Blair Callaway: SBO’s Georgia Director That Makes a Difference

Mike Lawson • Features • February 6, 2020

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“It being my hometown I felt I had to apply. I knew that I had the knowledge and experience that I needed to do this job.” With those words Blair Callaway began the twelve-year journey to become Georgia’s recently announced SBO “Director That Makes a Difference.”

The job he was referring to was the first band director at a brand-new high school, Heritage High School, in his hometown of Ringgold, Georgia.

This journey actually began in Ringgold, Georgia many years earlier. Callaway grew up here. His father was the postmaster and mother worked for Catoosa County. Catoosa County is in the northwest corner of the state, not far from Chattanooga and also from the Alabama state line.

Like many music educators, he grew up in a musical family, but his parents were not musicians. The Callaway home was always filled with music. His parents constantly played phonograph records and little Blair already had his “favorites” that he insisted that they play. His older sister took piano lessons and Blair would taunt her by sitting down and immediately playing the song that his sister had just practiced and struggled with. This was years before he began his own piano lessons when he was eight. Even later, “Music really became ingrained in my life after my parents took me to a performance of Fiddler on the Roof when I was ten years old.”

With significantly older brothers and sisters, he attended high school football games with the family and particularly watched the band. “I knew then that I wanted band to be part of my high school life”, he shared with SBO. He even had his parents take him to the high school band practice while he was still in middle school.

“When it came to band, I chose the trombone and that started a new musical phase in my life.” Callaway began trombone while in the sixth grade to work toward his goal of being in that high school band. When he got to Ringgold High School, he became a trombone player in his long-admired Ringgold Tiger Band. “I loved everything about marching band and pageantry. Our band director took us to the DCI World Championships and again I was hooked on something new. At college I marched with the university band and also with a drum and bugle corps.”

Callaway graduated from Ringgold High School in 1982 after participating all three years in the band program. He then attended and graduated from Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama. With his bachelor of science, he went on to earn his master of arts from North Alabama University in Florence, Alabama. Both degrees are in education.

His first position after college was as associate band director at Russellville High School in Russellville, Alabama. Six years later he was part of the founding faculty as the band director at the new Alma Bryant High School in Irvington, Alabama. This would be his first experience at starting a music and band program from scratch. He moved on to Foley High School in Foley, Alabama before returning to Georgia in 2007 as band director at Gilmer High School in Ellijay, Georgia. Asked about the specific skills required to start a new music and band program at a new school, Callaway shared his experiences with SBO: ”I’ve now started the bands and music programs at two entirely new high schools, Alma Bryant in Irvington, Alabama near Mobile and here at Heritage in Ringgold, Georgia. In both cases I was still teaching at my then current school with significant challenges facing me in my new position.”

“Outfitting and preparing a band that had never existed before would occupy the six months prior to their first football game and field show that next August,” he adds. “I was doing this planning while still teaching at my prior assignment which made my time-management capability of utmost importance. At Alma Bryant, my first new school, it would also be my first experience as the head director at a high school.”

SBO then asked about his preparation for such a challenge. “When I was in college there was not a single course on starting a band program!” he said. “I acquired all the needed skills of opening a school by asking questions of every band director and administrator that I knew. I do believe that more colleges are offering courses in band management now. Some of our nearby universities are actually inviting current band directors to come and speak to their classes.” Among the specific skills mentioned were organizational and planning skills.

Like Callaway, Ronnie Bradford, the Heritage High School principal, was part of the start-up team for this new high school. Also, like Callaway, he had previous experience at opening a new school. Bradford shared with SBO, “In both cases the first person I hired was the band director, even before assistant principals. Most educators and administrators work with a team, but the band director performs most of their duties alone. It is such an important job and requires so much expertise.”

He went on to describe the assistance from the band directors in the other county schools. This included forming the search committee that would interview and visit candidates at their current schools and bands.

As a band director with no staff or assistant, Callaway is supported by a host of volunteers. Susana Taylor is the Spanish teacher at Heritage. She joined the school staff three years after the school’s opening. “I wanted to find a place to plug in and get involved, and boy did I!” Taylor had played flute and baritone saxophone from sixth through eleventh grade back in Texas as well as being in the color guard for three years. She is now the color guard instructor at Heritage.

She says: “I have no regrets; this is truly the most rewarding part of my job, and it is not what I get paid for!” Both of Taylor’s children are Heritage band alumni, with first chair, section leader, all-state band, color guard and even Chattanooga Youth Symphony involvement.

Outlining Callaway’s understanding of his relationship with band parents, he meets regularly with an extremely active band boosters group. One of the booster parents observed, “he (Callaway) is definitely involved, up front and out front with us…he does a great job of communicating!” The boosters understanding of their importance included comments such as, “the band could not run as smoothly as it does without parental support. The expectations of these students is high, and we could not surpass those expectations without direct parent involvement!”

One of the parents indirectly amplified some of Callaway’s skills by commenting, “I’ve learned a lot from Blair about music, drill, organization, leadership, conflict resolution with parents, and so much more…I’m eternally grateful for the chance to work with this exceptional program. His dedication to the students of this program and servant leadership are attributes that I wish to emulate.”

And what about the results as seen at Heritage? The Legion of Generals bands have consistently won all superiors at every festival and competition for all twelve years of their existence. In January, 14 Heritage High School band members were selected by audition to the All-State Band and Orchestra by the Georgia MEA for its annual In-Service Conference in Athens, Georgia. Three of these students earned section first chair positions. The only high school with more All-State selections has nearly three times the student body.

The entire Heritage concert band has been invited to perform at this year’s Georgia MEA In-Service Conference, as well. This will be the second invitational concert appearance in less than a week with another appearance as a guest band at the University of Georgia Hugh Hodgson School of Music’s January High School Festival (Janfest). JanFest is a four-day event that typically includes a thousand director nominated high school musicians from over 130 schools and just a few invited guest bands.

Gavin Anchando is a junior at Heritage High School, plays euphonium in the concert band and is the drum major of the Legion of Generals Marching Band. His comments underlined the importance of the music education that students receive before they even reach high school. Gavin and his classmates “began learning music in the third grade, but we didn’t specifically start reading music until fourth grade!” Feeling like he wanted to do more than just read music Gavin began learning the euphonium. His parents both had school instrumental music experience and were supportive of his efforts. Gavin sees the experience under Callaway’s guidance has shown the students to be more actively involved in their school, community, and the world.

Callaway’s relationship with his high school alma mater, now the cross-town rival, is an example of the esteem he has earned while at Heritage. “We get along great even though we are only seven miles apart and football rivals!” he says. “I’ve even conducted their band in their alma mater at a football game.” He added that all of the band directors in the county meet for breakfast and to discuss music education issues.

Callaway summed up his career and role in music education with these thoughts: “Most of us are music teachers for the love of music and students. Young directors need to understand that it is a career- long process of getting better. I still fail and strive to get better at my craft. Work hard and love your students and you will be successful!”

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