Tuesday, December 13, 2016

TOP STORY >> Consolidated school band ready to play

Leader staff writer

The moment DeBoious Cabbs starts pulling the door to the Jacksonville High School band practice room, music rushes out. The notes are rambunctious, enthusiastic and loud and the traditional marching band fare has been replaced by holiday melodies like “Deck the Halls.”

The room is filled with ninth- through 12th-grade students, fielding a variety of instruments, from the smallest flutes to drums and keyboards too large to carry.

The band’s appeal is hard to resist. The public has an opportunity to hear the band perform a holiday concert at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the middle school.

This is the first few months of Jon Stevenson’s first year as band director for the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District. He smiles a lot and there’s a charming excitement behind his words that the kids readily sense.

Like the sea of faces he looks out over every day, he once was a student, and he says about conducting, “It’s all I’ve wanted to do.”

He plays trumpet and sings baritone. While a student at Central High School in Little Rock, he says he was encouraged to explore his musical talents by his band director and mentor Samuel Meredith, Ph.D.

Meredith says, “Jon was a very hardworking kid and not afraid of challenges, and even as a (high school) student, he just had that desire to be that band director.”

Even now, Stevenson calls his former teacher for advice and has invited him to be a guest conductor at JHS this spring, giving the students the valuable experience of working under a different conductor.

“I always felt that Jon was going to do something great,” Meredith says.

Stevenson says, “Meredith inspired me to be a band director.”

In turn, he is now encouraging and fostering the next generation, like junior DeBoious, who wants to study music and sound engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, or junior Elizabeth Meneses, who plays the French horn and sees music as a way to further her education.

“Mr. Stevenson is a really good guy,” she says.

Stevenson attended Arkansas State University at Jonesboro and while there he was again encouraged and motivated by Professor Timothy Oliver, director of bands, coordinator of winds and percussions studies.

Oliver says, “I remember him very well. Jon is enthusiastic, intelligent, and he has an infectious personality. He has the ability to inspire students, and great passion for teaching and for the success of his students.”

In 2010, Stevenson graduated from ASU, only to re-enroll in the university’s master of music performance in conducting program.

While a graduate student, he was a teaching assistant, directed the university’s Wind Ensemble, Symphonic Winds, Concert Band, Sound of the Natural State Marching Band, and Women’s Basketball Pep Band.

From 2011 until 2013, he was district band director and general music instructor for grades K-12 for the Cross County School District.

He earned his master’s degree in 2015, and went to work for J.A. Fair High School in Little Rock and taught band for a year.

But he dreamed of conducting, so when the band director job came open at the new Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District, he applied.

He remembers he could hardly contain his excitement when Principal LaGail Biggs called, offering him the job.

“I held it together until I hung up the phone,” he says. Stevenson immediately called his parents, Terry and Sharon Stevenson of North Little Rock — his biggest fans.

The band director selection was decided by a panel who scored each applicant much like the way Olympic judges score gymnastics, Biggs says.

But she says from the first moment he stepped on the campus, even before this school year started, he was building a rapport with the kids. Last year was a pivotal time because North Pulaski and Jacksonville high schools started merging the two bands into one.

While the two high school bands officially consolidated last year, this was their first real, full year playing as a marching band at football games and other events.

Now that football season is over, they’ve turned their attention to holiday music.

Stevenson and the kids, like senior Valentino Warren II, and junior Eric Wilson and Daniel Wilson, not related, feel like they’re writing the first few pages of the band’s history, and it’s a real thrill.

It’s also about building a community and for many of the students, like ninth graders, band members and friends Genavieve Smith and Allana Cousins, band is a place were they belong and succeed.

Hunter Fletcher, a junior, often marches with the band at halftime while still wearing his football cleats.

“My dream is to chase football, but I enjoy the band. It’s a great experience,” he says.

Others agree.

Allana Cousins says, “I was really shy, but I came here and now it feels like family.”

Genavieve Smith says, “Because of the (friendly) competition, we play harder but we help each other too.”

Less than five months on the job, but Stevenson says, “It’s hands down the best job I’ve ever had.”

Music and the excellent instructors he encountered as he pursued his education, greatly shaped his life, and he hopes to do the same at Jacksonville High School.

He says, “A little taste of success spreads to other areas of their lives.”

He also appreciates the support of the administration and other staff.

Biggs says, “He has worked the kids hard and has high expectations, and he has an outstanding relationship with band members and parents. It’s already paying off.”

Already the marching band snagged a couple of competition awards on Oct. 15, including a 1st Division Superior Rating for Drum Major, 1st Division Superior Rating for Band, a second place Class B Best in Class Band Award and fourth Place Overall Band, when they competed against nine other bands at the Forrest City Marching Invitational.

They also were awarded a Composite Score of 1, which is a superior rating, on Oct. 1 at the ASBOA Marching Assessment at Maumelle, and on Oct. 22 at the Jessieville Legend Marching Competition they received a 1st Division Superior Rating in Drum Major, Percussion, Color Guard and Band Overall.

As well as Best in Class AAA for Outstanding Per-cussion and Outstanding Visual Performance.

Stevenson says, “I have some extraordinary kids. It’s overwhelming to see their passion…To be part of something bigger than themselves.”

“The kids are really proud of their accomplishments and I’m proud and pleased for them. They’re making history and setting academic precedence,” Biggs says.

Not bad for the new district’s first marching band!

Jacksonville High School and North Pulaski Middle School will perform their holiday concert at Jacksonville Middle School, 718 Harris Road, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday with pieces performed by the marching band, the jazz band and the middle school band and the middle school beginning band. For more information, call 501-982-9436.