By Jeff Keeling
When Science Hill High School senior Justin Cathelyn and his marching band colleagues perform in Johnson City’s Christmas Parade Saturday, their focus will be firmly on the task at hand. The skills the 150-strong outfit develops to excel on the field and in the concert hall, though, pay dividends far beyond any musical pursuits each member might attempt as an adult.
“High expectations are placed on them, and they start putting high expectations on themselves in other areas,” Band Director Dr. Carson Vermillion said this week as his charges prepared for the parade and the transition into concert season. The parade begins at 3 p.m. Saturday, and travels down West Walnut Street from University Parkway to Buffalo Street, Buffalo to East Main Street, and Main to Legion.
The band, which will march in the Waikiki Holiday Parade next November in conjunction with the 75th Anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, just finished a marching season that included competitions at Western Carolina University and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The ‘Toppers had decent success with a fun show, “A Day in the Life,” which they also performed at halftime of football games.
Numbers ranged from Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind” to the eclectic “Jug Blues and Fat Pickin’” by Don Freund and Bryan Setzer’s rockabilly-inspired “Straight Up.”
“It was a lot of fun, and we kind of billed it that way as well,” Vermillion said.
The concert band and wind ensemble will perform their Christmas concerts either Dec. 11 or Dec. 15 (check shhsbandboosters.org for updates) and perform spring concerts in late March and mid-May.
With the help of assistant director Dan McGuire and the band boosters club, Vermillion started the Hilltopper Invitational, Johnson City’s own marching band competition, in 2013. The event has brought more than 20 competing bands each of the past two years and is a major fundraiser, as well as a way to showcase Johnson City and Science Hill’s facilities.
“It’s also something that helps the programs in the area,” McGuire said. “We bring in high-caliber adjuticators to give feedback that helps the band directors and students learn.”
Students learn plenty at Science Hill, and even before. Band now begins in fifth grade at Indian Trail Intermediate School, where Keila Brady is instructor, and continues in seventh and eighth grades under Kevin Howard at Liberty Bell Middle School. Vermillion said those formative years are crucial to instilling a love of music in students.
“We’re doing a better job of promoting the band at the younger levels,” he said. A beginning band camp for rising fifth-graders helps acclimate students, and Vermillion said the lower grades are key to the high school band reaching a good size.
“We’d like to see it bigger,” Vermillion said. “Anywhere between 200 and 250 is appropriate for a school this size.”
McGuire, who was an assistant before Vermillion’s arrival in 2008, said work between the schools is as good as it’s been in awhile. “The team teaching we’ve been able to do has been very beneficial at all levels,” he said.
While they like to see the band excel in competitions and individual students earn concert band honors such as All-East and All-State, Vermillion and McGuire appear just as proud of the track records their former students carve out in college and beyond.
Cathelyn, an all-state alto saxophone player last year as a junior, is also an all-state swimmer and a strong student academically. Nearly all his band peers will go to college, many with significant scholarship help at least partly rooted in their band experiences.
“We teach time management, we teach commitment, we teach dedication, we teach work ethic, we teach sacrifice, and we give students a chance to enhance their leadership skills,” Vermillion said. “By the end of the program they’ve had opportunities to grow in those areas and they go on to college and succeed.”
McGuire said students’ pride in their product instills pride in themselves, and that in turn reverberates beyond band class.
“On a pretty regular basis, our former students come back and say they learned more about how to be successful in band class than in any other class they took.”