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Petty Officer 1st Class Gregory Sampson of Naval Air Station Sigonella stands next to the percussion section of the Stephen Decatur High School band during the school’s graduation ceremony recently.

Petty Officer 1st Class Gregory Sampson of Naval Air Station Sigonella stands next to the percussion section of the Stephen Decatur High School band during the school’s graduation ceremony recently. (Courtesy of Gregory Sampson)

SIGONELLA, Sicily — Petty Officer 1st Class Gregory Sampson of Naval Air Station Sigonella, Sicily’s Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station may work with computers for a living, but he’s got music in his heart.

The 42-year-old has spent the past three years volunteering to teach various percussion instruments to band members at Stephen Decatur High School.

“He’s been the most reliable volunteer I’ve had,” said school music director Michael Minning, who’s taught at the school for seven years.

Sampson started playing music in 6th grade and continued through college, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Huston-Tillotson College in Austin, Texas.

“All of my brothers and sisters played instruments,” he said. “I’m the only one who stuck with it (in college).” Sampson’s “instrument of choice” is the snare drum.

Shortly after receiving his degree Sampson enlisted in the Navy, not as a musician but as a radioman. He continued to play music, however, while off-duty. He played in clubs and churches, sometimes twice a week.

When he arrived in Sigonella almost three years ago, Sampson wanted to take his knowledge and love for percussion instruments and pass on those skills to a new generation of musicians.

“I knew I had talent and training and I wanted to pass it on to these guys,” he said about the band percussion section, which totaled five musicians this past year.

Sampson took the “guys” for special sessions focusing on percussion instruments and their roles both as part of a band and part of a standalone drum corps. Giving the student percussionists the individual attention, said Minning, really helped both the section and the band as a whole.

“If they’re good and can hold a steady beat, they can hold a band together,” he said. “They can make or break a group.”

Sampson first assessed the students’ playing levels, then worked one-on-one with some of them.

“He taught us about the drum roll, the base drums — the whole drum set,” said drummer Andy Gomez. “He’s a good all-around percussion player. He’s crazy good.”

“As soon as he came in we said ‘wow,’ we didn’t know anything about the section,” said Gomez, an 11th grader.

Once he felt the students were performing at similar levels, Sampson turned his attention to their playing skills as a section.

“One of the guys … like on the third day said ‘Wow, we sound more together already than all of last year,’” said Sampson.

Sampson also worked to give the section its own identity, not just that of being part of the larger school band.

“Before it was just drums and percussions for any old song,” said Gomez. “Before we were just the background.”

Sampson took the percussion section from the background and at times put them in the forefront of some performances, such as at pep rallies and football games.

“The first time they [played at a football game] they were a little nervous,” said Sampson. After they played … and got into the songs a little bit they calmed down and started to have fun.”

“We loved it,” said Gomez. “Without him we couldn’t have performed at the football games, or done the nice drum line solos.”

The percussion section’s last performance at school was for the recent high school graduation. It was also the last time Sampson guided them. He’ll be transferring to Norfolk, Va., before the new school year begins.

He said he’ll still play music during his two-year stint in Norfolk.

And after those two years and he retires from the Navy, will he finally choose a career in music?

The father of three, who will then have two college-age kids, doesn’t think so.

“I’ll get a job in [the] information-technology [field],” he said with a smile. “It pays more.”

But he said he’ll make sure that future musicians will benefit from his musical experiences. “I’d still like to teach music part time,” he said.

For although money pays the bills, music, it seems, keeps Sampson’s heart on a steady beat.


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