Marching on: Student directors instrumental in band leadership transition

Published 2:14 pm Tuesday, October 4, 2022

Since the departure of former Smithfield High School band director Joel Joyner last school year, 17-year-old senior Mary Shelor has been doing what she can to provide a sense of normalcy for her fellow band members.

On Mondays after school, the piccolo player and flutist-turned-director can be found either in the school’s band room or leading practice at Smithfield High’s football field. On this particular Monday, Sept. 26, it’s the latter.

Joyner, a retired Army sergeant major who’d led the band since 2014, had begun training Shelor as a student director prior to taking medical leave in March and retiring at the end of the last school year.

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Shelor, who’s been playing with the band since seventh grade, said she received word in June, just three days prior to Smithfield High’s graduation commencement, that she’d been appointed to fill in as the band’s director for the ceremony.

“It was intimidating. … It was kind of spur of the moment,” Shelor said, speaking to The Smithfield Times at the Sept. 26 band practice.

But week after week since then, she’s risen to the challenge of her new role, figuratively and literally, ascending the steps of a portable director’s podium on the football field.

“Band, attention!” she commands.

“Smithfield!” the band shouts in response, instruments at the ready, each student standing where he or she would be positioned if playing at halftime during a football game.

“Instruments up!” Shelor orders.

“Packers!” the band responds in unison.

Shelor begins counting, “One. Two. One. Two. Ready. Play!”

On cue, the band begins to play “The Star Spangled Banner,” followed by Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” and “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough.”

Shelor isn’t the only one to find herself in a new leadership role this school year. Sept. 26 was also Stephen Syrell’s first day on the job as Smithfield High’s new band director.

Prior to his reassignment, Syrell had served in the same role at Westside Elementary School for eight years. Many of Smithfield High’s current band members started with him at Westside.

Before Syrell’s arrival, Shelor and junior Alex Muir, who plays the clarinet and tenor saxophone, had been working together to tutor their fellow band members during the school day.

From March through Sept. 23, Smithfield High had employed a long-term substitute for the band room who, in Shelor’s words, was “more of a proctor.”

“I’ve had to lead the band classes,” Shelor said.

Since the start of the current school year, she’d been essentially teaching Smithfield High’s third block symphonic course, with Muir doing the same for the second block jazz.

Syrell told the Times it’s always been his aspiration to be a high school band director.

“Being with an advanced group, you get to do a lot more with artistic expression,” he said.

Still, he misses watching his current Westside students progress from being nervous to even hold an instrument to being confident enough to perform with a group. He hopes to still find the time to do concerts with them.

Having student directors like Shelor and Muir has been a welcome change.

“It takes a lot of responsibility off my shoulders,” Syrell said.

According to Isle of Wight County Schools spokeswoman Lynn Briggs, the school system had hired someone over the summer to replace Joyner, but that person ended up resigning before the start of the school year. As of Sept. 8, the school system was still advertising the position.

“Many applicants were already under contract and couldn’t get released,” Briggs said.

Isle of Wight County Schools participates in an agreement with area school divisions not to hire staff from one another after June 30.

According to Sean Venson, president of the Smithfield High School Band Boosters, the long-term substitute who had been assigned to Smithfield High is now filling in for Syrell at Westside. The Band Boosters are a group of parents and supporters who advocate and raise funds for the band.

Venson, speaking to the Times by phone Sept. 26, said he was allowed to sit in on some of the interviews.

Some candidates from larger school systems, he recalled, cited pay as their reason for declining a contract with Isle of Wight. 

Isle of Wight actually offers higher supplemental pay for high school band directors than the significantly larger Virginia Beach school system, with Isle of Wight paying an extra $5,500 for the Smithfield High job compared to Virginia Beach’s $3,600 stipend. But Virginia Beach offers higher base pay, ranging from a minimum of $51,695 for entry-level teaching contracts to a minimum of just over $90,000 for teachers with 43 or more years of experience. Isle of Wight, by comparison, offers a $47,277 minimum salary and uses a 35-step scale that stops paying annual raises once a teacher with 35 or more years of experience reaches a base salary of $80,580.

Venson also recalled that “word had got out about Mr. Joyner.”

