December 6, 2012 10:10:46 AM
In his five years as the Starkville High School band director, Shawn Sullivan has had one member make the Mississippi Lions All-State Band.
This year, he has two: Andrew Rogers and Jacob Easley.
"It's a huge deal," Sullivan said. "They get to travel to Germany this year for the international competition, and, seriously, Mississippi's Lions Band is one of the best in the world."
That's not hyperbole either. Since 2000, Mississippi's all-state band, made up of ninth through 12th graders, has been crowned international parade champions nine times.
Sullivan said it's an uncanny feeling to see his students honored, but his real goal has been to improve the overall quality of the band program. A focus on development at the middle school level has been crucial to the process.
Rogers and Easley being selected to perform with the Lions Band is a testament to Sullivan's success. Both boys began playing their respective instruments at Armstrong Middle School, under the guidance of several assistant band directors.
Sullivan said his assistants deserve a lot of credit for the duo's early development, but making the Lions Band was solely dependent on the young men's determination.
"I tell them when it is and I give them the music, and I am there to encourage them, but it's all on them," Sullivan said. "They have to want to pursue this."
Rogers, a junior, actually began playing violin in fourth grade, something he does for fun these days, only now, it's the fiddle. His face lit up as he talked about a new play-along CD he had just received.
"It has like 70 songs on it, and I've just been jamming with it a lot," Rogers said with a grin. "I play almost every day, mostly just for fun. It's cool to have something new."
But Rogers was actually selected to the Lions Band for his talents on the trumpet, an instrument he picked up in sixth grade.
Easley began playing in the sixth grade also, but his instrument was probably a little harder for a 12-year-old to lug around.
"Trombone was the first thing I ever played," Easley said. "I didn't even get very good until at least about a year later, but after that, I think I recognized that I was going to be pretty good at it. I just got it."
Now a freshman at SHS, Easley is, according to the Lions Band, the 13th best trombone player in the state.
It's very uncommon, Sullivan said, to have a freshman chosen, and in his experience in Arkansas and Tennessee, Sullivan isn't sure he has ever had one that he has directed.
"I am sure it happens, but it's very rare," Sullivan said. "It's a big, big deal."
The tryouts for the Lions Band are split into two rounds over a span of two weeks, and both young men said they were surprised to make it to the last cut, partially because both were nearly out of the hunt according to the rankings after the first cut.
Rogers jumped 22 spots, from 33rd to 11th after the second round, and Easley jumped six spots, from 19th to 13th.
"I was thinking I was definitely getting cut," Rogers said. "So I was really, really surprised when I was selected. It felt good."
Along with Rogers and Easley, SHS band members Emily Turner and Josh Franz were both chose as second alternates, while Matthew Reynolds received an honorable mention.
"It was better than we were expecting," Sullivan said. "But none of these kids surprise me anymore. I would have been more surprised if no one made it. We just know that it is a step in the right direction."