There was a happy vibe in band teacher Jim Ross’ Pinewood Middle School band room. While playing clarinets, flutes, drums, saxophones, trombones and other instruments, seventh-grade students tapped their feet as Ross directed, his enthusiasm adding to the catchy, cheerful tune, “Happy,” by singer Pharrell Williams. These first-year middle-school students had spent the year learning how to play as a band.
As is often the case for Ross, he was challenging students to perform something difficult at the next day’s school assembly. “The eighth-graders had performed this, so it’s kind of a throw down for the seventh-graders,” he said.
Ross was recently named 2014 District 10 Band Teacher of the Year by the Michigan School Band and Orchestra Association. The general membership votes on this honor each spring in each of the state’s 16 districts. He is now a finalist for the MSBOA’s state teacher of the year, to be announced in January.
Ross, a 27-year teacher, began his career in Wyoming Public Schools at both the junior and senior high school levels, where he taught for seven years before taking the reins at Forest Hills’ Central Middle School for six years. He was then asked to apply for the East Kentwood High School position, where he has been for 14 years. He started teaching at Pinewood in 2008 with co-director James Sawyer.
From Middle School On
Ross said he loves teaching middle school because students are just starting to learn how to perform together. “It’s one of my favorite things to do because if they end up to be great players, you have no one to blame but yourself. If they end up with issues you have no one to blame but yourself,” he joked.
Truthfully, he said, it’s making the connections that matter.
“In high school we get to know the kids for four years. If I have them in middle school, I really get to know them for seven years. That’s the positive; overall, enthusiasm and energy– the ‘ah-ha, I’ve got this figured out.’ It’s so rewarding to see younger kids get fired up about that.”
At the high school, Ross teaches marching band, jazz band and pit orchestra.
Ross grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from Indiana University with a degree in music education. He received his master’s degree in wind conducting from Michigan State University.
Ross’ family is very musical. His wife, Maureen, is a band director at Grandville Middle School, and their son, Michael, is a senior at Michigan State University majoring in trombone. Their daughter Claire, a 2014 East Kentwood graduate, is majoring in French horn at MSU.
Pinewood Middle School band paraprofessional
Cheryl Meyer said Ross is always challenging his students. The high school band has played alongside the Grand Rapids Symphony. “He sets high expectations that the students rise to meet,” she said. “Last year the high school band played college music because the kids rose to those expectations.”
In the band room, students continued rehearsing, stopping for instructions from Ross.
“Part of doing this is you have to put in your brain, ‘I know these notes. I know these rhythms,'” he said.
Seventh-grade twins Koree Thomas, first chair clarinet player, and Cobee Thomas, second chair flute, said Ross sets them on the right path musically.
“I believe he teaches how to play or notes right. It’s amazing how we sound after we learn to play correctly,” Koree said.
“Sometimes he likes to present us with new pop music we can learn,” Cobee said. “If we have a chance to play it to the audience, they like it.”