Overton band director inspires his students

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 18, 2013

Anthony Johnson jokes about being an inattentive student in school and how sitting for hours listening to teachers lecture didn’t engage him as a student.

“I don’t know if I was ADD, ADHD or just BAD. I didn’t like school,” he said laughing.

  In fact, he failed the fourth, seventh, eighth and ninth grades and eventually dropped out of high school altogether. He later obtained his GED. The now 41-year-old father of three girls is a technology facilitator and band director at Overton Elementary School. Johnson, his wife, Dr. Desiree Johnson and their three children — Adanya, Kailah and Jessieca, live in Salisbury.

As a technology facilitator, Johnson helps teachers integrate technology into their curriculum. Every student at Overton in some form uses technology to read, play music or just have fun. In 2009, Johnson was instrumental in starting a One-to-One iPod touch program at Overton, beginning with fifth graders. Since that time the program has expanded to students in third through fifth grade using an iPod and kindergarten through second grade using iPads. He also took an eight-student drum circle and turned it into a 115 student marching band. The Overton Elementary School Mini Funk Factory is the only such elementary school marching band in the state of North Carolina.

Just about every child played a musical instrument. It was no different for Johnson, who played in his high school band and would later go on to play trumpet for Livingstone College.

As a child a love for technology was born through a cousin, George Taylor, who would take a young Anthony to work with him. He purchased Johnson’s first computer, a Commodore 64. Taylor would take Johnson to work with him on Saturdays, Johnson said.

The Mini Funk Factory band didn’t begin as a band, but instead started with a bucket.

“We had no desire to even have a band nor either a drumline. We kinda talked about having a drum circle with just eight kids,” Johnson said.

The eight students started beating on buckets and Johnson took the concept a step further. He bought a drum set, took it apart and had five drums. He then bought another drum set and took it apart.

Johnson didn’t have money nor did he have the manpower to start a large band so he decided to start small with the drum circle, “and then it just kept growing and growing,” he said.

“The next thing you know I had 30 drums. We went from eight to 45 kids in about three weeks,” he said.

The small drum circle quickly turned into a 60-student drumline. The drumline continued for a year and evolved into a band soon after. As soon as the word spread about the marching band, monetary donations and instruments began arriving from all over the United States. A Georgia woman whose husband would go on to become a band director in Florida provided instruments to the burgeoning band.

Johnson never thought the band would grow into what it is today but hopes within the next two years to have enough resources and manpower to have at least half the elementary schools in the system participating in the program. Johnson is well on his way to seeing his dream fulfilled. The Overton band will expand into the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Mini Funk Factory Band beginning next year. The program will be available to more elementary school students throughout the district. Parents have expressed interest in their children becoming part of the band, Johnson said.

Since its inception nearly three years ago the band has changed, added uniforms, lost some members and gained some members. The Mini Funk Factory band has since partnered with Sidney Sessoms, director of the Livingstone College marching band. Johnson considers Sessoms a mentor — someone he can seek counsel of and advice. Johnson receives help from Overton music educator Beth Yelvington, who is an assistant band director, along with two other parents who volunteer to help direct. The band recently added a colorguard, under the direction of an instructor and a parent volunteer.

Johnson said he gets his drive from the students. Since he didn’t have a good experience in school he wants to make sure the students have a pleasant experience and make learning exciting as much as he can.

“Even with the band and technology. If they are excited then they will perform in the classroom,” he said.

Johnson often refers to a quote by Aristotle that says “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” The quote can be seen on his page on the school’s website and is inscribed on a wall down the hallway at Overton.

“That’s a life lesson, even with behavior. If you come out and work real hard everything is going to fall into place,” Johnson said.

He hopes his students learn to be disciplined and learn how to prepare. In 2012, the band performed in the Charlotte St. Patrick’s Day parade where there were 90,000 crowded along the streets.

“That’s when I knew the program had grown. The crowd yelled and screamed the whole time for the whole seven blocks and they were not phased by it all,” he said.

The students even held their own in a battle of the bands competition against high school and college students. It was a much different band from when he first began. When the children marched, they waved to family and friends and were all together distracted.

Johnson’s life changed after his parents died in 1998, six months apart. He buried his mother and moved to Salisbury the very next day. He was a young stay-at-home dad and had a lot of time to reflect on his life. In 1999, he enrolled at Livingstone College to pursue a music degree. Johnson wanted to become a band director and after a year as a music major he decided to change it to education.

One of the greatest lessons Johnson learned in life and that he tries to instill in his students is that “you’re going to have to do it yourself. This world doesn’t owe you anything. You’re going to have to go out and get everything yourself,” he said.

“I feel we’re just really fortunate,” said Overton Principal Betty Tunks of having Johnson.

She said Johnson is a creative person who doesn’t let anything stand in his way and he is not satisfied with the status quo.

Some of the children Johnson works with don’t have a father figure in their lives, but he provides that needed positive role model, she said.

“He is strict, but yet his heart is gold,” she said, “they just love him to death.”

One of Johnson’s greatest professional successes was becoming an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2011. The honor is given to educators who are innovators in and out of the classroom. Since being named a Distinguished Educator, Johnson has traveled to Ireland and the Mini Funk Factory is the only band featured on iTunes U. He said it’s opened so many doors.

He’s fulfilled many dreams and overcome challenges, but Johnson would still love it if all of the band members were to pass their end of grade tests. This past year 70 percent of the children passed their tests.

Three of Tamika Burns’ children participate in the band — Jayden, a fourth grader, Christian, a seventh grader at Knox Middle, just next door to Overton, and Joshua, a kindergartner, who carries the banner. It was Jayden who went home everyday asking to be apart of the drum circle. Since the band began, he’s learned to play the drums, trumpet and now the clarinet. Christian plays the trombone and helps during summer camps. Neither of Burns’ children could read music, but all have grown in skills and confidence, she said. Burns is president of the band boosters.

“I don’t think it would be anybody better than Mr. Johnson. I said to him ‘nobody else could do this.’ He takes time from his own family to deal with our kids,” Burns said.

Johnson encourages the children to keep their grades up, she said, and being in the band is helping not just with music skills but with the children’s education.

Melissa Carter had some anxiety about letting her daughter, Shianne, 9, participate in the band. Shianne has special needs and Carter has her reservations.

“I think she’s learned to socialize and be part of a team. I have great regards for everything he’s doing with this band. He encourages Shianne to further herself,” Carter said.

Carter is vice president of the band boosters.

Participating in the band has given Alex Blumenthal self-esteem, his mother, Jessica said.

She said Alex doesn’t enjoy sports and it can be hard in that situation to find an extracurricular activity at this age. Alex is 10.

Blumenthal said of Johnson, “He’s an amazing man with a dream who is willing to go to any length to see that dream a reality. Even when it’s not easy he’s willing to persevere. He just wants to open the eyes of these kids, but he creates a strong sense of responsibility so these kids learn about what they need to do to succeed.”

Blumenthal is also part of band boosters.