‘A big slap in the face’

Joyner, speaking to The Smithfield Times by phone on Sept. 26, confirmed he had taken medical leave in mid-March for surgery related to his military-related disability, but contended his ultimate departure from the school system was less than amicable.

When Joyner tried to return to the school later that month to pick up some paperwork from his office, he – in his words – was “thrown out of the building” in front of one of his classes.

“The (substitute) was standing there, the kids in my first block were standing there. … It was a big slap in the face,” Joyner said.

After the alleged incident, Joyner said he decided to distance himself from the school, ultimately choosing to put in for retirement at the end of the last school year.

Joyner, however, said he returned to Smithfield High on July 1, the day band camp was supposed to start, after receiving word from parents that no band director had shown up.

“I was in the band room on the conductor’s podium,” Joyner said, where again in front of the students, school officials allegedly told him he “would have to leave immediately.”

He then said he’d offered in writing to serve as the band’s long-term substitute for the start of the 2022-23 school year until a new director could be found, but was “denied and was told to call (Human Resources Director Laura) Sullivan.”

“I never did call Ms. Sullivan … I don’t know what happened that caused them to treat me that way,” Joyner said.

Briggs, asked about Joyner’s allegations, said she couldn’t “speak to specific personnel matters.” She did, however, assert the division’s administration had “no knowledge of any of these events.”

If Joyner’s account is indeed accurate, it would be the second consecutive time that Smithfield High’s band director has had a falling out with the school division administration.

Joyner succeeded Aaron Hill, also a military veteran, as the school’s band director in August 2014. Three months earlier, Hill had publicly announced his resignation at a band event in Smithfield High’s auditorium, describing his tenure in the role as “nothing but a battle,” according to the Times’ archives.

Hill’s announcement, according to past reporting by the Times, was met with cries of “fight!” and “We love you!” from the audience, though Hill said he would “take the high road” rather than what he termed “civil disobedience.” Hill was credited during his tenure with more than doubling the band’s membership from 105 students in 2008 to 247 when he left.

According to the Times’ 2014 reporting, the school system’s administration at the time had cut band funding and threatened to prevent overnight trips to performances, resulting in the band almost not making it to the National Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C., that year.

Drumsticks ‘taped together’

​​At the School Board’s Sept. 8 meeting, four parents and two students spoke during a public hearing on proposed changes to the school system’s five-year capital improvements plan – advocating for a proposed renovation of Smithfield High’s band and chorus facilities slated for the 2026-27 school year to happen sooner.

“We need you, the board, and you, our new superintendent, to approve funding for this program now, not in 2026,” said SHS parent and Band Booster Tiffany Walker.

Walker contends students are “using damaged instruments,” including “drumsticks that are taped together because they have been broken from so many students using them over the years.”

Holding up two pieces of torn fabric at the lectern, she added that “padding for the drums” is “falling apart and being held together by rubber bands, and in some cases, being duct-taped together just so the metal won’t cut into our students’ shoulders.”

As of November 2020, renovating the school’s band and chorus areas was projected to cost $2 million to $2.4 million, according to past reporting by the Times. The plan, at that time, was to knock down the wall between the band and chorus rooms to give the band more space, and to move the chorus to an area being used as an art classroom.

According to Briggs, $1.3 million was proposed last year for band and chorus renovations as part of the five-year capital improvements plan, with the renovations slated to occur during the 2025-26 school year. The final approved plan from the county currently has it listed for 2026-27.

Venson, speaking to the Times on Sept. 26, said the current band room should have a capacity of 85 students, but currently, “you can really only sit 25 to 30 kids without really being on top of each other.”

Part of the issue, Venson said, stems from when Liberty Live Church began using Smithfield High to hold worship services on Sundays three years ago, displacing some of the band’s storage space. Liberty Live is in the process of relocating from the high school to its own building, which the congregation plans to build off a cul-de-sac on Wimbledon Lane.

At the Sept. 8 public hearing, several parents contended the band room’s air conditioning worked only intermittently. The air is now fixed, according to Venson, but the instrument closet door “is warped and doesn’t lock.”

“There are instruments that need to be repaired,” he added, “mostly on the percussion” side.

“A lot of our stuff is damaged,” Muir confirmed.