April 2017, Cover Story

Mentoring through Music

“Music is so powerful. It takes over your emotions, all your mental abilities. If you’re hearing the right song, no matter what’s going on in your life for those 3-4 minutes, you forget about everything. And that’s powerful. You cannot tell me that’s not God.”
– Southern University Director of Bands Nathan B. Haymer

When the Southern University Marching Band takes the field, it delivers more than precision, more than musical excellence – it provides an experience. Renowned for its innovative style, versatility and defined movement, the Human Jukebox is visual evidence of director Nathan Haymer’s mission through music: helping mold millennials into men and women of integrity.

“When you have to inspire and motivate people all the time, you have to be motivated yourself,” he said. “You have to stay full of the Word. You have to. They feed off me. You can’t come in there and say, ‘I had a bad day; I’m in a bad mood’ and face 250 students.”

 “Romans 3:23 is my favorite: ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ Once you mature as an adult, you realize that you didn’t get here by yourself. You realize that people gave you another chance. Nobody’s perfect but that doesn’t stop us from striving for perfection.”

Despite a demanding classroom and performance schedule – and a recruiting calendar that takes him to California, Dallas, Atlanta and throughout Louisiana – Haymer carves out time to design opportunities for students that he hopes will become life habits. “At the age of 18 all the way to 24, you’re still being molded into who you are as an adult, and I realize that I’m the last stop before they reach the real world,” Haymer said. “Students do what they see; they don’t do what you say.”

“We always try to be in the community doing things,” Haymer said. He asks students, “How are you going to impact people’s lives? You have all this talent. You can’t keep it to yourself. You have to use it to make your life better through making other people’s lives better.” At Christmas, Haymer offered the Jukebox Christmas List, loading up band members and delivering gifts to underprivileged kids. Through “Make a Wish,” Southern band members were personally involved in helping fulfill the dreams of a young man with cerebral palsy.

A few years ago, Haymer launched a 25-member Gospel Band; this month, they’re traveling to Nashville. “The churches really respond to that. It’s almost like a pep rally in church.” His current favorite gospel song is “Total Praise.” We’re just having fun praising God by playing gospel music,” he said. “It shows the students what they can do the right way through music.” Last fall, he took the entire band to church in Houston.

“I got a lot of emails from parents thanking me for bringing them in that environment, in church, and I thought it was something good for our organization,” he said. “A family that prays together stays together. You’re going to have problems; it’s never going to be perfect. But if you’re praying together, and if they know that I’m there for them – and I’m there to listen and not judge – I feel they’ll be more open to letting me know what’s going on.”

“I always talk about the greater good. I always talk about love. I always talk about peace. I always talk about success, because I feel that can go over with anybody,” Haymer said. Those are lessons instilled in him by his parents and his education at First Christian Academy.

 “I was brought up in church, Greater King David (Baptist Church), on Blount Road near the campus of Southern University,” he explained. “We were in church Sunday. We were in church Wednesday. Saturday there was always something, then back to church Sunday. But we had a lot of fun. We had a lot of friends there.”

Haymer didn’t like to sing, but he served as an usher. As he grew older, he began to pay more attention to the music. “That’s what really drew me into the service, not the actual singing but the background – the things that people really don’t pay attention to,” he said. “There was the piano, then the organ and when I was older they had a drum set. So, I thought that was neat.”

His parents held their sons to high standards, both academically and personally. His mother worked at Southern University. Nathan was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an attorney. His twin brother, Niles, was encouraged to become a doctor. In school, however, their talents developed differently. Niles, a natural politician, became a lawyer. Nathan took up the French horn and trumpet, and later played the trombone in the Southern University Marching Band. Today, he plays every instrument in the band, and writes and arranges the music.

“I didn’t have anybody in my family in music, so I didn’t see it coming. I guess that was just a gift from God,” he said. “So, I practiced a lot. It’s a good feeling when you can turn what you love – your passion – into a job.”

Haymer graduated from Southern University with a bachelor’s degree in music education, then earned two master’s degrees in music and administration. He holds a doctorate in administration for higher education. After teaching in Lake Charles for five years, he received a call from Southern University asking him to become assistant band director. He calls it his dream job. “It’s a lot of work, but the music, the teaching, the marching and the sound we make, it’s just joy,” he said.

But it comes with an equal measure of challenges. “You can’t say no to everything and you can’t say yes to everything. So, you just have to be prayed up before you get to campus every day,” Haymer said. “Sometimes God puts stumbling blocks in your way for a reason. And a lot of times you don’t realize it until it’s over. So, I continue to trust and do what I feel is right. I don’t compromise my faith.”

He also tells students to surround themselves with true friends. “That is what keeps your integrity up,” he said. “Say you have a bad day or you just want to do something wrong. A real friend would say, ‘No, you don’t want to go that way’ versus somebody who’ll tell you, ‘Yeah, let’s forget work; come on, let’s just go out to this bar and drink all day.’ I also like to hang around with older people. I have friends in their 60s and 70s who give me a wealth of knowledge.”

In 11 years of leadership at Southern University, Haymer’s hardest task has been telling students they don’t have what it takes to be in the band. He uses each situation as a teaching opportunity. “Sometimes God allows doors to shut in your face for many reasons. Sometimes it’s just not for you. Sometimes you’re not ready, and God is letting you know he wants you to be tough: You’re getting ready to run this organization, and you need to fail, so when you’re in charge you’ll be able to empathize with the next person.” Haymer likes to recall that this year’s drum major didn’t make the band when he was a freshman. The sponsor of the SU Dancing Dolls tried out but didn’t make the cut her first year.  Sometimes it’s hard, he said, But perseverance pays off.

“My greatest joy is to see a student that comes from sheer bottom, from pretty much nothing,” Haymer said. They believe in you. They believe in your teaching, and you see them achieve. Then, they graduate. And now they’re having families of their own, and they’re successful.”

“We’re here to help others, and if I can’t do anything to help anybody else, then everything I do is in vain,” Haymer said. “It just brings chills down my spine to know that you have a positive impact. There’s no paycheck that can substitute for that feeling – to see a student turn it around in four years. All I ask them to do is reach back and teach the next person.”


Susan Brown began her career in radio news. she was news director for WJBO/WFMF radio and a journalism instructor at LSU. She holds Master’s Degrees from LSU and New Orleans Baptist Theological seminary, and served as a chaplain at Louisiana Correctional institute for Women.