James Rogers takes a daily driving tour of Mountain Brook—and its school band rooms. His day starts at 7:45 a.m. at Mountain Brook Elementary, and then he’s off to MBJH where he assists with their concert band and jazz band. From there he drives to MBHS where he co-teaches with high school band director Jason Smith, then Cherokee Bend Elementary, and finally either Crestline Elementary or Brookwood Forest Elementary to end out the day. On Friday nights in the fall, he only has a little downtime before helping direct the MBHS Marching Band halftime show. And on the day of the interview for this story, his car was filled with a trombone, two trumpets and a clarinet.
These are all routes and rooms James knows well—after all he grew up here—and now sees in new light as the new sixth-grade band director for all four elementary schools, a role that looks different than even just a few months ago. Before this school year, all sixth-grade band students were bussed to MBJH at the end of the school day for band class, but now each elementary school has its own band room at its own school, giving the students a personal connection to their band room. The change is part of MBHS Band Director Jason Smith’s vision to create a clear identity for band at Mountain Brook. “The emotional toil [of leaving school] was too much for the elementary kids, so we wanted to take them back to the elementary schools.” James explains. “Now we have an active presence at all four schools.”
With 55 students as of three weeks into the school year, the sixth-grade band was already stronger than the 22 students last year, and in fact 20 more in number than at the start of term. A presence in each school brought curious students looking for the music and more interest in the band. All signs point to James and Jason’s vision working. “Boots on the ground improved our ability to get and keep kids. Some brought buddies back with them, and that’s important to a sixth-grader,” Jason says. “It is a very precious time.”
James knows this in part because he remembers being there. He started in the band in fifth grade under now-MBJH Director Mark Foster, played throughout his career in Mountain Brook schools, continued at Auburn University and has now come back home to teach, thanks in a large part to the mentorship of Mark Foster and longtime MBHS band director Frank Blanton when he was in school.
“I’ve known I wanted to be a teacher since the fifth grade. I thought it was going to be history, but I couldn’t grade all those papers,” James says with a laugh. “So I got more into the social interactions of band in high school. I became a better player in college.”
“Mark and Frank were the most influential people in my life, and I want to be that for other kids,” James continues. “[They] met us in fifth grade and interacted with us through 12th grade, so it is important to me to grow with the students and to be a part of their lives.”
Now he gets to walk that eight-year road with a new generation of students. “I get to focus on the elementary kids, but not give up the middle or high school band work,” James says. “[Jason, Mark and myself] are all heavily involved in each band. We’re constantly critiquing each band and fixing things. It’s definitely a team atmosphere.”
Jason spoke to this dynamic as well. “As a team, we talked about the overarching goals of keeping our program healthy and viable, and though our quality is the best we can possibly get, we’d like to grow, too,” Jason said. “We want students to know you can still play football, run track or play volleyball and also be in band. You will expand exponentially your value in life because you are a musician!”
It was an ability to guide and see massive amounts of improvement quickly that drew James to the sixth-grade bands specifically. Previously he was band director at Childersburg High School and Montevallo High School. “There’s nothing like beginning band. You start with students who can’t put instruments together or even make a sound, and end up giving full concerts and going Christmas ‘caroling’ by the end of the semester,” James says, laughing. “I’m a high-energy person and I’m very ADD, so it works for me.”
He’s currently channeling all that energy to studying French horn and flute to improve his own musicality and to understand what his students are learning. He’s already especially familiar with brass after playing trombone professionally in the Alabama Winds for four years. “It is important to not only improve my students, but also keep practicing and improving myself,” James says.
No matter what school he’s in at the moment, James said he would not have it any other way.
“I’m incredibly excited to be here–it’s been incredibly rewarding to see the growth of the band and how we’re constantly pushing the envelope,” James said. “It’s been outstanding to be a part of it this year… and coming back to be part of a Mountain Brook-Hoover matchup as a director was quite the different experience.”
Normandy-Bound for 75th Anniversary of D-Day
James Rogers’ students will be a few years shy of getting to travel with Mountain Brook Band traveling to perform in Normandy, France for the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion in the summer of 2019.
Itinerary: The band will perform on June 6, 2019, at the Wreath Laying Ceremony and Victory Parade at Normandy. They are planning for 10 days in Europe overall, visiting and performing in Paris and London—ideally at the Louvre or a park.
Last Big Trip: On Dec. 6, 2016, the Mountain Brook Band played at the Pearl Harbor 75th Commemoration, which helped them along their path to Normandy.
The Reveal: The day before leaving for Hawaii MBHS Band Director Jason Smith heard the band made the short list for Normandy. “Only a handful of bands from the United States were invited,” Jason says. “We’re very excited!”