In building the culture of a new high school, Great Crossing principal Joy Lusby believes the role of band director is on par with hiring the right football and basketball coaches.
Sports and music are indelibly linked, of course, in the way the horns, woodwinds and percussion set the soundtrack and pageantry for the game. The importance of life lessons and skills learned is equivalent in both endeavors.
Lusby didn’t have to look far from home for an ideal fit when GCHS experienced a rare vacancy heading into its second year. John Merz, who spent the past 11 years of his two decades in education exponentially growing the band program at Harrison County High School in Cynthiana, is the Warhawks’ new conductor.
“We talked about that in the interview,” Merz said of music’s role in galvanizing a new educational community. “I told (Lusby) I wanted the band to be what people thought of as soon as they thought of Great Crossing High School. We could be the front of the school, so to speak.
“You’re going to be building traditions with your sports teams and all the other activities that go on, and the band can be such a big part of that. Especially football and basketball, we get to help build that culture of school spirit and community, and linking the community at large with the school as well. I think all of those are important things to look at.”
Merz, one of six finalists from a pool of 30 applicants, takes over for David Centers, who resigned to seek opportunities closer to his home in Louisville.
Lusby said she and the committee were wowed by Merz’s experience, knowledge, track record of success, positive attitude, and shared vision for the growth of the school and its music curriculum.
“I want people to say, ‘Oh, the Great Crossing band. Hey, we’re going to the football game tonight, but I can’t wait to see the band at halftime.’ There’s something about him that just fits,” Lusby said. “We have found another amazing band director, and I’m the luckiest girl in the world.”
Lusby added that she was struck by the immediate connection she saw between Merz and GCHS choir director Jamie Wright in the interview process.
“It felt like those two were already collaborating in the interview,” Lusby said. “The chemistry’s good. I can tell. It was like two magical minds there, already working stuff up.”
During Merz’s tenure in Harrison County, the school’s marching band consistently qualified for state competition.
More than two-thirds of the concert band membership qualified for KMEA (Kentucky Music Educators Association) solo or ensemble state assessments.
“His success in Harrison County shows his tirelessness to get the best out of all his students,” Wright said of his new colleague. “Great Crossing band will take large leaps in quality under Mr. Merz’s direction.”
Scott County High School’s band boasted more than 300 musicians before the district’s second high school opened last fall.
Merz is eager to take his piece of that tradition, take advantage of the facilities at GCHS, and build a similar environment for the Warhawks. Harrison Country’s band doubled during his time there.
“The potential is there and the growth in the district is there that the numbers will continue to increase. There’s a lot of things we can do with the program, so that’s one of the big (attractions),” Merz said of his move. “We have an opportunity to sort of define what it means to be the Great Crossing band, and to grow into that together, and that will be a fun process. The facilities are new and amazing. That’s exciting as well.”
Merz moved across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in middle school and graduated from Scott High School in Kenton County. He graduated from Eastern Kentucky University, then received his master’s degree from Morehead State University before returning to EKU for his Rank I certification.
He also taught at Dixie Heights and Mason County, building credentials in what he considers a dream job.
“I always knew that I was going to be a teacher. Once I got through the firefighter and astronaut phase of my childhood, teacher was it. I knew that was going to be calling,” Merz said. “The question was what was I gonna teach, and when I got into marching band and band in high school, it really kind of changed my life for good. I really enjoyed the community and the camaraderie and being able to have a social place as well as a place to make music. That kind of sealed the deal.”
Neither of his parents had a musical background. Merz said that his father joked that he could “tune a radio, but that was about it.”
Listening to his uncles speak fondly about their school band experiences nudged Merz in that direction. He now strives to give students that same gift, using an element that is in the background of all our lives to instill them with confidence and self-discipline.
“The music element of it is actually just a piece of it. We are fortunate, and I’ve always thought of myself as blessed, because I get to teach kids about life and teach kids how to be good people, and I get to use music to do that,” Merz said. “We try to build the person, and we have music as the vehicle to be able to do that, which I can’t really think of a better vehicle to use.”
Lusby considers the position so crucial because of its dual academic and social value.
“They’re a group of kids that probably could give two flips about sports. Band, this is their world. These are their people. This is their outlet. This is their community,” the principal said. “This is an important hire in our building.
“To me, it is a culture builder. If somebody is fostering a family-type atmosphere as well as fostering high levels of musicianship and respect for music, when you have somebody who is experienced as Mr. Merz who is able to wrangle that whole crew in and they make beautiful music, that’s a win-win for us.”
Unless there is a specific appeal from the band boosters, both Merz and Lusby said there are no plans to add a competitive marching band at this time.
The band’s first major community activity under Merz, the Great Crossing-Scott County football game on Aug. 21, remains tentative due to COVID-19.
Like all teachers and coaches, Merz is awaiting further instructions on what the new school year will look like. Band rehearsals could have limits on group size.
“There’s just so much up in the air right now that it’s kind of hard to say when we’ll be able to get things together,” Merz said. “The program is big enough that we have to look at the number component that the governor puts out, so there will be some challenges, but we will do the best we can and get through it together, as they say.”
His band will be ready to go, and grow, once it gets the go-ahead.
“If you’re reading music and making music, that’s a brain activity,” Lusby said. “(Band) kids correlate high in the data with high academics typically. I want those students to have the same opportunity for competition, sportsmanship, teaching them to work together, to collaborate. When students get into something like KMEA assessments and they’re able to execute, it’s kind of like the playoffs, except for band.”
Kal Oakes can be reached at email@example.com.