Eric Combs Wins ‘Good Neighbor’ Award for Contributions to Music Education

Oct 4, 2019

Credit Eric Combs

Carbondale, IL – As the band director of Richland County Middle School for 12 years, Eric Combs uses music education to inspire students to reach for their goals and to always keep climbing. 

There are many students in this rural farming community of about 7,000 with a 67% poverty rate who would like to participate in the band program but can’t afford it. Over the years, Eric purchased several band instruments in good condition to loan out to students, mainly through grant money, and put this small-town middle school on the map by winning back to back national awards and being recognized by the U.S. Congress twice for excellence in music education.

WSIU Public Broadcasting, is pleased to announce Eric Combs as the new individual recipient of the monthly ‘Good Neighbor’ Award as a part of WSIU’s One Region, All Neighbors initiative. Inspired by Fred Rogers, the campaign recognizes people who exemplify kindness and compassion and make a positive impact in their communities.

“I love my job. I get to go to work every day and play music with kids who are anxious to learn their instruments. The school now owns 110 of them. One year I had as many as 70 loaned out at once. I love working with these children and sharing my passion for instrumental music with them. I am fortunate to be able to be a part of their lives. It is a joy and a privilege to work for the Richland County School District,” said awardee Eric Combs.  

The band program at Richland County Middle School in Olney has had some success in the past few years. They continually get perfect First Superior ratings at the state band contest. For four out of the last five years, they have won the Best Communities for Music Education Award through the NAAM Foundation, an award given annually to about 100 individual schools nationwide. Eric was also the recipient of a the WTHI TV-10 (Terre Haute, Indiana) Golden Apple Award last year.

I love working with these children and sharing my passion for instrumental music with them. I am fortunate to be able to be a part of their lives. It is a joy and a privilege.

Eric has developed a curriculum where every student receives individualized instruction and assignments so that they can progress at their own pace. He does this because some students are not able to take their instruments home and practice due to living conditions. He also gives free private lessons weekly to any students who want them throughout the school year. The local community college provides free tuition to any students who plays in the band. There have been students in his programs who borrowed instruments and went on to get an associate’s degree for free because of it.

“I had a rough start as a music teacher and felt pretty lost. It is my goal to help others, including new music teachers. The band directing profession is lacking in a solid beginner band curriculum, and we all seem to have to develop our own from scratch, which is very stressful and time-consuming. I hope to alleviate this stress for teachers in need,” said Combs.

Eric has written two curriculum books for beginner bands. All of his materials, including his music education curriculum books, are completely free. He created, a website where music teachers can share their own free materials. He has also developed the Illinois Band Director Job Openings site. All his projects are self-funded. His curriculum is now being used in Taiwan, Australia, Canada, Nova Scotia, and other countries around the world.

Expressing his views on being a good neighbor and what that means to him, Eric said, “It simply means pitching in and doing your best to help as many people as you can. For me, that means striving to be the best that I can be in the classroom to benefit my students, and it means sharing my free materials with band directors globally to help them in their own situations.”

He has also developed a program called Practice With a Purpose in which he gives private lessons over the summer and donates a portion to the local food pantry called The Master's Hands. The amount donated is up to the students as it's based on their practice time. He is also helping fund and raise money for a full-time band instructor in a religious orphanage in El Motatal Comayagua, Honduras, so that they can have a band program and learn to play instrumental music.

“Recently I've learned of all the programs Eric has created and adopted throughout the years that not only help his band students but also those less fortunate. He has put in hours upon hours obtaining grants for music instruments and allows students to use these for free so they are able to enjoy and participate in the band even if their parents cannot afford a rental instrument,” said nominator Brandy Jellison, a music booster officer who is associated with Eric Combs professionally. “Not only do the students respect and look up to him, but most adults feel the same way. He is always thinking of innovative ways to motivate his students and make them reach their full potential.”

About One Region All Neighbors

WSIU’s One Region, All Neighbors campaign is inspired by the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. For more than thirty years, Fred Rogers reached into homes and hearts with his children’s public television program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Fred Rogers’ career demonstrated the power of kindness and transformed our understanding of childhood. His legacy lives on through Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. The spirit of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood continues with Fred Rogers Productions, creator of award-winning programs such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Peg+Cat, and Odd Squad, which are broadcast daily on the PBS KIDS line-up on WSIU Public Television. Activities, interactive games, and videos associated with these programs are available online.