by Lorie Lewis Ham
Teachers touch our lives in many ways–they inspire us, lead us toward a career we may never have considered, and help us learn to be good citizens of the world. However, seldom do they get the credit and recognition that they deserve. So here at KRL, we like to feature some of those amazing teachers.
Sam Gipson has been teaching for Kings Canyon Unified School District for seven years. He is the band director at Reedley High and Grant Middle school, and he is also the head marching band director at RHS, “which means I am responsible for all aspects of the marching band, including the drill, music, color guard, trips, etc.,” shared Sam. “I also direct the Concert Band, and lead the Reedley River Rats, a traditional Dixieland jazz band.”
Sam grew up in Reedley and was a in the band when he attended RHS. It was in fifth grade, while attending Alta School, that Sam first became involved in music. His interest in teaching music began during his junior year in college at Azusa Pacific University when he was hired to teach elementary band for Duarte Unified School District. “Halfway through my senior year, the full time director quit and went to another school, so the district asked me to step up and run the program for the remainder of the year. I worked some things out with my professors at APU and spent my last semester in undergrad teaching full time and finishing my degree!”
During his time in southern California, Sam remained in contact with some of his old band directors in Reedley. They let him know whenever a position opened up there. When he and his wife Caitlin began to have kids, they realized they didn’t want to raise their family in L.A., so Sam applied for three of the Reedley jobs and was hired
Sam’s typical work day begins early with band at RHS. In the fall, he runs the marching band, so it is very high pressure and high-energy right at the start of the day. After that, he teaches a new Music Composition class to the advanced band students, and then heads over to Grant for the afternoon, teaching the Grant Symphonic Band and three beginning classes.
What he loves best about his job is working with the kids. “They are energetic and fun. We really ask a lot of them in terms of time and effort commitment, and for the most part they do it with a positive attitude.” Sam especially enjoys being able to watch the kids grow from little sixth graders to the point of taking on leadership roles in high school marching band.
“Sam is an asset to our district,” stated Sharon Matsuzaki, Principal at Grand Middle School. “He is not only a gifted musician, but he’s committed to his students and their growth as musicians. The Grant band has grown and been recognized as a Superior Band in recent band festivals. He’s also had several students earn chairs in the Fresno County Honor Band.”
“Mr. Gipson was a very influential music teacher for me,” shared former RHS student Courtney Warkentin. “He was always willing to work with students outside of class to help us improve our skills or prepare for college auditions. Mr. Gipson made sure we were having fun and being challenged in our ensembles.”
Another former RHS student, Billiann Robertson, had Sam as her band director for a year, and for three years when she was in the Reedley River Rats. “He has remained one of the greatest teachers that I have known. Mr. Gipson has a way of seeing strengths in his students that I have not quite experienced in the same way with other teachers and professors I have had. He constantly gave us opportunities to get out of our comfort zones and grow as performers. Mr. Gipson possesses the rare ability to gain respect from his students without asking for it, and knows how to make learning enjoyable without compromising the material.”
“Sam is constantly looking for ways to make music fun and engaging for kids, whether they are brand new sixth graders at Grant, or high schoolers performing in RHS’s Dixieland group River Rats,” shared Jimmy Loomis, former assistant band director at RHS, and now Elementary Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator for KCUSD.
In his spare time, Sam is the music director at his church, the First Southern Baptist church in Reedley. However, one of his hobbies allows him to do something outside of music–he has written and performed stand-up comedy for two shows at the Reedley Opera House with the Reedley River City Theatre Co. “I think I enjoy the writing process of stand-up more than the performing. I like to write and refine the material, then do it once or twice in front of an audience to see how it goes over, then move on. I can’t imagine the comics who perform the same material night after night for a whole tour!”
“Sam Gipson is a joy to be around,” said Mark Norwood, RCTC’s artistic director, and KCUSD’s theatre arts coordinator. “He is funny and fun, hardworking and dedicated. He gives band teachers a great name!”
A favorite moment of Sam’s career at RHS involved one of his former band teachers, Burl Walter, and took place a few years ago. “The marching band was practicing in the morning marching around town rehearsing our street performance,” shared Sam. “I decided on a whim to take the band over by Burl’s house. We had the band halt and face his house, and played the street tune we were working on. He came out in his wheelchair and we stood there for about ten minutes playing our show music and the school songs. He loved it! It was great to be able to do that for him, and give the students an insight into the history and tradition of the band.”
Having gone through the program himself, Sam has seen things from both sides, as a student and a director. Sometimes they have to make tough decisions that are better for the program as a whole but aren’t popular with individuals. “We always have to come back to the fact that we, as band directors, are first and foremost here to create musicians.”
As to Sam’s future plans, “Teaching band in Reedley is too fun to consider doing anything else!”