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Nixa Graduate Excels Despite Upheaval Just Before Senior Year

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Michele Skalicky
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Devin Strayhorn has had a pretty incredible senior year.  The former Nixa student, who graduated last weekend, got to perform in Carnegie Hall in New York City earlier this year.  He's won a prestigious scholarship, and he earned the title of best tuba player in Missouri.  That’s despite being placed into foster care at the end of his junior year.

Strayhorn said it happened after an argument between his dad and his younger brother who he said “could be very argumentative.”  Even though he said the discipline his dad handed out was “excessive,” he doesn’t believe he and his two brothers should have been removed from the home.  Still, he knows there are opportunities he might not have had if he hadn’t moved in with his great aunt and uncle in Nixa.

Strayhorn decided that, even though he was placed into foster care, he was going to make the best of it.

He’s been able to get a job and a car.  He auditioned for and earned the top spot in the All State Band tuba section, and in September he was called to the counselor’s office for a letter that had been sent to the school inviting him to audition for the Honors Performance Series.  He did some research, liked what he saw, auditioned and was accepted, which he said was a big surprise to him.

"Who would've thought some kid out of Nixa who has no formal lessons or any training could, all of a sudden, just be playing at Carnegie Hall," said Strayhorn.

He spent five days in New York City, practicing eight hours a day, learning from the tuba players who earned the five spots above him, sightseeing and, on the final day, playing at Carnegie Hall.

"And that was absolutely amazing.  It was something I'll never forget.  Being in the hall and the ornateness and...the very grandeur of the moment--it's astonishing," he said.

Strayhorn started band in sixth grade playing trumpet, but he said, after he broke two of them, he wanted to play a sturdier instrument.  in seventh grade, he switched to tuba, which proved to be a wise choice. 

His sophomore year, Strayhorn made first alternate in the All State Band, earned fourth chair his junior year and led the section this year.  Only 70 to 75 tubas qualify to audition for state, and only six are chosen for the honor of performing with the band.

Strayhorn’s band director at Nixa, Craig Finger, described his former student as hard-working and self-motivated.

"What's impressive about him is, it's not just music he's excelled in," Finger said.  "He's also excelled academically."

He believes one reason Strayhorn has done so well musically this year is because he’s used music as an outlet.

"That's one of our goals as musicians is to make it an escape sometimes from maybe some other parts of your life that aren't going exactly how you want them to go, so I think he's funneled all of that energy into that tuba, and it's provided some great experiences for him," Finger said.

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Credit Michele Skalicky
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Nixa Graduate Devin Strayhorn Plays his Tuba

Strayhorn looks back fondly at his time in the Nixa Band, and he said that experience shaped him into the person he is today.

"Band has honestly been the difference between me being someone who is scholarly and, you know, who values academics and good social skills and, you know, all the good ethics you should have and me from just doing God knows what," he said. 

This summer he plans to practice a lot to prepare for being in the Missouri State University Pride Band, and he wants to work a lot to save money for better musical equipment. 

His goal is to get a degree in music education, learn as much as he can about music and get to know others with similar goals.

After he graduates from MSU, Strayhorn wants to go to Indiana University to get a Master’s degree in music education and then on to the University of North Texas for a PhD in tuba performance or Eastman School of Music to earn a PhD in conducting.

"At Eastman, they follow by a particular school of thought called the Gordan Music Learning Theory, which I find really, really interesting.  I really enjoy learning about it and how you an apply it to teaching music," he said.

He wrote a paper on the topic for a class in high school.  His goal is to be a college music professor.

He’ll have money for college thanks to several scholarships, including the prestigious Horatio Alger Scholarship, which awards 106 disadvantaged students $25,000 each year to go towards their higher education.  He was chosen out of around 40,000 applicants.

Strayhorn is a success story in a state where a third to a half of foster kids drop out of school before they graduate, according to Noreen O'Brien with Presbyterian Children's Home and Services (PCHS). As he's been in foster care, Strayhorn has been helped by a caseworker from PCHS with things like legal paperwork, court dates and supervising visits with his parents. 

He has visits with his father and is able to see his siblings.  His youngest brother has been allowed to go back home to live with his father and stepmother. 

Michele Skalicky has worked at KSMU since the station occupied the old white house at National and Grand. She enjoys working on both the announcing side and in news and has been the recipient of statewide and national awards for news reporting. She likes to tell stories that make a difference. Michele enjoys outdoor activities, including hiking, camping and leisurely kayaking.