By: Ali Elizabeth Turner
On Saturday, December 11, North Alabama was given a gift in the midst of the Season of Giving in the form of the Athens Middle and High School Christmas Concert. Held in the Athens Performing Arts Center, a beautiful room with marvelous acoustics located on the west side of the new Athens High School, it was superb. First of all, a team of dedicated band parents spent more than eight hours on Saturday decorating the building. The result was that peaceful feeling you get at nighttime driving around Mooresville during the holidays when you see trees, greenery, and understated lights that don’t zip and zap while they accost you with Madonna singing, “Santa Baby.”
But it was the music and the music makers that grabbed me. As a parent, teacher, and musician myself, I have come to expect that if a middle or high school band is going to give a concert, one must largely endure it with the hopes that practice will eventually make perfect. And just as my parents endured my years of piano practice and the faux pas that accompany music acquisition, I am happy to steel myself against pitches that are less than perfect. However, Saturday night, there was no need because the middle school kids blew me away with their precision as well as their musicality. Athens Middle School band director, Ronnie Griffin, has done a remarkable job with kids who are sometimes smaller than their instruments, and they played with a maturity beyond their years. The best part was the way it had, in part, come about. Ty Parker, who is the high school band director, would freely go and sit with Ronnie’s kids during class and play the trombone with them as though he were a student. I have never seen such a level of cooperation and friendship amongst music teachers, and I attended a cut-throat conservatory of music that, while excellent, made me want to leave because of pandemic pettiness. Ty, when it was his turn to conduct the high school kids, warmly expressed his appreciation for his fellow teachers, and how honored he was to have them in the ensemble. Teresa Edwards, who is the choir director for Athens High School, sat in and played the clarinet. There was also a man who sat with a disabled child, and together they made an important contribution to the percussion section. It moved me deeply.
The result was a community doing one of the most important things it can do to make itself strong, and that is make live music for real people in close proximity. And, I might add, there was no one objecting to music that included the Christ of Christmas. There are many places in our country that have to call these kinds of concerts “Winter Celebrations,” but a haunting Celtic version of “What Child Is This?” juxtaposed against “We Three Kings” playfully re-named “Three Guys” with solid jazz riffs was refreshing.
Speaking of the Jazz Band, who performed wonderfully at Rotary the day before the concert, Ty has “pulled it out of them” until they essentially need no director except to cue the opening bars of their respective pieces. I asked Ty afterwards if he had cut them loose to do their own improv, and he smiled as he simply replied, “Yes.” The result? Excellence, pure and simple, and it was entirely appropriate for the room to give a standing O and holler their approval. And, don’t get me started on how good music is for your brain, because we’ll be here all day and night. In a word, “Bravo, y’all!”