USJ Students to play in 2014 UT-Martin Honor Band Festival

Several USJ Middle and Upper School band students were selected to the 2014 UT-Martin Honor Band Festival January 23-25.

USJ’s 19 students are among 700 from West Tennessee to participate. It is the largest number of students ever selected from USJ or any school in the region.

Congratulations to:

Calley Overton, Griffin Laird, Nate Wall, Michael Mantooth, Tyler Bruno, Ethan Baskin, Ubaid Tanveer, Cole Cooper, Garrett Evans, Nicole New, Christopher Smoot, Ron Sewell, Samrath Machra, Govind Bindra, Ben Coffman, Amanda McConnell, Walker Laird, Cal Bigford and Zachary West.

From top, Tom Grant shows first Vincent Stanfield and then Carson Nicola how the trombone works.
And the band plays on …

When Tom Grant took over the band program at USJ 12 years ago, he nearly started from scratch. The band had four students and only met twice a week. Today, he averages 25 students per grade in Middle School and more than 35 Upper School students each year. Ironically, he still starts from scratch each school year with new band students — more than 98 percent have never played an instrument before.

Like a great cake homemade from scratch, the band program is turning out some well-seasoned musicians as nearly every senior who comes out of the program is offered some sort of college scholarship for band, Grant said. The program also has a long list of accomplishments to its credit, including consistently having the highest number of students selected to the All-Northwest Honor Band each year.

Grant starts recruiting students for band in fifth grade. He visits music classes and demonstrates instruments with band members, who also play for various Lower School events. Grant first introduces new band students to the various instruments so they can make a choice on what they want to play. “It is all about exposing them to the instruments in the first week and encouraging them to not just play what their friends play,” said Grant, who has been teaching band for more than 27 years. “We recommend renting the instrument first, in case a student wants to change. I also can help the student find a good used instrument that will take him or her a long way and save the family some money.”

Grant says it just takes time to teach a student how to play an instrument. “I begin instruction with students at their current level and teach them through a mixture of playing with note reading and theory. All students are playing the same exercises at the same time so they hear the same sounds and rhythms, except for the percussions which deviate slightly. I also provide sources for private lessons if a student wants more instruction. Nearly every Friday is open mike day where students perform a selection of their choosing. This gets them accustomed to playing in small groups and in front of an audience in an environment where no one is judging, and they can have fun.”

First year students have their first concert at Christmas. They play four pieces and then one piece with all the band members. “The pieces are in line with what the students can do, but I do try to keep it a notch above what they think they can play to keep them challenged,” said Grant. “For the group piece, we place the more experienced students by the younger ones to help them feel comfortable and good about themselves.”

Band members have other opportunities to perform on campus and in the community. “We have jazz bands and concert bands for both Upper and Middle School,” Grant said. “We have a pep band and a percussion ensemble that usually perform separately, but can combine with other instruments when needed. Band members accompany the two Upper School musicals each year. We are a member of the international Percussive Arts Society and have students in the Jackson Symphony’s youth orchestra, church groups, and the Jackson Area Community Band. This spring we will join with members of other high school bands across the city to play on the USS Arizona in Hawaii.”

Grant considers competitions as a great way to reward students for their hard work, a goal for them to pursue, and excellent exposure for college scholarships. “Our students have the opportunity to audition for many honor bands, including All-West, All-State, UT-Martin, Quad State, Governor’s School, and the University of Memphis,” said Grant.

The biggest achievement Grant sees over his 12 years at USJ is a consistent program that has been built by exposing the students to every style of music and performance medium.

“Students can’t get the experience they do here anywhere else,” he said, “and this would not be possible without the support of the administration and parents. Someday, we are going to march. We are making progress towards that goal.”