George N. Parks

Mike Lawson • Features • October 21, 2006

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In the first grade, he revealed his earliest tendencies toward a career as a marching band director: he conducted the woodblock band.

By ninth grade, he’d decided he wanted to pursue a career as a band director and, soon after, began his training as the drum major of his high school band. As a member of the Reading Buccaneers in Pennsylvania, he served as drum major for 13 of his 14 years with the drum and bugle corps. And for the past 27 years, George N. Parks has been at the helm of the 300-member Minuteman Marching Band at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

It seems that directing bands runs in his family.

“After I became a drum major for my high school band, I found out that both my parents had been drum majors in their bands when they were growing up,” Parks recalls. “If there was anything in the blood, I think this was in the blood. That’s simply where I was headed, almost from the beginning.”

As the director of the Minuteman Marching Band, Parks oversees every aspect of the university’s marching program, from musical and marching techniques to field show creation and general logistics. He relies on the help of associate director Tom Hannum, a DCI Hall-of-Famer, and assistant director and arranger Michael Klesch, who performed with the Cadets and the Star of Indiana. Three additional percussion instructors, two additional show designers, a color guard instructor and a twirling instructor complete the team. The band is also supported by an administrative staff of two dozen student leaders, who manage various band-related tasks, including personnel, publicity, recruiting, uniforms, equipment ,and the music library.

The next step in Parks’ marching band career will be in parade formation at the 2005 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif. He will be directing the first-ever Bands of America Honor Marching Band, which will be comprised of 300 to 400 outstanding high school students from marching bands across the country.

“It’s a really exciting thing,” Parks relates. “There are certain things everybody know about. Everybody knows about the Super Bowl, or the Final Four in basketball. In our world, everybody knows about the Rose Parade. Just to be involved in that event comes with a lot of prestige. The chance to actually conduct an all-American honor band like that is very exciting.”

Parks has a long history with Bands of America – starting in 1971, when he was one of 25 students participating in the BOA’s drum major workshops. Today, Parks’ name is synonymous with the program, which is now called the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy. An estimated 3,500 students participate in these workshops throughout the summer, at different locations across the country. (Parks is also the author of The Dynamic Drum Major, a textbook for students learning the fine art of drum majoring, which is studied as part of the Drum Major Academy.)

“We spend a lot of time teaching them leadership techniques because, for many of the bands, the drum major is like an assistant band director,” Parks points out. “We give them very specific techniques in how you teach, what you look for, the kind of attitude and tone that you need to convey as you’re teaching your band, and how to keep very positive-spirited when you’re working with them.”

The Minuteman Marching Band has also been an invited performer at BOA events over the years. When the band is not performing at UMass football games, it’s rehearsing five days a week, for about an hour and 20 minutes a day.

“On the morning of a performance, we’ll get them up early and wake up the rest of the campus,” he adds.

The marching season, which includes a band camp that meets for one week before the start of school, wraps up in late November.

SBO: What words of advice do you have for music directors to help their students achieve success in the marching band?

Parks: The thing that comes to mind often is what the whole band activity can do for so many different people – different people with different points of view and different levels of motivation. The thing I like about our program is that there is a place for anybody to be there. Often the one you want to turn off is the one who can maybe use the help the most. I guess the advice is to figure out who the group is. Every group is different and every individual is different. Figure out what it will take to get that individual to the next level – and not just the performance level, but level of life.

SBO: Along with the Drum Major Academy there is a Band Leadership Training Seminar. Can you explain its purpose and goal?

Parks: What we learned several years ago is that you’ll have a lot of drum majors who go through the program and then go back home and often the band will look at them as though they have two heads. “What are you talking about? We should work this hard? Why should we do this? We don’t understand.” What we learned was that if you send additional section leaders to the same program, then you have a whole team of people who understand the teaching and motivation concepts that we’re working with. A lot of the same things we do with the drum major academy we do with the band leadership seminar. I work with Tim Lautzenheiser, who is a teaching leadership guru. It has been a great opportunity for me to work with him, and spending time with him has had quite an impact on my program as well.

SBO: How will you prepare the BOA Honor Band – which will bring together students from across the country – for the Rose Parade?

Parks: We have about four days with them, prior to the parade. They’ll get music in advance and certain things they’ll need to work on, and we’ll pull them all together and work them nice and easy – he says with a smile – a few days before we go out and do the parade.

SBO: What have been some of the challenges of working as a college marching band director?

Parks: I guess it’s the non-teaching things that are always a challenge for those of us in the business – making sure you have appropriate funding. For the most part, we stay alive by concentrating on all the cool stuff, like teaching the kids, putting on a good show, getting people to say “Yay!”

SBO: What have been some of the highlights of your career thus far?

