If you stand inside the choir room at Rowe High School long enough, you will certainly notice something quite peculiar. The door opens, and regardless of whether the faces of the students walking in showed worry, anger or apathy minutes before, as soon as they step into the room, smiles appear. This is a place they want to be “because we know who’s behind the door,” said 16-year-old junior Jennifer Beltran. They know they will find their choir director, Amby Tanner. The students can’t imagine opening that door next school year and not seeing him. After 32 years with McAllen ISD, Tanner is retiring at the end of the school year.
Tanner moved to McAllen in 1977 after graduating from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth with a major in music education. He interviewed for positions all across the state but chose McAllen because of two legendary choir directors.
“Bev Henson and Cloys Webb were icons,” Tanner said, “known throughout the state for their choir programs.”
Tanner began his teaching career at Lamar Junior High. For 13 years, he served as choir director at Lamar and assistant choir director at McAllen High School. When Rowe opened in 1990 as a ninth grade campus, Tanner became the school’s choir director.
One year later, he formed Razz Ma Tazz. Faithful fans might be surprised to hear about their early years.
“We wanted a small, select group for performances,” Tanner said. “The first couple of years, I begged people to let us sing for their groups. My mother-in-law helped. Then during the Christmas season of ’96 or ’97, we stopped at Luby’s one afternoon between performances. A lady named Twilah Dubois saw us and asked if we’d go to Adobe Wells. At that engagement, we met people from other RV parks who wanted to schedule us. That’s how it all began.”
By 1998-1999, the group that once had to search for venues now was in demand, putting on 50 to 60 performances per year.
“Now we’re booked a year in advance,” Tanner said, “and we have a 50-performance limit.”
Tanner derives great pleasure from watching his students grow as entertainers and as people. “You can take 18 kids and give them songs to sing, and it won’t entertain anyone,” he said. “It’s getting them to the performance point that makes the difference. Every year we start with a fresh crop, and we always have a harvest.”
Eighteen students were selected for Razz this year, only a fraction of the 270 Rowe students enrolled in choir classes this year. Many students choose to be at Rowe because of Tanner’s program. “My dad has had offers since I was in middle school to go to San Antonio to work,” said Jaclyn Ybanez, 17, a junior at Rowe, “but he knew I had a dream to be in Razz. Now I’m in Razz, and my dad is always there when we perform.”
As if his Razz schedule isn’t mind-boggling enough, Tanner, his assistants and his students have also put on an annual musical for the past 17 years. The group spends approximately 160 hours outside of the school day practicing for the musical, which is evidenced by the way fans clamor to get tickets each year the day they go on sale. Everyone knows all performances sell out quickly.
During his 32-year tenure in McAllen, Tanner has accumulated memories to last a lifetime. One of his fondest happened in 1986 when his Lamar eighth grade girls’ choir received an invitation to perform at the state choir convention.
“It was a huge honor,” Tanner said.
Tanner finds it impossible to choose his favorite performance or favorite musical because each one is special to him. Tanner also cherishes the trips he has taken with his students. Every other year, Razz goes to a show choir competition in the United States (last year they traveled to San Francisco and took top prize in every competition they entered), and on the off-year, he takes choir students on other adventures. This year, Tanner took 35 students to Vienna and Salzburg, Austria. These trips hold a special place in Tanner’s heart.
“I love going on trips with the kids,” he said, “especially those who have never been out of the Valley. When I’ve taken them to New York City, seeing their faces, it’s amazing to watch.”
So many people have inspired Tanner along the way, including Ron Shirey and Ruth Whitlock, his choir directors at TCU. When Tanner moved to McAllen, he met Whitlock’s mother, Lucile Hendricks, who also inspired him greatly.
“And there are bunches more,” Tanner said, referring to all of the people along the way who made a difference for him. “Choir directors, the kids and other teachers, I have learned so much from all of them.”
Tanner said he would be remiss if he didn’t give special thanks to one of his assistants, Debbie Morton, who composes, arranges, paints (“She is an amazing artist,” he said.), choreographs and provides voice lessons. “If she hadn’t been with me,” Tanner said, “none of this would have happened. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I do all that stuff.
“And I have to thank my wife,” Tanner said, referring to Leslie, who teaches choir at Fossum Middle School, “for putting up with all the hours I’ve had to work over the years.”
Tanner does not plan to leave his cherished memories of Rowe and MISD behind. He’ll be taking all of them with him. He is determined to see that the foundation he has built for the past 32 years is only the beginning.
“My biggest fear is that the district will use my departure as a reason to cut some choir positions that directly support the high school choir program,” Tanner said. “It’s a lot of work, and I couldn’t keep up even with the staff I have. If there are staff cuts, the district would be asking for Razz and the musical to fail.”
Tanner’s students felt the void created by Tanner’s retirement the minute they heard the news. “He taped the message and pushed play,” said Caitlin Hinojosa, a 17-year-old senior. “His wife was standing at the side in the room, and she was already crying. It was shocking. Usually when we leave the choir room, we’re so noisy, but that day there was dead silence.”
“We all thought it was fake,” said senior Brittney Smith, 17. “He started by saying he wanted to clear up the rumor because every year people say he’s retiring. Only this time it was true.”
Hinojosa is the fourth member of her family to be in Razz. “I am the last one,” she said. Many other families have also had more than one sibling earn a spot in the performance choir, including the Arguellas family.
“I grew up in the choir program,” said Hannah Arguellas, 16, a sophomore, whose dad directs the choir at Fossum Middle School. Hannah watched her brothers go through Razz. “Now it was my chance, my turn. I cried when I found out Mr. Tanner was retiring.”
In Rowe’s choir room, Tanner’s students have learned so much more than how to put on an incredible performance. “He always gets after us if we get a bad grade,” said Valerie Nunez, a 16-year-old junior.
“With him I have learned responsibility,” said sophomore Marco Lopez, 16. My dad expects me to keep my grades up if I want to be in Razz. Mr. Tanner has motivated me to do well because he didn’t want me to get out.”
“He devotes his life to us,” said junior Kazuo Sakaguchi. “We are his children, and he is a father figure. If we do something wrong, he corrects us. He really cares.”
“In the summer, my dad got me a lab,” added Beltran, “and then my brother got me a husky. The husky got Parvo and died. I called Mr. Tanner, and he and his wife picked me up and took me and my lab to the vet because I was afraid he was going to die, too.”
“And respect is a big thing here,” said Hinojosa.
“Oh yes,” Andres Silva, 15 and a sophomore, chimed in. “You cannot give him disrespect.” He also said Tanner has allowed his students to do things other people wouldn’t think possible. Because of Tanner, Silva plans to pursue a career in music.
Tanner’s students delight in watching him during their shows. “I love to watch him during our performances,” de los Santos said. “He sings along. He’s so full of life. That’s why people love having him around and love having Razz perform. He is honestly a child at heart.”
Amby Tanner couldn’t leave Rowe without that proverbial bang. “Since 1951 when the UIL choir contest began in the Valley, only once has one school taken six choirs to the contest and returned with six sweepstakes trophies,” he said. “That was accomplished in 1996 by Rowe High School. Again this year, Rowe took six choirs to contest and returned with six sweepstakes trophies.” Forty choirs performed that day, and 12 trophies were awarded. Six of those went to Rowe.
“Joyce (Hull), Carlos (Alfaro) and I were very proud and happy,” he said.
Although the students can’t imagine walking into the choir room without Mr. Tanner in it next year, they know the show must go on.
“Even if Mr. Tanner isn’t going to be here in person,” said Hinojosa, “he’s still going to be with us.”