“Music is more than just playing an instrument and trying to sound good. Music is about putting yourself into the instrument -- your character, your heart, your pride,” said Thomas Perry, the Band Director at Green Dot’s Fairley High School. “[Music is about] disciplining yourself to be able to do more than one thing: playing, practicing, doing homework, and being a model citizen.”
Since Perry became the Band Director in the fall of 2017, he’s more than tripled the size of the marching band, helping to restore a legacy in the Memphis community of Whitehaven. Said Perry: “I knew about the Fairley band, and that they had a rich history. I wanted to bring that back. Fairley has always had heart.”
The Hard Work of Growth
“The first day I started as the band director, there were only 13 members,” recalled Perry. “It took time for everyone to understand who I was and what I was about.” Perry walked the hallways meeting students, posted content about the band program online, spoke about the importance of music at local middle schools, and continued to coach and refine the skills of his small band. They practiced five days a week to prepare for as many audiences as possible.
“We started getting better and better, and doing events,” said Perry. The small Fairley marching band played at the school’s football and basketball games, and marched in the Mardis Gras parade where they played big band favorites and their school song, “Bulldogs”. Despite the difficulty of fundraising, they also traveled to Atlanta to compete in the southeast regional Battle of the Bands, where they competed against eight other schools from across the region, and their percussion team won first place. Perry gives much of the credit for their percussion success to Tre “Pops” Moore, also known locally as the “Godfather of Percussion.” Moore is a Fairley band alumnus who volunteers his time to support the restoration of the Fairley band.
At the end of last school year, all nine of the band’s seniors walked the graduation stage. All nine of them also received offers for full-ride band university scholarships, totaling $300,000. Now, most of these college freshmen are playing in their university band on campuses throughout the southeast.
By the time the 2018-2019 school year began, 35 students had signed up for band. Just four months later, the band program now has 60 students. As they look toward growing the program even more, Perry admits the biggest barrier is funding, as students spend a large amount of their time hosting car washes and other fundraisers to gather the funds for uniforms, instruments, and travel.
Committed to a Family
Two of the current band members, the Higginbottom twins (one of four sets of twins in the band!), are models of what the Fairley band family has become. Their father used to play in Fairley’s band when he was in high school, and they chose to follow in his footsteps. Their father recently passed away, and in his honor, they chose not to miss any days of practice. Furthermore, given their family legacy of music, they have offered to help the band program take instruments in to the local music store for repairs, and to help their peers fundraise for event travel. In addition to their commitment to the band, these baritone and trombone players are committed to academics, and are both excelling in their classes.
“That’s one of the things that’s really important to us,” said Perry. “We stay focused on school and grades, and don’t have any real discipline issues with our band members. These are student leaders.” He credits part of their leadership development to the skill development innate to being part of the band: “Being in a band promotes high discipline -- it has a way of building character with all students. You have to be disciplined to practice and show up on time, and you also have to change and adapt to various situations.”
The Best in Memphis
Perry grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, where he discovered the value of playing an instrument. He began practicing the baritone in fifth grade. “I really admired my middle school band director--he inspired my dream of helping students,” recalled Perry. Before making his way to the classroom, Perry was a section leader in the Alabama State University marching band.
Perry remains as committed to music as he was in fifth grade, and has a grand vision for the Fairley band: “I want to have the best band in Memphis, and Memphis is just the start.” Perry dreams of bringing students to more cities, and wants more colleges to be familiar with the prowess of the Fairley band. More importantly, he hopes they’ll know that Fairley produces strong student leaders. “We’re not the biggest school in the city, but we do have the biggest heart.”