David Willson

Mike Lawson • Features • August 2, 2011

“I Won’t Give Up if You Don’t”

Lessons on Conviction with Ole Miss’s David Willson

Just about everyone involved in music can trace their career back to one decisive moment when something happened that made them realize that music would be a major part of their lives.  For educator, author and director of bands at the University of Mississippi, David Willson, that moment came as a high school band student, when he recognized the potential that music had to create a community where everyone could contribute and, what’s more, everyone’s contribution was necessary for the community.  He saw that, “Without the band, I wasn’t much on my own; and without me, the band wasn’t as strong.”

For the past 36 years, professor Willson has been making music stronger throughout Mississippi and the Southeast United States, leaving an indelible mark first in the state’s public school systems, and then as the director of bands at his Alma Mater, Ole Miss. Willson estimates that he has over 120 former students of his teaching band in and around Mississippi. A colleague and recently appointed director of the Ole Miss marching band (and, of course, a former student of Willson’s) Dr. Bill DeJournett estimates that 85 to 90 percent of the band directors in Northern Mississippi have been directly influenced by Mr. Willson, either as his former students or through his mentorship.

Although David Willson’s legacy will undoubtedly be carried on through future generations of educators, he credits a grasp of the most basic fundamentals of teaching music for his success in the classroom: before students will learn, they have to want to learn. And it is up to the teacher to instill and foster the desire, confidence, and sense of community that will reward the students for those hours, days, and years of musical training.

In this recent SBO interview, David Willson talks about the critical issues facing music educators today, as well as the key to thriving in an increasingly challenging profession.

School Band & Orchestra: Let’s talk about your early days in music education. What were some of the early experiences that got you hooked on teaching?

David Willson: When I went to do my student teaching, I was playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band and I had long hair. I had this huge inflated ego and I thought, “I don’t have to [teach], I’m just going to play.” So, I got to school and was asked to teach clarinet lessons. I had a tenth-grade student and I asked her the name of a note and how to finger it, and she knew, so I taught her the passage. Then, I was asked to go to the beginning band, where there were three little boys that had just gotten their instruments the night before (they all played trumpet, which is my instrument). They were about eleven years old. I remember asking them, “What’s the name of that note?” One the little boy looked at me and he said, and I quote, “I ‘o no.” “Like ‘I don’t know?’ I asked. “I ‘o no,” he said. And I thought, “Oh lord.” I asked, “How do you finger that note?” and he said, “I ‘o no.” “What is the name of the note?” I asked. “I ‘o no.” And then I thought, “Oh God, I’m not ready!” [laughs]

Right then and there, I became enamored with teaching music, even though I realized that I was not trained practically for beginner band. When I went back to school, I wrote my thesis on starting beginning band students. It was based on research and entirely academic. It was not a very useful document! Once I started teaching beginning band, I realized there was a lot more to it than just factual elements: it was about motivating the students to want to do it. You have to be able to keep 65 kids in one room with all the different instruments, understand the pacing, and know what you had to say each time you walked in that room. I was passionate about beginning band – I still am.

SBO: You went on to teach at all different levels – from middle school kids to university bands.

DW: That’s right. When I started out, I took over a band that had been defunct for about four years. I was embarrassed to wear my nametag at conventions because people made fun of it. But now I look back on my last 36 years of teaching, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me because it forced me to learn how to teach people who had no clue about anything. I had to go out and get all the stands and chairs and other equipment. I then spent two years as junior high director at a fairly big program, and I learned a lot about what I liked and what I didn’t like about staff management. Then, I moved to a pretty good-sized inner-city high school. The school was somewhat low-achieving academically but we a great program! Those kids were so dedicated. Then I moved to an upper-middle class program outside of a metropolitan area in Jackson for six years, and it had totally different set of problems. However, everything has its good and its bad. One thing I learned throughout that process is that a kid is a kid is a kid; you just have to find out how to push their buttons, motivate them, and let them enjoy what they’re doing.

SBO: Speaking of that “a kid is a kid is a kid,” do you think some of those basic tenants hold through in the university level as well, or is it a totally different approach from middle school through high school through university?

DW: Well, it may be a little bit different. For example, there are a lot of times when younger students can be shaped a bit more because their personalities haven’t been totally set, as they have in many cases by the time kids get into college.

When I was in ninth grade, I had a teacher stand up in front of the room on the first day of class and say, “You can get this if you want to, and if you don’t want to, that’s fine with me.” And of course I didn’t get it, because she looked at me as that fat kid from a broken home that would be lucky to work at a service station. What I needed was the teacher who said, “You are going to get this even if hell freezes over. So get ready.” When I became a teacher, even teaching at the college level, when I see somebody that seems to be slipping, I immediately put my hand on their pulse and say, “Look, we are going to get after this. What’s it going to take? I won’t give up if you won’t!” I don’t give up on people, because nobody can predict when somebody is going to flourish.

SBO: Over your 36 years, do you think teaching music now is the same type of ballgame that it was when you started out? How have ensembles and music classrooms changed over the years?

