After being pushed to the margins, Texas Tech alumni Robyn Judd uses music to invite others in.
Kaleb Garcia attended Band & Orchestra Camp at Texas Tech University for the first time this July.
“I've always had a passion for music but didn't think I could ever play an instrument,” Garcia said. “When I started middle school I discovered the trumpet, and it just clicked.”
Garcia didn't stumble upon the trumpet by chance.
“My assistant band director, Robyn Judd, helped me find my love for the instrument,” Garcia said. “More importantly, Robyn made me feel like I belonged.”
Robyn grew up in Big Lake, Texas, and according to their mother, Darla Casteel, knew how to use their voice from day one.
“Robyn got kicked out of the nursery when they were four hours old,” Casteel said. “They were so vocal that they riled up all the other babies.”
After identifying Robyn as the instigator, the nurses brought them back to their mother's hospital room.
“From that day on, Robyn never shied away from using their voice,” Casteel said. “They were stubborn, almost to a fault, but they felt so much and wanted to share what they felt with the world.”
Unfortunately, the world didn't always want to hear it.
As a member of the LGBTQA+ community, Robyn experienced a lot of hate at school. Later in life, they came out as non-binary.
“People would tell Robyn they were going to hell and were an abomination,” Casteel said. “It broke my heart to see Robyn treated that way, because they loved everyone.”
According to Casteel, Robyn's teachers often expressed concern about Robyn's almost excessive level of empathy for classmates.
“If one of their friends was hurt or upset, Robyn would be inconsolable until things were fixed,” Casteel said.
Robyn even cared for stray animals that showed up outside their home.
“We ended up rescuing a dog that came to our house one day,” Casteel said. “I wasn't so sure about it, but Robyn seemed to resonate with the dog's pain and insisted we give it a home.
“I worried about Robyn because they felt so much and didn't have an outlet to let those emotions out.”
But then Robyn found the clarinet.
“I remember the day they first picked up the clarinet,” Casteel said. “They were in love.”
For the next seven years, Robyn's life revolved around band. Robyn made all-state band almost every year throughout middle and high school and attended all the conferences and performances they could.
“Band gave Robyn this place of belonging that was missing before,” Casteel said. “Music changed their life.”
In 2007, Robyn attended Band & Orchestra Camp at Texas Tech's School of Music, part of the J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts.
“Robyn loved camp,” Casteel said. “They would come home and talk about all the new things they'd learned. I tried my best to understand what they were saying, but I enjoyed their excitement, whether I understood the compositions or not.”
Robyn attended camp every year until graduating high school in 2010. Casteel says by their sophomore year, Robyn knew the School of Music was the right fit. Since that time, there was never a question about attending another school.
“Robyn felt accepted there,” Casteel said. “They had great relationships with the faculty they met during camp. David Shea, professor of clarinet, had built a rapport with Robyn and they really wanted to study with him.”
Robyn came alive during their time in college.
“They matured so much in their first few years at Texas Tech,” Casteel said. “Robyn's first year was spent marching in the Goin' Band. They made so many friends and really came into themselves.”
One of those friends was Andrea Martinez, a horn player.
“I remember being instantly impressed by Robyn's drive,” Martinez said. “Robyn came from a small town with very few performing arts resources, and at times, felt behind when they got to college.”
Martinez came from Dallas where there was an abundance of resources.
“I had been in private lessons since I was a kid,” Martinez said. “A lot of musicians have that background, but some do not. So, for Robyn to come in and work as hard as they did was inspiring.”
By Robyn's last year, they were one of the best clarinet players in their studio.
“Robyn also stood up for what they believed was right, almost unapologetically,” Martinez said. “I remember Robyn asking questions or challenging professors, and I was in awe of that. It was always with kindness; but Robyn was just tenacious that way. They always stood up for the underdog.”
It was a trait that drew Andrea to Robyn.
Shortly after earning their bachelor's degrees, the two were married.
