Columbus may have a tuba prodigy on its hands.
Mark Porter, 14, a freshman at Columbus High School, has been playing the tuba for just two years but managed to snag the Best Male Musician designation and first-chair tuba role in the top band at Itawamba Community College’s 535-student band camp this summer.
“It doesn’t happen hardly ever that a freshman even makes the top band. Then to get best overall musician is maybe a one-out-of-100 chance,” said Dennis Cox, guest director for the red band at ICC’s summer band camp and band director at Desoto Central High School.
ICC hosts the largest summer band camp in the state, for students who want to hone skills to take back to their middle and high schools in the fall. Students audition for spots in the white, blue or red band; the best players earn a spot in the red band.
Porter is deep in music now, but less than three years ago he was more interested in art. When that got boring, he made the switch to music. His father, Dr. Steve Porter, plays the trumpet, but Mark chose the big horn.
“I chose it because the parts are pretty easy in the band. Of course now I kinda regret it,” he says with a smile.
Still, Mark takes his music no less serious. He’s picked up the bass trombone as well and practices both instruments for an hour each on his own time every day. Add that to the half hour he spends playing in class and it adds up to more than 17 hours of playing.
He credits the quality time spent practicing with helping him claim the top spot in the top band at ICC’s camp.
“I had been practicing a lot and a lot of people were out of practice,” said Mark. “I don’t have any real advantage in pure skill. It was just because I’ve been practicing.”
Porter’s instructors might take issue with his claim that his skill didn’t give him an advantage. James Merriweather, jazz band director at CHS and assistant band director at Lee Middle School, has been working with Porter since he began playing and says he’s hungry for growth.
“Since he started in the seventh grade, he comes back every day with questions about the tuba and different things that deal with music,” said Merriweather.
The jazz instructor says Porter is a perfect illustration that “you never know when you’re dealing with a student how far they’re going to go.”
Dona Porter, Mark’s mother, says she was surprised two years ago when Mark chose to delve into music, but not that was recognized at camp.
“He’s very passionate about his music and he practices to make his performance pay off. His hard work is evident,” she said.
Mark, who hopes to major in music at Mississippi State University and eventually make a living playing music, says the recognition of earning first chair in the red band may bolster his reputation, but it won’t earn him anything.
“When you get to the audition room it’s more about how you play,” he said.
To stay as sharp as possible, Porter practices at home on pieces more difficult than those he’s asked to play in class. A fan of classical and baroque music with limited interest in popular tunes, he studies and plays symphonic music. When he saves up enough money for a good recording device, he intends to record himself playing all parts in two-, three- and four-part ensembles and synching up the recordings to test his timing.
Porter is just as focused on his academics. In fact, he’s taken on an increased workload in hopes of graduating early, which won’t leave him enough time to practice with the CHS marching band, although he hopes to join the band next year.
Mark Porter has delved head first into a budding musical career. The 14 year old is the son of Dr. Steve Porter and Dona Porter of Columbus. He is the grandson of Ellis and Mary Don Koonce of Tunica.