Parks: I’ve been amazingly fortunate in that every season I have the experience of a lifetime. I’ve had performances and experiences that other people can go for years without experiencing. Performing with our band at the Bands of America Grand Nationals was an incredible experience. We got to go with our team when they won the national championship in 1AA football, and actually put the band on a plane – that was quite an experience. We’ve performed for a couple of inaugural parades. We just

performed for the Montreal Alouettes divisional football championship two years ago and they had 60,000 people who roared for the band. (The UMass stadium is a medium-sized football stadium with about 16,000 seats. We get to get really intimate with our audience.)

SBO: How would you describe the band and its role at UMass?

Parks: It’s kind of exciting. Everybody knows the band is good and the band is strong. When you’re in a school band, you have a wide variety of bands and a wide variety of impressions about bands. In some high school bands, everybody loves the group. You have other high school bands where kids struggle sometimes to get a positive identity. They come to campus here and they see a band jacket and they say, “Oh, you’re in the Minuteman Marching Band.” The professors comment to them, and it’s a very positive experience here. We’ll do a post-game show and you’ll generally see 75 to 90 percent of the fans have stayed to watch the show again.

SBO: Do students have to audition to become part of the Minuteman Marching Band?

Parks: We work really hard to find a place for anybody who wants to commit to us. Some sections are more competitive than others – it’s very difficult to get into the snare line, for example. But if you want to play in the band, we almost always will find a spot somewhere for you to be.

SBO: How do you recruit students into the marching band?

Parks: We do our best to find out every kid who ever played a note throughout their whole lives. As a matter of fact, that’s what I’m doing right now. We’re looking through the list of 1,600 people (out of 4,000 incoming freshmen), who at one point played an instrument or were involved in music.

Over the summer, we contact them all and send them letters and videotapes,

and say, “Come and do this because you’re going to love it.” We concentrate our recruiting at the freshman level. Once students come in and decide they’re going to do something else, we generally don’t see people come back afterward.

We have a meeting at the student orientation every week while they’re coming in. We will encourage them to come to the meeting, talk about the band, serve them some cake, explain what the band is all about. We generally have some good, enthusiastic students there to help tell what life is about as a band member, how it’s neat to show up when all the other 4,000 freshmen are wondering where they’re going and what they’re doing. These couple hundred band kids already have their friends and know how to get around campus. They know seniors who can help them with all the ins and outs, and that kind of stuff.

SBO: What length and style of field show does the band perform?

Parks: It will vary. Our audience will see a lot of different stuff over the course of the year. But then we’ll go to a festival and not play all of it. We’ll learn maybe 20 to 25 minutes of show material and we break it up throughout the season for different halftimes.

We like to recreate experiences. A couple of years ago, we did “Gladiator.” We did the whole movie in 11 minutes and told the whole story. We had the emperor and the gladiator, and we were taking off heads. We even went one step further in that the gladiator got to see his son at the end of the show – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

We’ll do a little Madonna, Chuck Mangione, Bill Chase. This past year, we did some Maynard Ferguson. We featured an English horn solo with a classical guitar sonata. We do a lot of variety. I like to think that when the show’s over, regardless of your taste, there was something in the show that you liked.

SBO: How do you continue to come up with creative ideas?

Parks: There’s a lot of creation going on, and lots of stuff that we’ve never gotten to, as far as classical and jazz, and that sort of thing. The key thing is that any time you’re working with high school or college students, you have a lot of energy and creativity there. As long as you work with them, it just keeps happening.

SBO: How often does the band travel to do away-game shows, parades and other performances?

Parks: We do a variety of different off-campus events. For example, there’s a great show every year in Allentown, Penn. It’s a college band exhibition. There aren’t a lot of those in the country, but this is an opportunity where a lot of the big bands of the east come together – 12 or 14 college bands. We go there every year. We do our state high school band festival. We’ll do one or two away football games. Last year we got to see a tremendous triple-overtime football game at the University of Delaware. They won; we didn’t, and then they went on to win the national championship. We’ll do perhaps some other exhibition and other events.

SBO: How do you maintain your enthusiasm for marching band and avoid burning out with all these activities?

Parks: On one hand, we’re very lucky because, on Saturday, people are going to clap for us. In all the stuff that everybody does, I don’t think we create enough environments where people just clap for other people. That’s part of it – you go out, you do a good job, and people clap for you. That’s one of the things that keeps us going. The other thing is working with young, enthusiastic kids – they keep pushing you. You need to spend time hanging around good, positive people so that you can maintain your own positive attitude.

You’ve just got to love what you’re doing, and you’ve got to do what you need to do to continue to love what you’re doing so that that passion can be experienced by the students.

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