Ishmeal Burris, who has a scholarship to play trumpet at Benedict College after he graduates from York Comprehensive High School this year, didn’t expect to be staying in band four years ago.
But he said band director Craig Davis helped change his mind. “Without his help, I probably wouldn’t be going to college to do band,” said Burris, 18. “He taught me to be a leader.”
Davis set the bar high for Burris and other students during his four years of leading the Cougar band. Under his direction, the band resumed participating in the state concert band festival, started auditioning and sending its students to region and all-state band, formed a band booster club and saw its color guard claim a AAAA state championship.
In May, Davis said, the Cougar band will receive an outstanding performance award from the S.C Band Directors Association, a designation that’s based on both individual and ensemble performance. It is, he noted, the first time since 1995 the York band has received such an honor.
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After leading the band to such achievements, the 32-year-old Davis is going home. He has accepted a position as band director at Lexington Middle School — where he attended as a student — and as band assistant at Lexington High School.
Davis said it’s always been a career goal of his to return to his hometown of Lexington, and he knows that band director job openings are often few and far between. Still, he said it’s hard to leave York and the 110 band students he has cultivated for the last four years.
“I will miss them; they’re great kids,” said Davis, who will leave at the end of June. “And I hope the program continues to grow and maintains its position of continuing to be excellent.”
And many students will miss Davis.
“At first, I didn’t think band was something interesting, I didn’t know the amount of places you can go and the people you can meet,” said Burris. But he said Davis showed him otherwise. And, he said, “with him, we really learned to pick apart the music.”
Another trumpet player, Jacob Murphy, said Davis can be tough but kind. “He can teach you a lot if you listen,” Murphy said. During class, “he can be kind of hard, but when you talk to him personally, he’s a really nice guy.”
Davis acknowledges that he expects a lot from his students, but he said most give a lot back. “Being the best you can be is not easy,” he said. “The harder I push the kids, the better they’re going to be.”
Growing up in Lexington, Davis was exposed to music at a young age by his grandmother, who had studied piano at Winthrop. He played trumpet in the Lexington High band and studied at Furman University, where he earned a degree in music education.
He earned a graduate degree in music education at the University of South Carolina, and worked with the Gamecock band, conducting a university ensemble. He taught band in Spartanburg as a middle school director and high school assistant for four years before he came to York.
When he took over as band director, he said, the York band had not been participating in the state concert band festival — something other high school bands in York County were doing.
“That was a priority from the beginning, to rebuild that part of the program while maintaining a competitive marching band,” he said. “We wanted to be more on par with other bands in York County. And they were doing those things, so we had some catching up to do.”
The band traditionally presented a major spring “review” that included a light and sound show. Now, he said, the band instead presents four or five concerts after the end of marching band season.
“It’s been a lot of work,” he said. “The actual music making part of a high school band director is maybe half the job.” Developing shows, planning trips, recruiting students and handling a variety of administrative duties are all part of the job that must be done when class is over, he said.
Unlike many high schools, which have an assistant band director to help shoulder the duties, Davis only has an assistant who teaches a 90-minute class. Still, he said he’ll miss the challenge.
“That’s what I signed up for,” he said. “It’s part of the job.”
And the work has paid off for the Cougar band. It has twice placed third at the state marching band competition and received superior ratings for two consecutive years at the state concert band festival. This year, a bari sax player, Chris Robinson, took first chair in the all-state band.