Dr. Myra Rhoden: Limitless Possibility

Her story begins in a charming and nostalgic time, long before iTunes, DVRs, and fragmented families going in 20 different directions. It was a time when families looked forward to getting together regularly. With the amount of love in this family, it certainly didn’t take his delicious baking or overwhelming prodding to gather everyone together. Routinely, he would gather the family to watch a music performance on the color television.

August 2019

August 2019
Photos by Marie Thomas
Makeup by Alex Lucas

He was a church musician and wanted his family to enjoy concerts as if they were attending in person. As he relaxed in his familiar recliner, family members would sit on the sofa or in the dining room, which also had a clear view of the TV. It was a time when “on-demand” meant you had to be on time to see the big event. And then you prayed that the antennae signal would be strong enough to last the entire show. No matter what the event was, Grandfather made sure everyone was there to enjoy and appreciate the joy and unity that music brought to his family… especially his precious granddaughter Myra.

When she speaks of him, and of these precious family memories, her commanding band director voice that I have heard countless times suddenly softens. Her eyes twinkle, and her contagious smile could illuminate even the crankiest of souls. And even though you’re in the company of a juggernaut of a music educator, you discover that there is this wholesome backstory that is wondrously inspirational. Whether it’s her retelling the memories of her grandfather reading Brown Bear to her, or memorizing poems together from his book of poetry, she lovingly acknowledges this man for passing the baton and showing her how music creates limitless possibility in the world around you.

“Myra was a leader of her peers and because of this she participated in church activities, school programs, learned to play the piano and played for a local church. She was a member of the high school band since eighth grade.”  – Margaret Alexander, Myra’s mother

As a teenager, she played clarinet in band under the baton of William Brassfield at Tuskegee Institute High School. While she enjoyed her carefree years of high school band, her grandfather was getting used to having more channels on his television. The community-at-large was still adjusting to government mandates that affected changes in the logistics and culture of education, including grappling with desegregation, districting, and socioeconomic discrepancies. Yet, within the music department at her high school, it was nothing but joy and unity. This palpable oneness through music further affirmed her grandfather’s wisdom. Just as her grandfather showed her a world beyond his wood-paneled walls through a television screen and poetry books, her band director showed her that there was limitless potential, adventure, and opportunities to make music beyond her local community.

With her hand on her Grandad’s shoulder, Myra is in the back row

Myra realized that her love of and talent within music was something that she wanted to pursue professionally as she began her journey toward music education. Her lineage is steeped in a long line of well-educated professionals and musicians, so it should be of no surprise that she earned her degrees from prestigious and notable universities with well-respected music departments. Myra graduated with a Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts degrees in Music Education from the University of Alabama and earned her Doctorate of Musical Arts from the University of Southern Mississippi. In her early career, she had no idea how beautifully she would follow in his footsteps, passing on her traditions of limitless potential to her student musicians.

Myra playing the piano

Youngblood first-year teachers stereotypically possess a ton of idealism and determination. Myra was no exception. She accepted her first teaching job at a middle school in Tuscaloosa, which was a general music position because ironically, this school did not have a band program. Suffice it to say that her first year teaching was the last year in this school’s history that band was nonexistent. She advocated for an additional extracurricular after-school band program, which she quickly created and grew in one year into six dedicated periods of band instruction across all grade levels during the school day. When asked how she was able to pull that off in such a short amount of time, she humbly replied, “I just considered all the possibilities.” No, limitless possibilities.

Errol Jr and Myra’s 4th wedding anniversary photo

Then, as fate would have it, she ended up at Fayette County High School working with Kenny Beard. She is beyond thankful for his many leadership lessons, but one of the greatest lessons she quickly learned as a transplant from Alabama was what made a Fayette County kid so special and unique. Much like her experience at her first job where she saw opportunity, she recognized the special qualities of the Fayette County kid and all of the positive attributes that go with that designation. She noticed that Fayette County kids genuinely cared for each other and that Fayette County values character education as much as academic education.

She recognized that the school system played a huge part in fostering unity within the community. Fayette County kids knew how to win, how to lose, but most importantly, how to support each other in either circumstance. It was a bigger town south of Atlanta, but it had all of the small-town qualities she desired, not just for her own career, but also for life with her husband, Errol Jr., and their beloved son, Errol III.

