hiring of Ronnie Rios, the UTRGV’s first director of athletic bands.
Rios is a native of Alice, where he joined the band in the sixth grade playing the euphonium, also known as the baritone.
“It was just something that my friends were doing and that I was doing,” Rios recalled. “It was just a very popular activity for the kids growing up in that town because the band program was so robust. None of us knew at the time just how robust, but when I got older, I came to find out that I was in one of the best music programs in the country.”
While his early participation in his school’s music program helped ignite his interest in music, he would not experience his calling to teach music until he began attending college at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Even then, he was still unsure about his future in music.
“After my first year (in college), I didn’t even want to be a band director — crazy enough, even though I was studying music education,” Rios said.
He recalled sitting down to a meeting with the dean to try to figure out a career path in music education that didn’t involve him becoming a band director.
“He didn’t really know either,” Rios recalled. “I don’t really remember what he said, but I walked away not really having anything concrete.”
Rios said that all changed when he had the opportunity to work with children and experience the magic of teaching music.
“Once I got in front of kids — once I got in front of those fresh, beautiful minds, I said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do,’” Rios said. “I absolutely fell in love with the activity of teaching band once I got in front of the kids.”
“Once I got in front of those kids and I was the leader in the room, my whole world changed,” he continued. “My whole vision changed. My whole attitude changed. My whole heart changed because I just loved working with students and I loved the activity of band so much. I never looked back.”
Rios earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from TAMUK and began teaching music at a school in Kingsville before being hired as the head band director at Harlingen High School in 1996. It was there that he made a name for himself and established the Big Red Cardinal Band as one of the premier music programs in South Texas.
In his 25-year tenure as head band director, the band reached the University Interscholastic League State Marching Contest every year of eligibility.
“That’s where I pretty much built all my relationships with everybody throughout the state and throughout the country,” Rios said. “That’s where I built a program that could sustain excellence and was stress-tested, and is still thriving today.”
Rios had a short stretch at Port Isabel High School after his time at Harlingen High. It was during that time that he heard about UTRGV’s plans to introduce a marching band program. A friend of his who happens to be a professor at the university encouraged him to apply for the job.
The rest is history.
With his hiring, Rios has had to hit the ground running making preparations for the school year in July — a months-long process that he would normally begin in November of the previous year. Aside from a program coordinator, he is currently the only faculty member on staff with the band for the time being.
“You’re looking at about eight months of preparation that I had to squeeze into about three weeks,” Rios said. “Even today, my class starts in an hour or two and I’ve been preparing all day. There’s just so many things that I’m trying to catch up on. I won’t have this problem next year, I can guarantee you.”
Rios is leading around 140 students through the first year of UTRGV’s first Vaquero Marching Band. Part of the process of establishing the new program includes helping the university find a fight song.
“There is a school alma mater, a school song that has been in place,” Rios said. “There has not been a fight song — an official, adopted fight song yet by the university.”
He said that he is currently working with the athletic department to find a song that encompasses UTRGV’s roots and has “Vaquero-type sounds” that will stand the test of time.
“It’s really important that we get something that everybody signs off on so that we can go forward,” Rios said. “It should be something peppy and motivational, tuneful, catchy, something that you can jam to so that it can bleed through the community and beyond to become a staple at our university, because I want to use that at all my rehearsals, all my performances. I want to play that just like any other university band would spirit their fight song.”
Since school began last week, Rios and the Vaquero Marching Band have worked through daily rehearsals in the band hall and on the school’s soccer and track field — perfecting all aspects of the Valley’s first university marching band.
With the school’s football team set to debut next year with a few exhibition games, Rios said that any pressure he feels is self-imposed as he not only prepares his band for performances and parades this fall, but in instilling a love for music, a love for learning and performing in his students.
“I want the students in the ensemble to love coming to class,” Rios said. “I want them to love even more performing a show in front of an audience. Whether it’s high school kids or college students or people from the community or on YouTube, I want them to love performing.”