The Ripley High School Symphonic Band then was chosen to perform at the Mississippi Bandmasters Association 75th State Band Clinic in Natchez in December, an honor conferred on only one band in the state each year.
What the fans don’t realize in a single season is the growth of individual band members from year to year as they work to become accomplished musicians, said band director Sam Cunningham.
Cunningham returned after the Christmas break to learn of another honor. He has been selected as Teacher of the Year for the South Tippah School District.
“I am extremely honored to be picked as the school district’s Teacher of the Year,” Cunningham said. “There are so many deserving teachers in our district. I am humbled and thankful for this honor.”
From sixth grade onward every student at Ripley Middle School has an opportunity to find the right instrument, learn music basics and develop their music talents, continuing through high school.
“Beginning in the sixth grade and through junior high school they are learning to read music,” Cunningham said. “No prior knowledge of music is required, and by the end of the eighth grade they can handle marching and playing.”
Each step in the process lays the foundation for the next level, so students must stay committed to reap all the rewards, both individually and collectively.
Assistant directors Tammye Hight and Tim Jackson work with Cunningham to bring a standard of excellence to the entire program. They enjoy strong support and backing from school district administration as well as band parents and boosters.
“We have probably 40 students in Mississippi colleges on band scholarships now,” Cunningham said. “Last year we had 22 band seniors and 17 of them are on band scholarships now. Our school board believes in it and has given the support the program needs to develop and thrive.”
Administrative support is apparent in the structure of the school schedule which aligns band periods with study halls for students who are not band participants.
Students also recognize the value of the band program, with about 325 students from sixth grade through high school participating in band, and a high school band of 140 members.
“We’re the first or second largest band in the state in Class 3A,” Cunningham said.
The end of the year brought the marching season to a close, and recently students auditioned for a place in the two groups that compete in the spring – the symphonic band and the concert band. Students who wanted a place didn’t get to rest over their holiday break, but instead were given music to learn for the auditions.
“At the end of February they’ll perform in Ridgeland at the state band evaluation for ratings, so from now until then we’ll be preparing,” Cunningham said. “After that they’ll be reading through music and method books to elevate their playing level. Toward the end of the semester it’s back to marching band music for next year.”