Twenty-four years later, she remains a dedicated music educator widely known and highly respected as Fayette County High School’s Band Director. In her band room is shelf after shelf of “hardware,” which is educator-speak for trophies and awards. To say her reputation and resume are gilded is an understatement. Yet despite her permanent address in the band director’s stratosphere, she humbly arrives for her Fayette Woman interview, wearing casual jeans and a fashionable blouse, and offers her life story. After all, she had just come from her office where she was working on next year’s halftime show.

Erroll III, one of 125 students selected nationally for the US Army’s All American Band, was recognized on the same night as Myra was awarded the distinguished National Association for Music Education’s 2018 Band Director of the Year award.

Perhaps when you read that word “stratosphere” in the last paragraph, you may have considered it a hyper exaggeration. But truly, you must know that this is an entirely accurate word reflecting the consistent and remarkable pinnacles in her career. One of those recent achievements was when Myra was named the National Association for Music Education’s (NAfME) 2018 Band Director of the Year, although she was completely unaware that she was even in contention for this prestigious recognition.

She was already in attendance at the award ceremony with her family because her son was being recognized for playing tuba in the U.S. Army All-American Marching Band. Little did she know that this event intended to honor both mother and son. Her entire family managed to keep it a secret as they all knew well in advance what was about to happen. As the spokesperson for NAfME announced her as the national winner and displayed her picture on the large screen, she still didn’t realize or believe what was happening. Yet with humble grace and class, she rose among the thunderous applause and accepted her esteemed award and recognition. Another chapter in a life of limitless possibility.

And the limitlessness continues. Myra may not have known ahead of time about being chosen as Band Director of the Year in 2018, but early in her career, she recognized that she was a rare woman band director in a predominantly male field. She also noticed that certain band instruments seemed to attract a specific gender, while others did not. This was certainly not because of directors’ intentions or teaching principles. It had simply happened that way for decades. As she spoke with her husband about these inadvertent inequalities, he asked her what she was going to do about it.

Drawing upon her innate ability to create limitless possibility in a vacuum, she created the Athena Music and Leadership Camp for Girls taught by educated and dedicated female instrumentalists and band directors from all over the country. Her first Athena camp was held just over a decade ago on the campus of University of West Georgia. After several years, the camp outgrew the space. No longer only in Georgia, the camp has now expanded into Chicago and Minnesota. Universities, such as Reinhardt, throw open their doors to host this camp to support her vision of equality, opportunity, leadership, and musicianship for young women in band. Athena’s tagline, “Empowering Young Women Through Music” is personified with each passing year.

The FCHS band was invited to play at the Georgia Music Educator’s Association. Myra joins saxophone soloist Sam Skelton, Mark Camphouse, a guest conductor, composer, and George Mason University professor, and Assistant Band Director J. Andrew McMillen on stage.

Beyond the study of music, young women musicians are also encouraged with motivational speeches and workshops to foster self-assuredness when they return to the mixed-gender setting. Myra retells a story during a recent camp of a young trumpet player struggling with earning respect as section leader simply because most of her section is boys. After her experience at the Athena Camp, she is now equipped to go back to her leadership role in her band with effective teamwork strategies and a healthy boost of self-confidence.

The beauty of limitless potential is that it’s like a candle flame: you can freely pass it on and on, and your own flame will never diminish.

After two hours of feverishly writing notes to capture as many details of this amazing woman’s story as I could get, I had to stop and ask, “Are you even aware of the magnitude of your accomplishments, of what a trailblazer you are?”

I’m confident that the heartfelt smile that ran across her face was reminiscent of the expression she had when they announced her name as National Band Director of the Year.

She simply replied, “No,” paused, then added, “Am I? Wow… OK!”

I recanted some of the major highlights of her career, and she unassumingly added, “It never occurred to me to not to believe in myself. I always knew that I could find ways to solve problems.”

“Myra has an incredible work ethic. She LOVES all of her students and brings passion and professionalism to her work. She has high expectations and motivates others to accomplish goals with her visionary leadership style.” – Patrice Beamon, friend

Every day in her Fayette County High School band room she continues the traditions taught to her long ago, encouraging her students to discover their own limitless potential through music. Like her grandfather with his television, she requires that her kids gather at the same time so that they can experience joy and unity through music. But instead of being inspired by watching, she takes her young musicians to places where they are the ones on the television screen for others to watch. Her bands have performed all over the country, marching in significant parades, performing at notable festivals, winning countless competitions. They have even traveled outside the country to London, England.

