It all started when Mike Merck was in fourth grade. He didn’t like playing sports with other kids, but he enjoyed playing the snare drum. It’s a unique instrument to specialize in, with origins tracing back to military use. For him, it became a passion.
As Merck grew older, that passion led to winning the John Philip Sousa award, a national award for high school band students. Each band director across the country can award it to one senior each year, recognizing musicianship, dependability, loyalty and cooperation.
“It was just an activity like playing sports, but instead of sports, it was an instrument,” said Merck, 62, who graduated from East Hall High School in 1973. “It was a great activity to do in school.”
He didn’t win it alone, though. His cousin, Terry Merck, was a part of the same band and won the award the same year. To their knowledge, that’s the only time it’s happened.
Terry’s instrument of choice is the trombone, which he began playing in eighth grade. He said he’s been a part of some band ever since, the most recent of which was called Station Lights.
“Just about one and a half years ago, I quit playing with the last band I had started,” said Terry, 63. “But some of the members are looking at getting back together and getting it started again. You just end up missing it.”
That two other cousins in the family won the award this year may have something to do with those feelings returning. Katherine Merck and Noah Merck continued the family trend by winning the award for 2018.
For Katherine, who started playing the marimba in eighth grade, it came as a surprise.
She said “it’s always a hope to be recognized,” but didn’t see it coming. As a sophomore at East Hall, she became a section leader and gained leadership experience, one of the requirements of the John Philip Sousa award.
“Band has definitely been the biggest influence in my life so far, and I was beyond honored to get that award,” said Katherine, 18. “I loved how the music always moved me and how I always got lost in it. You would start to perform and everything else would just go away. It was just you and your people around you, and you just played your hearts out.”
She’s enrolled at the University of North Georgia and recently was accepted into the nursing program. While she said it’s going to be hard balancing music and nursing, being around her brother in band has made her want to join the indoor marching band in college.
Earning the Sousa award was extra special for Noah. While he didn’t expect it, either, he was given the award by his father, Daniel Merck, who won the award at East Hall in 1987. Daniel has been the band director at Chestatee High School for 17 years, and his son has been around it most of his life.
That’s how Noah came to love the bassoon. When he was young, he spent time after school in the high school band room. He watched as students practiced, but one senior he saw constantly practicing stood out and motivated him to do the same.
“He’s definitely not one to pick me just because I am his son, but it was definitely rewarding to see how he thinks of me as a musician,” said Noah, 18. “Now we’ve both gotten it, which is really cool. And the whole community kind of knows us as a family anyway, so I think everyone thought it was cool he was able to choose me, too.”
Noah will attend George Washington University in Washington this fall and said he hopes to continue playing in the orchestra there.
Giving the award to his son was special for Daniel, too, who said it was “well-deserved.” Apart from that, he was lost for words.
“I tell my school kids, and I even tell my own kids, I remember growing up, there was always music being played,” said Daniel, 48, Terry Merck’s youngest brother. “We always had music around. And when we started getting musical instruments, it just kind of came natural.”
And it came naturally at a young age. Daniel went to a band concert when he was in third grade and knew from that moment he wanted to be a band director. He went home that day, stood in a chair and pretended to conduct with a drinking straw in hand.
Even though the path may not have been that clear for all of them, for each person in the Merck family — cousins, son or brother — the John Philip Sousa award came after much hard work.
“I think it just came to us because we cared about it and we were committed,” Daniel said. “Any musical instrument you play, you just have to have that commitment to practice and want to get better. And I think all of us just had that drive that we wanted to be good at what we were doing.”