Robyn took a job as band director at Dunbar Middle School in the Lubbock Independent School District.
“Robyn really loved working with middle schoolers,” Casteel said. “They knew how to connect with that age group.”
Robyn stayed at Dunbar for two years.
“Their time at Dunbar was really formative,” Martinez said. “Robyn encountered students with problems much bigger than out-of-tune instruments.”
One of Robyn's students became pregnant in seventh and eighth grade. Another faced violence at home. Neighborhood gun violence became commonplace for many of the students.
“I think that job almost destroyed Robyn,” Casteel said. “Robyn cared so deeply and wanted to fix those problems for the kids. But as a band director, there is only so much you can do.”
In 2019, Robyn took a job as assistant director of bands at Frenship Middle School.
“I know leaving the kids at Dunbar was brutal on Robyn,” Martinez said. “At the same time, Robyn really wanted to focus more on their craft, which was proving almost impossible to do at Dunbar.”
But Robyn had not written those students off. An idea was brewing.
“Robyn loved teaching music, but wanted to meet students' emotional needs, too,” Casteel said. “Music was a great way of building those relationships, but Robyn was considering studying counseling as a way to better impact kids, while still using music.”
Robyn's ability to connect with students was noticed by others too.
Kyle Billett, head band director at Frenship Middle School, worked closely with Robyn for the next three years.
“Robyn was not only sharp pedagogically speaking, but they were brilliant when it came to the emotional side of teaching,” Billett said.
According to Billett, he and the students initially felt intimidated because of Robyn's authenticity. But those feelings soon morphed into admiration.
“Robyn was beloved,” Billett said. “I struggle with the emotional side of teaching, so I learned a lot from Robyn.”
“We had one student specifically struggling when Robyn first arrived. The student had a hard time relating to others and was very isolated. Robyn was consistent with them and, eventually, the student really opened up.”
Robyn had this effect on many students.
“They felt safe with Robyn,” Billet said.
Robyn continued to be that safe space for students despite developments in their personal life. Right before the pandemic hit, Robyn and Andrea went through a divorce.
“I know that was really hard on Robyn,” Casteel said. “Shortly after that, Robyn and her students transitioned to online school in the wake of COVID-19.”
Robyn would call Casteel crying, sorting through the pain of that year.
“On top of what Robyn was grieving personally, they missed their students,” Casteel said. “Those kids were like Robyn's own children. That's how they saw them.”
But the time of reflection also gave Robyn space to think. They had been wanting more tools to care for the emotional needs of their students and realized going back to graduate school might be the perfect way to do that.
“Robyn enrolled in graduate school at Texas Tech,” Casteel said. “They returned to the School of Music, and their ultimate plan was to seek a terminal degree that would allow them to fuse their love of music with counseling.”
Robyn's plan was to study how music could offer emotional support to students in the LGBTQA+ community. With quantitative research and data, hopefully more schools would fund programs connecting at-risk students with music.
As the pandemic lifted and they returned to school, Robyn and Kyle led their students to a University Interscholastic League (UIL) sweepstakes performance in the spring of 2021.
“The kids were thrilled,” Billett said. “A sweepstakes is the very best you can get at UIL, and Robyn was an integral part of getting us there.”
Jake Tubbs, one of Robyn's former students remembers that Friday.
“We had just found out we made sweepstakes and we were so excited,” Tubbs said. “Robyn was celebrating with us and just being goofy like always. I have a picture of us all from that day.
“I didn't know that would be the last time I saw Robyn.”
The following week was spring break and Robyn was on the way to California.
At approximately 6 a.m. on March 16, 2021, Robyn was passing through the intersection of Spur 327 and Frankford Avenue when a pickup truck ran a red light, colliding with the passenger's side of Robyn's car. The impact caused the car to spin out of control, resulting in a second collision with a pole on the driver's side of the car.
Although separated, Robyn and Martinez were on very amicable terms – even friends. Martinez was watching the dog they shared custody of while Robyn was out of town.
