Joe Ferguson stays in touch with his own middle school and high school band teachers and many former students. So after five years as band director at Statesboro High School, he’s not going to slip away without a trace.
“That’s why when anybody here says, ‘You’re leaving and you’re never going to talk to us again,’ I tell them, I’m only moving 3,000 miles away; I’m not dying,” he said over boxes packed with his belongings in the band room. “I plan on keeping ties with all the friends I’ve made here.”
Ferguson and his wife Ashley are moving to Seattle. At this point neither has a job there, but he says it’s a move they want to make to maximize opportunities for both of them. Ashley, who graduated from Georgia Southern in 2008, aspires to become an event planner in the hospitality industry, but currently works as a paraprofessional in special education at Statesboro High and serves as the band’s auxiliaries coordinator.
Seattle offers more opportunities for event planning, as well as a thriving music scene, Joe Ferguson explains. They planned their departure in a way that allowed SHS Principal Marty Waters to first find a new band director. Waters will introduce Lee Collins from Tattnall County High as the new director at a press conference Monday evening.
The continuity of the program is important to Ferguson. In 2007, when he arrived at SHS after a year as band director in Claxton and previous experience in South Carolina, band students who preferred the previous director’s methods bolted. Only 48, mostly freshmen, stayed with him that first year. But he rebuilt to a typical 130 marchers last fall and 110 musicians through concert season.
In 2010, Ferguson was honored as Bulloch County’s STAR teacher.
Notoriety to the program
During his tenure, the band won invitations to play in places such as Six Flags and the Universal Studios Florida resort. Recently, the band became one of two from Georgia invited to march in the National Independence Day Parade in Washington, D.C., this July 4.
“So he’s brought some notoriety to the program, and we feel like that’s a great bit of exposure for our students, not only for them to have that honor, but also to go to the capital and march amid all that history and live the experience,” Waters said.
The principal calls Ferguson one of the hardest working people he knows. Besides spending many hours beyond the standard school day working with band students, he has operated the sound equipment for all kinds of events in the school’s state-of-the-art auditorium, in use since 2009.
Statesboro High’s reconstruction prompted a three-year hiatus in East Georgia Marching Band Festival & Championships, which the school had hosted for more than 30 previous years. But the festival was revived under Ferguson’s leadership, and in October 2011 the second new installment drew 12 guest bands.
Meanwhile, a few exceptional musicians are on their way to careers in music. Melanie Schmid, a french horn player who graduated in 2009, attends the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music. Colby Parker, the trumpet-playing 2011 SHS valedictorian, went on to the New England Conservatory.
More often, the band, while making up slightly less than 10 percent of the school’s total enrollment, produces those who rank at the top academically. This year’s valedictorian, Supriya Immaneni, plays the flute. She is also district and region STAR student. Salutatorian Ashley Walker was a majorette.
It was another musician, 2010 STAR student Elliot Edwards, who chose Ferguson as STAR teacher.
“You hear in the economy all the time that the arts are extra, they’re superfluous, we don’t need them, and these kids will prove to the contrary that this is exactly what they need,” Ferguson says. “They excel here in the music classroom and they go out and they excel in their academic classrooms.”
Lauren Porter, 17, has led the band as drum major the past two seasons. She will now attend Georgia Southern to study nursing, but believes lessons learned in band will come in handy.
“It has made me a stronger person and disciplined. I found something that I actually fell in love with and was really good at, you know, and so it made me want to be even better,” Porter said.
A lesson from tragedy
Ferguson said his greatest accomplishment is making the band feel like a family. The band room, he asserts, becomes a second home to many students.
“That’s something that’s really, really important to me,” he said. “I mean, there’s so much instability in kids’ lives now with divorce rates as high as they are and parents having to work extra hours or different shifts because of the economy. I want this to be a place where they can feel safe, where they can grow both personally and musically. I want to be the kind of person that they know they can depend upon.”
Ferguson earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of South Carolina in 1999 and his master’s in music theory and composition from Georgia Southern in 2006. But the image of a band director as a role model and mentor was something he learned earlier.
When Ferguson was in 10th grade, his father committed suicide. Chuck Deen, his band teacher at Silver Bluff High School in Aiken, S.C., offered listening and understanding.
“Chuck pulled me out of class and made me talk about the issue, checking up on both me and my family,” Ferguson said. “He's the originator of our ‘band family’ concept. It’s been the main reason behind our success – family first – and for the teacher, put the kids first.”
Ferguson adds that his father’s death taught him an important life lesson.
“He gave up and it hurt a lot of people, so I determined from that moment on that, no matter what I did in life, I was never, ever going to give up,” he said.
Deen, now at North Augusta High School, is one of the teachers Ferguson keeps in touch with. Another is his middle school teacher, Randy Hood, still at Jackson Middle School near Aiken.
Ferguson played trumpet from middle school, switched to French horn when there was a need in high school, then added clarinet and baritone horn in college. In recent years he has performed with the GSU Horn Ensemble and the Savannah River Winds and as substitute section horn and assistant principal horn with the Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra.
His 1980s childhood – he’s 34 now – admittedly tinged his musical tastes. Ferguson applied what he learned in composition classes to arranging all the shows for the Blue Devils Band, mostly from popular 80s material.
In 2008, the show was “Thriller,” a 25th anniversary Michael Jackson retrospective. 2010 brought an “Attack of the 80’s.” Last fall, it was “Sounds of Motown.” Student vocalist Gazzie Fulcher, who will now be graduating, crossed over from the choral classes to belt out Aretha Franklin’s “Natural Woman.”
Fulcher’s performance illustrates the frequent crossovers that occur in Statesboro High’s fine arts department. Ferguson, choral teacher Lisa Muldrew, art teacher Bunyan Morris and drama teacher Eddie Frazier have teamed up for many projects. The Fergusons have been an important part of the collaboration and will be missed, Muldrew said. But she is also impressed by the talents of the new band director who will be arriving this week.
For a clue, consider that Joe Ferguson also introduced Caribbean steel drum music to Statesboro High, forming the Statesboro Steel student ensemble. Only one other school in the area has a steel drum group, Muldrew notes.
That’s Tattnall County High School, where Lee Collins was band director through last week. While learning about steel drum music and developing their ensembles, Ferguson and Collins became friends.
Collins will be Statesboro High’s new band director.
“I could not imagine leaving my program in better hands than in Lee’s,” Ferguson said.