There’s no more trouble in Music City.. After more than a decade of lackluster performances, the Chattooga High School Marching Indians have found the right note. Band Director, Gene Greer, joined the faculty of Chattooga in 2014 after a call from principal Jeff Martin. Greer, a music major from Berry College, had drifted away from music and was working in the finance industry when he took the call. Martin, a former classmate of Greer’s, was reaching out in a desperate attempt to revitalize the struggling music community within Summerville. “When I found out the job was coming open, I told Mr. Lenderman that I knew I guy who graduated from Chattooga and I thought he would be great for our kids!” said Martin. After the call was made, Greer drove the four hours from Augusta, GA to meet with Martin and Superintendent Jimmy Lenderman. “…I knew immediately where his heart was, and that is with the kids…” said Martin of the interview with Greer. When he walked out of the meeting, Greer called his wife and said “pack your bags.” Greer relayed the story with more than a little passion and discussed walking to the band room in the old high school and listening to the students play. He said he fell in love with the kids and just wanted to be a part of the program and help them find their way. Mission accomplished. Greer came to Chattooga on faith, the contract details were not finalized, so he settled for a handshake and a promise. The Chattooga Band family received him on faith, believing that with hard work and dedication the band could make memories to last a lifetime.
After the handshake Greer immediately went to work, although logistically speaking it was challenging because he still lived in Augusta. He used his saved up vacation time to take a half-day off twice a week, leaving at noon from his job to drive four hours one way to hold practice with his new band. After practice he would drive back to Augusta only to repeat the trip again the next day. Greer had high expectations of the students and their parents and led by example.
In his first two years at Chattooga, Greer has taken bold steps in turning around the band. He started with changing the culture. Greer went to the administration and conducted a search for the old band awards from his days on the marching field. He pulled stacks of old trophies from a storage building and dusted them off, giving them a new home in the band room to offer some inspiration. He then reached out to his veteran band members and asked them to commit to being a part of something big.
The band is unlike most high school classes or clubs. There is a military-type structure and a very close knit environment with tremendous responsibilities placed on the students. From the Drum Major and Band Captain, down to the Lieutenants and Section Leaders, the band members police themselves with organization and duties during each practice. This spills over to every half time show, competition and concert. The band is an organism unlike anything found on a high school campus. First year Drum Major, Dana Chadwick, and Band Captain, Wendy Worsham, remember the days prior to the arrival of Gene Greer and they, like the band they lead, have flourished under his tutelage. The band leaders issue the uniforms, are responsible for packing up the equipment, and all the logistics that go along with transporting instruments, back drops, and other equipment to a show. But band students do so much more. They actually issue uniforms, conduct warm up drills in class and on the field, schedule private practices and even mediate their own disputes. The Drum Major conducts the band on the field while the Band Captain acts as her right arm. The Band Captain provides a voice for the band members to the Drum Major and Band Director and will assume Drum Major duties in the event that the Drum Major is unable to.
This structure and responsibility starts from the beginning. Most band students pick up an instrument in the 6th grade. Learning how to play throughout their middle school years and then adding the marching and performing skills as they progress. Mr. Greer actually went to the principal and Superintendent and arranged a schedule that would allow him to travel to the middle school to work with the younger group and give time for the middle school band teacher to move around the county to the elementary schools and offer introductory courses in music to lower grade students. Attracting kids to the band has always presented unique challenges. Keeping them involved in a class that requires countless after-school hours of practice and sacrifices of Friday nights, weekends and many days of their summer break… well that can be almost impossible. And it requires a passion for music and a love for the band.
For those select few who stick it out through the middle school years and excel in high school, the rewards are evident on the academic honor rolls. Reviewing the past graduation class at CHS, twelve of fifteen honor graduates were band members. Including the Star Student and the Valedictorian. Learning music is much like learning a completely new language. Studies have shown that the process of learning to read and play music forces the brain to form new neural connections and increases the speed of synapses. One study demonstrated that music lessons can actually increase IQ and test performance. When breaking down the actions of a band member during a marching show, it boggles the mind to realize that these students have learned how to play their instrument, they have been given pages and pages of sheet music to learn, then memorize, then play while marching in the blazing sun. And their marching must be precise. Stepping in unison with dozens of other band members, counting steps without looking at the ground, moving in formation to create incredible visual effects; all while keeping perfect body posture, carrying a heavy instrument with good form and playing your memorized music perfectly, snatching a breath at the correct moment, blowing continuously for sometimes up to a minute straight and focusing on your music in spite of the fact that the person beside you or behind you may be playing a different instrument and a different portion of the melody.
The changes in tune, speed, measured count… the changes in volume or intensity…the marching, the presentation… coming together as dozens of individuals to create one sound.. one band. This is a level of stress that the average brain simply cannot process. So for band students who put together a season of music and make it to their first competition, the pressure can be immense. For the Marching Indians of CHS, their preparation led them to Phenix City, AL on September 24th for the opening of the 2016 season. Competing against 15 bands from across three states, the Red and Black Attack took the field after a very early morning, long bus ride, a missed lunch, and extreme heat… and they were flawless. Earning top marks in every category, CHS scored perfect Superior ratings in Drum Major, Sideline Percussion, Drum Line and Color Guard, the Indians pulled off a clean sweep with Best Of: Band, Drum Major, Percussion Pit, Drum Line and Color Guard in the AA Division. Missing out on the Grand Champion title (top scoring team of any division) by a mere 1.6 points, the Chattooga Marching Indians awed the crowd with their performance of Beatles music and an interactive show that captured the audience and left everyone cheering. While there are many people who do not acknowledge the physical aspect of marching band, you couldn’t tell that to the six students treated after the performance for heat exhaustion. It was 92 degrees with a heat index of 101 on the field. The band, “…gave it their all,” said Greer.
The current marching show performance began in Greer’s mind with a vision of ‘Yellow Submarine’ and turned into an entire Beatle’s theme. The Indian’s performance opens with a lively rendition of ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ They then transition into ‘Yesterday.’ The drum line gets time in the spotlight during ‘Yellow Submarine’ with band members adding flair by singing the tune’s popular chorus while the color guard weave fish, seagulls, and of course replicas of yellow submarines throughout the positioned band. The band comes back together for a big push during ‘Let it Be’ and finishes with ‘Hey Jude.’
In his third year at Chattooga, Gene Greer has already accomplished many of his goals. But his students continue to push him toward bigger and better things, like that nagging 1.6 points they needed to be Grand Champions. While two of his former students have moved on to become Music Majors in college, Greer knows that he must continue to bring great shows and a great band to the field. Greer could not say enough about the support he has received from the administration, booster club, students and parents. “Mr. Lenderman asked me what I needed to make it better and he has made sure we have new equipment. He has invested in the Band,” said Greer. Greer also recalled the Peach State competition from his first year, “Mr. Lenderman came and bought lunch for everyone.” With a Principal and Superintendent who show up for band competitions, and a tireless group of parents and band members, Summerville can rest assured… the Music Man has come to town.
The Superior ratings and best in class results earned by the Chattooga High School Marching Band at the Phenix City Competition were a realization of a journey that began three years ago when Jeff Martin made that call to Gene Greer. Chattooga’s band had lost their sound, and needed someone who could help them find their vision of good again and remind them that band is family. While Greer had directed chorus before, Chattooga is his first band director job. The band will compete on October 8 in Piedmont, Alabama. They will travel to Pierce County High School on October 15 where they will get a weekend getaway in Savannah after competition. Their final competition of the season will be at Jacksonville State University on October 20th.