“I remember that morning vividly,” Martinez said. “It was a beautiful day. I sat outside drinking my coffee, enjoying the weather and playing with our dog, Bowser.”
Andrea sent a text to Robyn at 9:15 a.m. to see if they had made their flight.
At 9:16 a.m. she got a text from Kyle Billett. Her heart sank. She wouldn't be getting a text from Kyle under normal circumstances.
“He told me Robyn had been in an accident and I needed to get up to the hospital immediately,” Martinez said. “I was the first one to get to the emergency room since Robyn's mother lives five hours away.”
The doctor explained to Andrea that on a 0-10-point scale, if zero were deceased and 10 was perfectly healthy, Robyn was hanging on at a one.
After a few hours, Robyn's mother arrived.
“Robyn had suffered massive head trauma,” Casteel said. “They had a basilar skull fracture.”
The doctors explained this was the worst kind of skull fracture because it's located at the base of the skull and affects most cognitive functions. In the first day after the accident, Robyn underwent two brain surgeries as well as abdominal surgery.
“We waited for a miracle,” Casteel said. “I remember whispering to Robyn as they lay in the ICU, ‘Baby, if you want to fight, I will fight every step alongside you. But if you don't, I will make sure you are never forgotten.'”
After 12 days on a respirator, reality sunk in – Robyn wasn't waking up.
“Of course, Robyn had decided to be an organ donor,” Casteel said, fighting tears. “Going down the hallway for the honor walk and saying goodbye to Robyn was the hardest moment of my life.”
Robyn's heart saved someone else's life that day.
Exactly as they would have wanted it.
Robyn saved many lives. Some through organ donation, but most through their legacy while alive.
“I was shocked by how many people attended Robyn's memorial service,” Casteel said. “It was standing room only and so many students came.”
The actual service itself was only 10 minutes, then Robyn's family opened the microphone to let students and friends share memories.
This went on for almost three hours.
“Student after student shared how Robyn changed their life,” Billett said. “I had never seen one teacher make that much of an impact.”
Even the shiest of kids got up and fought through nerves to say their goodbyes.
“Robyn was a phenomenal teacher because they decided to be the person they wished they'd had as a student,” Martinez said. “Instead of being bitter about the past, Robyn decided no student under their care would have that experience.”
Robyn knew how lonely and marginalized students in the queer community could feel, so it was their personal goal to go out of their way for those kids.
“Some time after Robyn's passing, I got a letter from a student's grandmother,” Casteel said. “The letter said her grandson had been suicidal when he met Robyn in band class, and that Robyn had changed his mind.
“She wrote, ‘Your daughter saved my grandson's life.'”
“Moving forward, I wanted to keep my promise to Robyn,” Casteel said. “I was not going to let them be forgotten.”
So, Casteel set out to find a way to honor her child's legacy.
“Robyn's world revolved around music and one of the most formative experiences they had was attending Band & Orchestra camp at Texas Tech,” Casteel said. “That changed the trajectory of Robyn's life. So, I decided to establish a scholarship in Robyn's name for students.”
Many scholarships go to high school students, but Robyn was always passionate about the often-overlooked middle schoolers.
“That's who I decided the scholarship should go to – Robyn's kids,” Casteel said.
This was the first year Casteel offered the scholarship and she made it exclusive to Frenship Middle School students, the kids who had studied under Robyn. In the future though, she dreams of offering scholarships to students at Dunbar Middle School as well.
“I know that's what Robyn would have wanted,” Casteel said.
Kaleb Garcia and Jake Tubbs won the two scholarships this year.
“I asked the students to write an essay about why they love music,” Casteel said. “I look for passion, and ideally, students who also want to make a living in the performing arts.”
Garcia is thinking of doing just that.
“I want to become a band director like Robyn,” he said. “Middle school is hard. We deal with bullying and anxiety every day. Robyn created a place where I felt safe, and where I could be myself.
"I want to grow up and do that too.”