Noted Leader: James GoodhueApril 14, 2018
Story by Allen Laman
Photos by Marlena Sloss
There’s an old adage that those who can’t, teach.
Don’t tell that to Jasper Band Program Director James Goodhue.
Known for his intimidating, no-nonsense approach to leading students at Jasper High School and Jasper Middle School, the 53-year-old Jasper man’s career has spanned generations in which he cemented the program’s reputation as one of the state’s annual marching band powerhouses. Behind the dark circles under his eyes and the disheveled grey hair on his head is a man who has accomplished more than he could have ever imagined when he began working with the bands as an assistant director in 1990.
But there’s another side of James not many have seen.
Every now and again, he trades in his khaki pants and Wildcat windbreaker for a tuxedo and bow tie, drives an hour southwest to Evansville and does what he loves to do just because he can.
James is an auxiliary clarinet and bass clarinet player for the Evansville Philharmonic Orchestra, an outfit that consists of about 80 world-class musicians from some of the most prestigious music schools in the country. It features violins and violas, trumpets and tubas, flutes and oboes, and more.
James is called to play when the group’s contracted clarinet members can’t make a performance, and over the past few years, the number of concerts he has participated in has grown due to circumstances that keep the regular players away from the theater. Some of those elite musicians grow tired of playing the same song over and over again. But it doesn’t matter how many times James plays a particular piece. He can play a song a thousand times and never grow tired of it.
Performing professionally is a whole other world for him, one free of the responsibilities and stresses that come with leading a consistently great high school band program and assisting at the middle school.
Before an EPO performance of the music from John Williams movies Sunday, the typically emotionless James smiled and waved at friends.
“It’s like you have a different life,” James said in an earlier interview. “When I go do that, it feels like I’m a different person than when I’m here (at school).”
Over the past year, he has played in about 10 performances with the EPO. He admits his playing ability has dipped slightly since he was a contracted member, not an auxiliary one, with the group in the early 1980s, but said he has retained much of his talent with time.
He doesn’t need to regularly practice extensively to learn the group’s songs — he might glance at the sheet music during a break at school — and he doesn’t arrive early on days of performances to rehearse more than he is required.
James is calm, cool and confident in his skills, and encourages his students to be that way too. He’s proof enough to his students that the music doesn’t have to stop when they graduate and leave him.
How he came to a position where he juggles his professional playing and school directing — an uncommon marrying of talents — is a tale worth telling.
James was born in Louisville, Kentucky, and later moved with his family to Owensboro, Kentucky, where he began playing cello as a fourth-grader. His parents, Ilene and Johnny, had no musical background beyond listening to Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and other country music artists in their home.
But, in his mother’s mind, James believes something said that if she wanted to be a modern parent, she should make her son learn to play music. After plucking and bowing the cello for about a year, he picked up the clarinet for the first time in fifth grade.
Perhaps surprisingly, James didn’t fall in love with performing right away. He recalled he just wasn’t into it, but had friends in the school band, so he went along with the motions. Heck, he doesn’t even remember if he was any good at first.
When he thinks back on it, though, his ears always heard music differently than others. Growing up, he remembers paying more attention to the rhythms, styles and colors of music than his peers.
As a second-grader, he listened to “Jesus Christ Superstar” from beginning to end dozens of times, writing every note from every song into his memory. He listened to “Bohemian Rhapsody” by rock band Queen “a thousand times before it was ever on the radio.”
While playing bass clarinet during his sophomore year of high school, a young director at Owensboro High School named Geoff Carlton took James under his wing and pushed him to be better. It’s where James discovered his affinity for mastering his craft. Years later, Carlton remembers James as an awkward kid who had promise.
“He could really play,” Carlton said in a recent phone interview. “I could tell he had a huge amount of talent the first time I heard him play. He was pretty amazing.”
He was so good, in fact, that he qualified for the Kentucky All-State Honor Band that year as an underclassman — a rare feat.
While he was there, he met a senior girl — one of the best flute players in the state that year — who he then dated for six months. James believes that chance encounter set him on the path to musical success.
“And that thing right there is probably the reason I do what I do today,” James said. “Because of the girl. After that, I would go to all kinds of things like that. I loved the music part of it, but I was going to try to meet people.”
He graduated from the University of Evansville in 1986 and completed his graduate schooling at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign two years later.
All throughout his formal education he loved to perform, and public school teaching never crossed his mind. Becoming a college professor was appealing to him until he saw how little money his friends and peers made teaching courses. He loved music, but he wanted to live decently, too. And first and foremost, he needed a job.
So, James applied for a Jasper assistant directing position centered on the band’s woodwind section fresh out of school, but was shot down. He later landed an assistant directing job at Fountain Central High School, north of Terre Haute, and worked there until the Jasper assistant job reopened a couple years later.
This time around, he applied and got it. James then took over as director in 1997 and he hasn’t looked back since.
He currently lives in Jasper with his wife of 20 years, Heather, and their two sons, Jace — who is a freshman — and Jack — a junior. Both boys play saxophone.
The dominance displayed by James’ marching bands in the years since at the Indiana State School Music Association’s annual marching band contest is more than impressive. Making it to the state finals is no longer a goal for the rural Indiana school — it’s a yearly expectation.
James is quick to say winning was a Marching Wildcats staple even before he arrived at the school. But since he joined the program in 1990, the group has strung together 28 consecutive state championship appearances, translating to a state title in 2012, four runner-up distinctions and more top-five placements than not.
The high school concert band has displayed similar prowess during his time with the group, finishing in the top 16 groups in the state in 20 of the last 25 years, including a third-place finish in 2003.
James hasn’t reaped that success by mincing words or taking his foot off the gas when things were going great. The students closest to him — the ones who have been around the band for their entire lives and took personal lessons with him throughout their playing careers — understand why his rough, tough-love teaching methods yield results.
“I know that if he was not how he is, I would not do a lot of the things I do,” JHS junior clarinet player Vince Obermeyer said of the extra activities he participates in, such as honor band. “I think everyone performs better whenever they’re under the pressure that he puts on them. Maybe they don’t realize that in a lot of cases, but it’s a sad thing that they don’t because I know it for a fact.”
But James does pull back the intensity from time to time to fill a mentor role for his students. Obermeyer’s sister, Courtney, is a senior saxophone player in the high school band and said she has seen that lighter side, asking about his students’ plans after high school and even cracking jokes with them.
James loves that job, but he still loves playing at a high level with the EPO, too.
It’s also a way for him to show his students that, unlike athletes, musical muscle is not all lost with time.
Many high school band members — even the most talented ones — don’t continue their playing careers after walking across the stage at graduation. James’ message to the kids isn’t that they need to aspire to play in a competitive orchestra. It’s that they can keep playing their instruments to any degree they want their entire lives and nurture a skill that, by the time they are seniors in high school, they have been building for nearly half their lives.
“They love it, and they have good memories of it, but it’s really sad they get to be that good (and give it up),” James said of the students’ relationship to band.
Joining college pep bands or quintets, community bands and even just playing for fun in their free time are all better alternatives than packing away their instruments forever.
Because even all these years later, James has no plans of stopping his own playing career.
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