Marching to the beat of a younger drummer

From left, Austin Hinson, 12, Brandon Wilson, 12, Shon Johnson, 17, Jonathan Henson, 14, and Lucas Hendley, 12, march during band practice at Great Falls High School on Tuesday. Of the five drummers, Johnson is the only high school student.
From left, Austin Hinson, 12, Brandon Wilson, 12, Shon Johnson, 17, Jonathan Henson, 14, and Lucas Hendley, 12, march during band practice at Great Falls High School on Tuesday. Of the five drummers, Johnson is the only high school student.

GREAT FALLS -- The owner of the loudest pipes in the Great Falls High School marching band claims to be 4 feet, 6 inches tall and weigh 72 pounds.

That estimate would be more believable if he was wearing boots in a monsoon.

While his size is debatable, there was no doubt whose voice guided the Red Devils' band at a recent practice.

"I tell 'em where they're supposed to be," said 12-year-old Jacob "J.J." Jones, the half-pint drum major in the pink shirt that said, "Tough Guys Wear Pink."

Tough guys also shrug off stupid questions about their age and size. J.J. means business, and he doesn't worry about the novelty of someone his age holding a position typically manned by seniors and juniors.

"I'm 12 years old, and I'm able to do stuff that people way older than me can do," he said confidently.

Other than his leading job, J.J.'s participation in the band isn't strange in a county where middle-schoolers often march in high school bands.

Nearly half the Great Falls High School band is enrolled in seventh or eighth grade. At Lewisville High and even larger Chester High, middle-schoolers make up about a third of the band.

"It's not unusual for that to happen," said Martin Dickey, president of the S.C. Band Directors Association and director of Nation Ford High School's band in Fort Mill.

At larger schools, Dickey said, block scheduling has reduced the size of the bands. At smaller schools, that same issue has forced directors to pull students from middle school.

Marcus Morris is in his first year as Chester High School's band director. As he tries to build a program, he marches middle-schoolers.

Morris hopes to eventually move away from that practice, but he's got to start somewhere.

"When you try to grow, you try to recruit young," he said. "If you can get those younger ones rocking and rolling, you'll be able to kind of get them where you need them to be."

The Lewisville High School band is smaller this year in part because of students who moved away or graduated, said director Daniel Nuckolls. Last year's group, which came a point shy of a state championship, included more upperclassmen.

Every few years, turnover requires a band to recruit younger students, Nuckolls said.

"Our band definitely got shorter this year," he said. But he noted that there is an upside to marching youthful members.

"If they weren't in marching band," he said, "they wouldn't have grown as fast because of the amount of practice time and the amount of demand on them with the older kids."

Band directors at all three schools hope their younger students will develop into mature, harmonious units.

Jason Jones, in his third year as Great Falls' band director, hopes to see his squad grow from 24 members to 60 or 70 in coming years, marching only high school students.

"We do what we can with what we've got," he said.

Jones, who is not related to J.J., didn't set out to install a 12-year-old as his drum major. But there were six drummers and five drums. One drummer was J.J., whose dad played the tuba at Great Falls High and knew the demands of the drum major's position. Hours of fatherly teaching has paid off.

During that recent practice, the young band director sat in the stands of Great Falls' football stadium and relayed instructions to his very young drum major on the field.

J.J. was trying to lead the band in the steps to "Make Me Smile," one of four Chicago songs the band hopes to master this season.

"Really good job," Jones' said of J.J.'s efforts as drum major. "There are still some minor things he can work on here and there."

But do the other kids respect him?

"They go with it," Jones said.

For J.J., respect didn't come immediately. He had to prove himself, and when his peers didn't listen, he had the authority to make them run laps or perform push ups.

"They're like, 'I don't want to run laps,'" he said of a few encounters with uncooperative bandmates. "I'm like, 'Well, you're gonna have to.'"

Once everyone realized he wasn't kidding, J.J. said, then they began to respect him.

Band members say respect isn't an issue with their small leader.

"He's my drum major," said Amber Bruce, a 14-year-old freshman flute player. "I'm going to respect him whether he's 12 or 17."

Even senior band captain and trumpet player Alex Walters is willing to let his cousin, J.J., be the field general.

"I'm kind of like his right hand," said Walters, who technically has the band's top leadership role. "I give power to him. I think it's very rare (that) you see a 12-year-old as a drum major. ... I'm going to respect him, no matter the age."