By Ashley Perham
James Story, Volunteer State Community College music professor, is retiring after spending 40 years as a music educator on the kindergarten through college levels.
Story was born and raised in Tennessee and grew up in Greeneville, Tennessee.
He started playing piano when he was around 13. By age 15, he was playing for church.
Story also used his music skills in another way as a teenager.
“I had a little rock band when I was 16. It was a bunch of us neighborhood boys got together and we just jammed,” he said.
The band would play at sock hops at the Negro Women’s Civic Club.
“We played a lot of Motown songs and tried to do dance tunes,” he said.
“My most influential teacher would have to be Mr. Gene Proffitt. He really sparked an interest in me in the sixth grade of learning music formally,“ said Story.
Story, who went to an all-black school through his seventh grade year, remembered Proffitt coming to teach band and telling the parents that participating in band could “bridge those gaps of racial divide” students might experience once they were integrated into a white school.
“And he was definitely right,” said Story.
Proffitt made Story the first black drum major of his high school in Greeneville. The experience gave Story confidence he could use in all areas of his life.
“To put me out front, as a young black kid in a predominantly white situation, that inspired me that I could do anything as far as leadership abilities or musical abilities because he trusted that I was good enough to be the leader of a band post-integration,” said Story.
Story attended Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, Tennessee, and received his bachelor’s degree in music education in 1977.
Story was again selected to be the drum major for the marching band at Tennessee Tech, the first African-American drum major in the university’s history.
“There were only 14 black kids on the entire campus when I went there so to have that honor of leading the Tennessee Tech marching band was a huge honor,” he said.
After graduating, Story’s first job was teaching the high school, jr. high and middle school band and choral programs in White House, Tennessee.
“I had the entire music program from the sixth grade to the high school, both band and choir,” said Story.
Story also worked at Gallatin High School with the jr. high and high school bands and choirs.
In 1986, Story received a fellowship to Austin Peay State University. He took a year off teaching to get his master’s degree in music education.
In 1997, Dr. Hal Ramer, the first president of Vol State, and Dr. Charles Lee recruited Story to come to Vol State and establish the music program.
At the time, the school had one teacher, one adjunct member, and two music majors. Story built the entire curriculum and program from where it was in 1997 to where it is today.
“I think it was my brain child because I had the opportunity to develop this program as it is today,” he said.
“I had the support of the administration to allow me to be creative in creating curriculum for the Vol State music department,” he said.
When Story started working at Vol State, there was no recording studio, so any recording projects had to be done outside the school. Eventually, the school renovated Pickel Field House for more music space and built a recording studio in the Ramer Administration Building.
“We were promised a new humanities building in 1999, and we waited this long just to get a new humanities building with a lot of space and practice rooms,” he said.
“I couldn’t retire until I saw the new building.”
Story worked in the public schools for 19 years and at Vol State for 21 years.
Story is also involved in music outside Vol State. He has conducted several community theater productions, several band and choral association events and the choir and orchestra at his church.
He also has a jazz ensemble called 2nd Story Rhythm that gets together to have fun and play for local parties.
Story mentioned Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong as some of his musical inspirations.
“They made an indelible impression on music history and they were successful before black artists were popular to be successful in the business because they had to go through racism and they had to go through their struggles going to the back door and things of that sort, prejudicial things. In spite of all the socio-economic things they had to go through, they rose to the top, and they were successful in their field,” he said.
Story said he still has a lot of hopes and dreams. His church choir has been invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in December. He said the honor of getting to conduct or perform on that stage would be a huge bucket list item.
He also looks forward to taking the things he’s learned about producing Vol State projects and producing some individual recording projects in the coming years.
“Retirement is pretty much a misnomer to me. A retirement from education is just me taking what I’ve learned over the last 40 years and redirecting those energies and reinventing music on a different level than K through higher ed,” he said.
“I don’t look at it as resting. I look at it as reinventing,” Story said.
Story said that seeing how students perform in live venues and the studio is what he will miss most about teaching at Vol State.
“I’ll miss that part to see students develop their natural abilities behind a microphone or to see how they perform on the stage of the shows that we’ve done. There’s just nothing better than live performances or seeing that recording process from the beginning to the end,” he said.
Appreciation for Story’s service has also come from outside Vol State. In 2015, he was nominated by the Grammy Foundation for the Music Educator Award. Out of 7,000 applicants, he ended up in the top 25.
“That was a cool recognition,” he said.
Story mentioned several student successes he has had. He had a student place in American Idol, one who sings background vocals for The Voice, students who are orchestra leaders around the world, students who are on the road as professional musicians, and students who are church musicians.
“I’ve had a lot of successes with former students being successful in the musical field,” he said.
“You know it just makes me happy,” he said.
LESSONS FROM STORY
Be prepared. Be prepared to inspire a generation of young people that may not know the discipline of what it takes to be a musician.
Be prepared to exert a lot of physical energy in sharing your passion.
Be prepared for endless and selfless time of selflessness on your part because it takes a lot of work to inspire and be successful in music. It takes a lot of energy.
Be prepared for failures.
Be prepared to experience the highest level of creativity when your group does the best job they can.
A lot of the teachers go into music education with all these grandiose ideals of what music teaching is and you gotta stay with it because music education is not an overnight success.It’s not an “everybody wins” type of game for music teachers.You win by hard work and stick-to-it-iveness and sharing your passion and encouraging and inspiring and sometimes those things may take 40 years.