Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles featuring local school marching band programs and their preparation for halftime shows they will play during football season.
Not even a long fall can keep Shawn Sullivan down for very long.
Sullivan, director of bands at Starkville High School and Armstrong Middle School, said he was with his students at a competition in Jackson in February when he fell off the stage after a concert.
“I was talking to a parent,” Sullivan said. “I didn’t realize where the stage ended, and I just fell.”
Sullivan still finished out the season with his students despite his injury. Two months have passed since his ACL surgery, and he still had the knee brace to show for it even as he guided his students through the final phases of summer band camp last week.
Starkville residents will have the chance to see Sullivan and his students’ hard work in action at the SHS Band Camp Concert at 5 p.m. Tuesday on SHS’s practice field.
The camp showcases the band’s halftime show, which Sullivan said will be entitled “The Sound of Mississippi.” The show focuses on music from composers and musicians who call Mississippi home, he said.
“We have Faith Hill, a country artist; the Canton Spirituals, a gospel trio; (Three Doors Down, a rock group); Sam Cooke, Elvis Presley and B.B. King,” Sullivan said. “We run a variety of styles through the show, showing what great musicians we have in the state of Mississippi.”
This is Sullivan’s sixth year as director, and in that time, he said, the band has grown to 140 students, up from 85 in his first year and 108 just last year. Sean McDonnall, SHS assistant principal, said SHS’s band has a long history of success, but he especially welcomes the increase in the band’s numbers. Any extracurricular activities keep students involved in school, he said, building school spirit and keeping students from dropping out.
“When Mr. Sullivan took over, he made the band more student-centered,” McDonnall said. “The music selection they play in their shows and the marching performances are very creative. The kids have fun with them.”
McDonnall said Sullivan’s personality also attracts students to the program. Sullivan is passionate about what he does, McDonnall said, and children share that passion.
“He’s motivated in his job,” McDonnall said. “He cares and loves his kids, and they’re going to do what he asks. Therefore, we get a great product and have a great band program.”
Katie Wood, a senior in the band, said she can attest to how much Sullivan cares for his students.
“He’s always there for you no matter what,” Wood said. “You have a schedule problem, he’ll sit down and try to work it out for you where you can still be in band.”
Sullivan said he cares about each of the students as if they were his own children, even though there are 140 of them. Some of the love he has for them is tough love, he said.
“When they do right, I praise them,” Sullivan said. “When they’re not, I get onto them. Being in band is about more than just playing an instrument. It’s about building life skills. What we really try to work toward is building great leaders for our community.”
Another band member, SHS junior Britton Walker, said she appreciates Sullivan pushing her and other band members to improve.
“He always tells us we need to be great, not good,” Walker said. “I came from a school (where) band wasn’t a big deal, (so it was different) to come to Starkville where we have so many people who come to football games just to see the band perform. We have so much support not only from our community but also from our school. Mr. (Keith) Fennell, our principal, goes to almost every competition we go to. That’s awesome to know we have that support, that he would drive an hour and a half just to see us.”
Sullivan said he appreciates the support from the school administration as well as the school district and community as a whole. He is most grateful, he said, for the effort students themselves put in.
“The key to our success is great student leadership,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got students out here that have bought into the program, that are leading along the younger kids to believe in that philosophy. With that student leadership, it breeds camaraderie. It’s a big family.”