Music is an art that is enjoyed by many, yet created by few. As it serves as the foundation for much of HBCU culture. Those who study it are many of the most persistent and passionate students on their campus.
Graduating senior Johantavious Austin falls into this category, as his commitment to performing arts sets him apart from the average Hornet.
“When you are reading notes, everybody does not understand it,” he said. “Everybody does not know treble clef. Everybody does not understand those five lines and four spaces.”
Austin grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, as the third child of his single mother, Estella Austin. Though his family originates from Selma, Alabama, they relocated shortly before he was born.
He remembers having a childhood filled with societal pressure and responsibility as he was the only male in his household. Fortunately, in the sixth grade, he found a passion that would serve as his emotional outlet for many years to come – playing the clarinet.
“Having to deal with that, and just growing up in a place that was not good all the time, I had to learn to shut it out,” Austin said. “I had to try to grow out of it and not be a product of my environment.”
He attended Arthur H. Parker High School, a historical landmark known as the first public school for African Americans in Jefferson County.
At this time Austin continued his love for the clarinet through the marching band, where he became an award-winning drum major and respected musician in the local community. Though he emerged himself in band activity, he admits to having slacked academically. While he shined on the stage and on the field, he preferred the shadows of the classroom.
“I was just doing enough to pass, I do not know what was wrong with me back then,” he said. “I was really quiet so my teachers did not notice me but the band was my outlet. When I was in the band room I was a whole different person.”
Austin graduated high school in 2017 and accepted a scholarship from James Oliver, Ed.D., and The Mighty Marching Hornets soon after. His commitment to the university, and enrollment as a music major, have also led to involvement with the symphonic band and additional academic funding. He was, and still is, extremely grateful for the chances that ASU has taken on him as music has granted him exposure to places far beyond the campus.
“ASU just had a lot of hidden opportunities that I wanted to be a part of,” he said. “We have an accredited music program so getting a degree from ASU really means something… It has just been a blessing because this instrument has taken me everywhere and all I had to do was focus and practice.”
Outside of The Mighty Marching Hornets, Austin takes part in Wind Ensemble, Kappa Kappa Psi National Honorary Band Fraternity, pledged Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., and much more on campus. He has memberships with the Alabama Education Association, National Education Association, and more professional organizations as he wishes to pursue a career in musical education. Austin has benefitted from each of his extracurricular engagements as they all offer some sort of personal or professional growth. Most of all, he appreciates the discipline and commitment that the band has granted.
“You could easily fall out but the band forces you to practice every day, do it every day to the best of your ability,” he said. “You see how we march in the stadium, that ain’t overnight. It is really dedicated hard work.”
He also holds dearly the professionalism and community brought through Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, while also the musicianship and leadership by Kappa Kappa Psi. It is this Greek involvement that has especially allowed Austin to mature throughout his Hornet years. As he grew in the community he simultaneously grew out of his shell.
“I grew as a man,” he said. “I was like a little kid before. I came in at 18 and I am 22 now. I can say that I have changed a lot.”
Austin has yet to experience the social side of ASU’s major events considering he is often engaged in band activity. Because of this, many of his favorite Hornet memories are nontraditional or spontaneous. He most fondly remembers attending the free performance by Rick Ross that took place in the spring of 2021. Not only was this shortly after his membership into Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, but was also one of his few moments as a member of an audience.
His Hornet experience has been maximized by the support that he has received from the faculty of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. As COVPA relies on intimate connections between its instructors and performers, Austin insists that it would have been impossible to leave without such strong relationships.
“I have had a lot of teachers that have really motivated me but I would say that at the top is Dr. Oliver,” he said. “He has helped me all five years. He kept me in school, gave me a scholarship, and referred me to get my graduate degree.”
Thanks to the help of Oliver, Austin will begin his master’s of education in musical education at ASU only three weeks after his commencement ceremony. He would also like to thank Micahel Zelenak, Ph.D., for his willingness to help when needed, Carly Johnson, Ph.D., for assistance with enrolling for courses, and Katrina Phillips, Ph.D., for her detail orientation which has improved his musicianship.
Austin has also faced many troubles during his time as a Hornet. While he has received the utmost support from those of COVPA, he expresses that this is not the same for all student services within the university. This is a major problem within the Office of Financial Aid.
“They need a better communication system,” he said. “There should be people there that willingly want to help because at the end of the day this is real money, this is my tuition, this is thousands of dollars that we are dealing with.”
He was also set back by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. As society was forced into uncomfortable confinement, a bit of his academic and professional drive had been lost.
“It messed me up a little bit but it did not throw me off,” he said. “Work stopped. School stopped. It is like everybody took a pause. We could not go outside. It was very impactful on me, but it did not affect my will to want to graduate.”
Through these hardships, Austin has learned the importance of applying oneself in any situation. He has personally seen the good that comes from such application as he has found his method to manage time, create a professional network, and maintain his academics. With a bit of perseverance and grit, one can achieve all that they dream of.
“ASU gives you opportunities,” he said. “If you check your email there are opportunities out there, you have just got to apply yourself. You can not just expect everything to come to you.”
He most appreciates ASU for its commitment to providing opportunities to students. Whether through career fairs or personal referrals, Austin stands on the belief that ASU will set you on the right path for your career. He especially has benefitted from these efforts as the faculty of COVPA has guided him to this point, and coached him for his life beyond the Hornet’s Nest.
“The teachers and faculty and staff are really caring,” he said. “It is really small and close-knit, so most of them will look out for you as long as you work heard and do your assignments. ASU has really good teachers, I can say that.”
As he continues his education at the graduate level, Austin plans for a fruitful career in teaching. He remembers being introduced to the wonders of the art as a child and wishes to enlighten the next generation in the same way. As he values the connections that music has encouraged for him, he believes the best way to exhibit his passion is to spread it.
“I like putting my knowledge in someone else, just teaching them like how I learned,” he said. “When you become a musician you get a certain mindset that everybody cannot relate to anymore. You join a sub category of people. You open a whole other door for yourself and that is what I want to give to other people.”
For now, he will spread his passion through encouraging words. Austin advises that incoming students hoping to study music stay focused throughout their studies considering that the courses and concepts are sequential. It will be extremely difficult to be successful in a course if one did not properly apply themselves in its prerequisite. Not only that, but your inability will be on constant display through applied learning, semesterly performances, senior screens, and much more.
“Practice, hone in, and focus because it will not be easy.” he said.