Paper rustled as the students fingered their way through the music sheets preparing for the days’ rehearsal. A stereo played “Our yesterdays lengthen like shadows.” The band’s director, Johnny Folsom, was warming up. His hands kept time, dancing to the music’s tempo. His students who were not already in their sections were unpacking instruments in the back of the room. The crack of brass latches and clatter of closing cases did not distract Folsom’s resolve of perfection while he practiced. Students began moving to their respective sections. The room filled with a slow, distorted melody running up and down a tonal scale.
The music echoing from the sound system came to an end, signaling the start of rehearsal. Above Folsom, a white-board displayed several songs to be rehearsed. The top of the board had a quote from Helen Keller, “The only thing worse than being blind is having no vision.”
Folsom came to ABAC seven years ago with the vision of growing the small band. This vision could be seen in the large crowd of students spread before him like a crescent moon, waiting for instruction.
He preached to his students. He used a recent basketball game upset as the tool to deliver his message. “All the press wanted the coach to say, ‘We got cheated’ but you know what? They did not make excuses,” he said. Folsom will retire after this semester, making this concert one of his final performances.
The performance was that Thursday night. It was played at the historic downtown Tift Theatre. “It’s crunch time folks, I need you there, no whining,” he said.
The students sat quietly, looking on with blank stares. They were lost in thought, assessing the upcoming events before the concert. Heads nodded in approval as mental plans and preparation were thought out.
Folsom’s office is located on the second floor of the music building. At the top of the stairs, students are often met by music from his open door. He can be seen reclining in his office chair, tense, eyes tightly closed, intently focusing on each note. His wrist flicked back and forth with the song. Visitors are greeted with a firm southern handshake and a warm smile.
At the far side of his desk sit two metal folding chairs. Each has an accompanying black metal music stand. To the right, a single trombone is perched on its stand, waiting patiently. The image came from a calling found during Folsom’s first year in college. During a youth revival, “God called me to do this,” Folsom said.
The band began the rehearsal at the downward flick of Folsom’s wrist. His shoulders fell like a deep exhale. They began to jump as his hands danced before the bands’ harmony. The drummers left foot matched Folsom’s shoulder in sequence.
Their repetition kept the band in time. The song resonated through the building. People could be seen through the room’s window walking by. They paused, turning their ear to the pleasant melodies. Smiling, Folsom ended the rehearsal making sure everyone knew the next rehearsal would be at the Tift Theatre.
There, band students gathered on the stage. As more arrived they warmed up, playing short pieces. The volume of those warming up increased as the stage filled. They were competing for the tonal dominance, to hear their instrument over their peers. Folsom stood, hands crossed behind his back in front of the stage rocking on his heels. In 30 minutes, he would conduct the conclusion to nearly 50 years as a band director.
Folsom moved to the front row and his foot restlessly bounced on his crossed leg. His right hand involuntary soothed his twitching left hand. The room echoed in whispers as more people entered and seated. Folsom made his way onto the stage, quickly conducting a final warm up to harmonize the band before starting. The song was triumphant. The brass started low growing to a slow quarter beat followed by a quick eight. The woodwinds echoed this beat quietly humming over the dominant brass sections. Folsom twisted his wrist inward wavering slightly, reigning in the band. They fell silent. Walking away from the group of students, he spun his outstretched index finger around, allowing them to make their final preparations and adjustments before the concert started. He moved to the left stage. He leaned with one knee bent against the stage wall, his crossed hands in front of him in anticipation.
His students sat ready, focused, reading and rereading the sheet music before them. Folsom surveyed the crowd looking out across them, taking a swallow. It kept the butterflies at bay. The gaze fell onto his band. Looking across the sections one by one, starting at the far stage moving inward to the trumpet players before him. He rocked from one leg to another while pulling up his tuxedo’s sleeve revealing his watch. The large hand ran across the 12 signaling the start of the hour.
The music department’s director Dr. Suzan Roe addressed the audience. “Let me introduce, and get ready to stand because the ABAC concert band directed by Mr. Johnny Folsom is going to perform the National Anthem.”
The crowd stood, clapping for the director, drowning out Roe. Folsom‘s hands drew to his sides as he strode toward center stage. His left opened motioning upward twice. The band student complied. They stood with their mentor, facing the crowd. Stage lights glisten off polished instruments. The butterflies and the crowd’s claps of admiration are old friends of Folsom. This walk across the stage would be one of his last. The band performed the National Anthem to a standing audience, right hand over their hearts.
Folsom stepped down from his podium, giving a small bow and reaching his hand behind him, directing the audiences’ cheers and claps to his band. Using a faded yellow mic on the stage, he introduced and thanked his family.
“In addition, I have one of my first students, that I started back in 1974 when I began my band directing carrier in Geneva, Alabama. This young man ended up being my band captain his senior year, my last year, my eight years at Geneva high school. Joey Vowel, he’s come all the way from Jacksonville, Florida to be with me tonight. Please stand and be recognized,” Folsom said. He seemed on the verge of tears.
The second song in the concert echoed through the Tift Theatre, The song “Our Shadows Lengthen Like Our Yesterdays.” The song had one note in it that resonated through the entire song, a concert E flat. It was first heard from the clarinets and later from a trombone. This note represented you. You being a good person adding something to the world. The note alone doesn’t mean much, but it’s absence from the song is noticeable. Folsom’s concert E flat is the impact he’s made on his students for almost five decades.