ELLISVILLE, MS (JONES COUNTY JUNIOR COLLEGE) – They are the best musicians in the state and they have a heavy burden on their shoulders. The 144-member Mississippi All-State Lion's Band will be competing internationally in Sydney, Australia, June 27 and have an unmatched winning streak to keep alive. The band has won 26 out of the 59 years of competition and most recently, the band has won an unprecedented six contests over the last seven years of competition. The band chose not to compete internationally in 2008 and instead, performed in Washington D.C. Lion's Band director, Jeff Cannon has led the premier band in the last four winning parade routines.
"The pressure is immense," said Cannon. "It's self imposed pressure. However, I work with an excellent group of directors, volunteer staff and musicians who are personally motivated to excel."
More than 900 high school musicians audition for the opportunity to be a part of the world's elite band. Cannon stresses, their skills are impeccable but the staff has to get everyone 'marching' to the same tune.
"We march a 7-set street drill which is unusual. No one else uses that style and while these young musicians are skilled, they are not always great at parade marching. That's what we really work on here at camp at JCJC," said Cannon.
The Terry High School band director explained the band has to look as if it is floating down the street, sounding exceptional. What separates Mississippi from other countries and states, Cannon shared, is everyone simply loves it and wants the kids to win.
"It's an honor for a director to be here and we have our choice of directors. A lot of directors want to volunteer their time. That's why we also get the best and brightest directors and students."
This is South Jones high school graduate, Ashton Robertson's second adventure with the Lion's Band. She said everyone prepares a year in advance for their audition, explaining why Mississippi out-performs its competitors.
"If you aren't going to do your best, then you won't want to be in the Lion's Band," said Robertson. "I also understand other states/countries' auditions aren't as rigorous. "
Oak Grove's Katie Folkes is excited to be a part of the band after auditioning two years previously. Going to Australia has her feeling a little unsure, however. "The plane ride is 18 hours and I've never been out of the country," said Folkes. "Australia is somewhere I've always wanted to go to though, and there's a sense of pride because the Lion's Band is the best of the best."
Musicians have been rehearsing almost ten hours daily to prepare for two performances, including marching down the streets of Ellisville, Miss., in record breaking heat and humidity. Besides the international parade contest, the Mississippi All-State Lion's Band has also been invited to perform in the 'Lobby Show' concert in front of nearly 15,000 Lion's club delegates and guests in Sydney.
The man leading the parade, drum major Michael Boyte of Sumrall said, "There's tons of pressure because everyone's eyes are me," said Boyte. "I'm really looking forward to going to Sydney, touring the city, seeing the sights, and getting surfing lessons."
The week-long camp at Jones County Junior College will culminate with a free concert held in the college's Fine Arts Auditorium on Thursday, June 24 at 7 p.m. The Lion's Band directors and staff include: Mississippi Lions Band manager - Jeff Cannon from Pearl High School; Assistant manager - Mickey Mangum from Clinton High School; Marching Directors are Mike Garnand from Petal High School and Mel Morse from Lewisburg. Concert Directors are Andy Sanders from Southaven and Anna Schwartz from Ocean Springs. Percussion instructor is Ryan Saul from Petal High School. Visual Staff includes Kent Hisaw from Booneville, Kim Pressley from Grenada and Mandy Bell from Grenada.