On a recent afternoon, a cacophony of sound emanates throughout Snowden School's music room as 75 students prepare for practice. Scattered chairs and instrument cases line the floor, and students fiddle with trombones, blow stray notes through clarinets, and bang bass drums until band director James Robertson blows his whistle.
Today is the first rehearsal for next year's marching band, and the group hopes to accomplish as much next year as they did this year.
Snowden's 7th- and 8th-grade music students brought home 15 awards from Atlanta's Fiesta-Val Music Festival and Competition, held last month, including overall grand champion. Robertson received the award of distinction for his contribution to music excellence in education.
The group from Snowden — about 120 band and choir students — placed first in every category in which they competed, and some students won individual awards. They won so many three-foot trophies, in fact, that they had a hard time getting them all back home.
"We stuck them in seats and overhead racks, anywhere we could," says Robertson, laughing.
DeUndria Edwards, 8th-grade clarinet player and section leader, is watching next year's band members marching.
"This group is looking up to us. We set the bar very high," Edwards says, as some of the 6th-graders fumble with instruments half their size. "Mr. Robertson makes music fun, and we are very enthusiastic about our music. I think that's what set us apart from the other schools [at the competition]."
Robertson, who has performed with Isaac Hayes for 10 years as a drummer, says he brings what he has learned as a professional musician to his students.
"It's about discipline. Practice. Work. Getting them to listen," Robertson says. "They have done a wonderful job."
Robertson has been with Memphis City Schools for 21 years and at Snowden for 16.
"I felt wonderful about my award," Robertson says. "It made me feel really good about what I'm doing for the kids and for music education."
Hazel Weatherby, a 7th-grade flautist with the winning band, says, "We practiced hard, and sometimes Mr. Robertson yelled at us, but we became very disciplined, and it became easy."
At rehearsal, Robertson leads the drills over and over, and the students get louder and tighter each time.
"Band, attention!" he shouts.
"SMS!" they respond.
"Your horn's not straight, son," Robertson says to one student. "Don't fidget," he says to another. "And keep your head up!"
They continue with the drill until they've all got it down.
Weatherby is proud of her group. "We were the first band [from Snowden] to receive superior ratings on everything," she says. "And we inspired other groups to work harder."