This year’s Athena camp staff at Reinhardt College. From left-right: Michelle Gibson, Rose Wilmot, Paula Williams, Hollie Pritchard, Michelle Rickard, Carol Doemel, Zandra Bell-McRoy, Myra, Tonya Mitchell, Nivek Anderson, Lisa Sayre, Jennifer Theisen, Paula Krupiczewicz, Ellie Jenkins, and Juana Alzaga

Being in the band teaches a variety of positive personal skills and qualities, such as time management and teamwork, but it’s also her platform to bring young musicians to the places she only was able to watch on television when she was their age. She fondly remembers the stories of two students in her career who have benefitted from this “go there and play” philosophy. Early in her career, one student who had been on a bus for barely 15 minutes clearly thought that they had left Alabama, though they were just on the other side of town. Years later, while watching Florida State University perform on another high school campus, one of her students was rendered speechless because she had never seen an auditorium before. Limitless possibility all because of music.

If you ask this dynamo educator what’s next, she will instantly tell you recruiting for her band program, preparing their next show, and then carving out time to sit on her beloved deck and finding a great restaurant to enjoy some fried shrimp. For her bigger picture dreams, she would like to see her Athena Music and Leadership expand into every major city in the United States. And she never stops thinking about where else she can take her band to teach priceless lessons of limitless potential.

“It was like when my grandmother and mother gave me the best present I ever received. I was a freshman in college, and she gave me a Mazda 323 hatchback with no radio. It didn’t matter that it didn’t have a radio. I now had freedom. And, this music girl eventually got a radio installed!”

“Being the son of a band director is absolutely amazing. My entire life has been surrounded by music. My mother use to joke that while I was in the womb I would kick along with the bass drum. Having a great musical mind in the household is amazing because I can always share my musical thoughts with her knowing she understands.” – Errol Rhoden III

She dreams of flying to all of the iconic destinations in the world that she longs to see before she eventually retires. After she passes the baton of limitless potential to the next generation, she assures me that she will gather her family to watch something amazing on the television in her future beach house.

This ‘Band-family’ got together for the last College Battle of the Bands at the GA Dome before it was demolished. From top-down: Errol Rhoden Jr., Jay King Jr., Joyce Rhoden, Errol Rhoden III, Shannon Payne, Ashley Payne, Myra, Jazmine Roland, Cheryl Roland, Cameron Johnson, Antwan Koger, Margaret Alexander, Mikaylia Payne, Michelle Koger, and Jaylen Koger.

She has come a long way since the days of sitting at her grandfather’s side, watching an event with her family in a love-filled ranch style home at the edge of Tuskegee University, where her mom still lives today.

Note by note, degree by degree, dream by dream, she recreates the same culture of limitless possibility for her “kids” that was once gifted to her. Yesteryear it was a family room, today it’s a band room, which one could argue is synonymous.

I wondered if she is naturally competitive, with an overwhelming desire to win and add more hardware to her overstocked shelves.

“Yes, no, I don’t know,” she humbly replies with a smile.

Myra is sure to define her concept of competition and winning to her award-winning marching band students

“This week, you just have to be better than you were last week. The only competition you have is with yourself. If you can put your head on the pillow and know that you did your best, then I’ll take that.”

This is Myra’s story, beginning in a charming and nostalgic time, long before iTunes, DVRs, and fragmented families going in twenty different directions. It’s the story of an indomitable and graciously unpretentious woman who believes that you don’t always have to have something to say. Instead, you should be focused and too busy setting a high bar and working toward your own achievements.

It’s the story of a woman, a teacher, a mom and wife who truly enjoys her close-knit family, a love of collecting Hallmark Christmas ornaments, and who holds immense pride in her son who is currently playing tuba in the Disney All-American College Band.

It’s a beautiful story of one woman’s traditions: music, teaching, and dreaming. Myra’s story, both the completed chapters and the blank pages yet to be written, is a timeless classic of love, leadership, and limitless possibility.