DW: Teaching the instruments and providing the motivation is the same; the obstacles today are much harder. In the last 15 years, particularly, I’ve seen block scheduling come into play; we went from 20 Carnegie Units to graduate high school up to the 26 it is here now. We have higher college requirements in the math and sciences you have to take; the minimum standards for federal testing have to be passed, and when a school does well, they often have the kids take advanced courses. When a school does poorly, they try to get all the low-scoring kids in remedial classes. With all those things coming into play, and with the upsurge in women’s sports, it’s hard to find a place for band in a student’s schedule. It used to be that a kid could take two or three activities; now it’s one, and sometimes with block scheduling, none. Along with the economy, all of that together is shaping the way we teach. Because of it, more band directors in the small schools are forced to teach general music or something other than band.

It’s a different day. We have to do a better job training our future educators to handle all of these obstacles, so that they don’t get burned out. Many kids enter into the classroom and they don’t have the tools to teach, especially when they’ve been taught by people that haven’t been in the real world, themselves. Then they get frustrated. The kids and administrators they deal with aren’t in this perfect, pristine environment, so they don’t have the chops to teach and they quit. Because of that, I try to stay in touch with my kids after they graduate. People in the music teaching business need to give more feedback to our teaching institutions about what training they need to be better prepared as a first year teacher.

SBO: In the face of late night or early morning rehearsals, fundraising, advocacy, and all of the logistical details that many people might not factor into a band’s director’s job requirements, what do you think the key is to avoiding burnout in this challenging career?

DW: Some of it has to do with becoming much more efficient. I learned early on that if I utilize every second of my band rehearsal, I could do a lot more in a lot less time. As an example when working with future music teachers, I used to get on the podium and say, “The first six minutes are the most important six or seven minutes in a day,” and we’d go through our six-minute warm-up. I’d have a list of goals written out, and sometimes I’d even give the students a copy of that list. They would see it, believe in it, and understand that they had to be efficient, number one.

They have to be well trained to teach those instruments – let’s say the beginner trombone, he tries to play and he can’t get a sound. Generally, we as trained professionals say, “Well, that kid just doesn’t have it,” but that’s not true. You have to learn how to teach that trombone 10 or 15 different ways. Then, the next thing is one must get mentoring. By the time you learn every fingering, try to organize the budget, do the inventory, and schedule a trip, you could be a brain surgeon. And brain surgeons go to college for four years and med school six, and then they intern six. And what we do is go to college and give a general education for four years and then we throw them into surgery and they’re just not ready. Mentoring is what saved me. I was lucky to have someone grab me without my knowing it and just help me so much. And I love my career.

SBO: Speaking of your career, let’s talk about Ole Miss. What do you think your impact has been on that program? Where have you come from and where do you see them in the immediate future?

DW: When I got here, the band was down to about 144 members and it had pretty low morale. It took me three years to change that, and it was much harder than I anticipated. I just kept telling them that they were important to the university and I tried to make rehearsals more efficient and fun. At the same time, I don’t tolerate much noise in rehearsal. The band started growing, and lately we have generally run between 260 and 288 members, and that’s at a relatively small division-one school. However, perhaps a more important number for me is the approximately 120 former students of mine who are practicing directors out there. My main focus these days is to train young band directors and to coach those out in the field.

SBO: For band directors around the country, if there was one thing you wish they knew that you think not enough people know, or if there was one thing you wish more people did better or differently or paid more attention to when they’re working with their ensembles, what would that be?

DW: A few things come to mind. The first one that I wish everybody in the band world did was to say why we want band in the community. Some people try to prove music trains one side of the brain and musicians have more math skills and they do better on tests, but the real reason that we want band in the community is for the citizenship that forms when people work closely with other people, and they work together on long-term goals. It takes years to develop those small muscles and lungs and toes and fingers to play at the level we ask them to play at in middle school or high school, and especially here at the university level, and with that citizenship, they have learned the benefits of delayed gratification. Band students know what it’s like to work the long haul. People that work in close quarters with others over a long period of time are better prepared if they come from a band background. Basic skills are acquired over a long period of time, there is no magic pill that will teach one to play.

The next thing young teachers need to understand is that all students are human beings, and if they’re not doing what they need to do, the educators should look at themselves: they either didn’t teach what they were asked to do or properly motivate the students to do what was asked of them.

SBO: On that level, it’s really kind of a universal approach that would work anywhere, right?

DW: That’s exactly right; there’s nothing different as far as teaching; educators have got to learn how to troubleshoot obstacles and teach hand positions and rhythm, that’s just fundamental stuff, and most of that can be taught or mentored. They can learn it. If I can do it, anybody can do it.

SBO: What about technology in the classroom now? Have integrated any new tools or software? What’s your impression of that whole revolution?

DW: Well, let me tell you, I have trouble with Velcro, and you asked me about music technology. I’m the wrong person to ask.

SBO: You also represent a group of people who might not be so technologically inclined. Your opinion is valid, too.

DW: Oh yeah. It is efficient in some ways, like when a student can sit down and drill rhythms at home until they get them correct, and I appreciate that. However, if they were like me as a student and had obvious problems because they weren’t taught correctly, the students will get frustrated because they don’t have the endurance, and no one’s there troubleshooting their tone quality, pitch, or hand position. I used to hear all of my students play something in high school bands, even the big bands, at least once everyone nine weeks, and I was constantly looking at those things. SmartMusic and other tools might be helpful for those who are restricted on time, but somewhere along the way, you need to hear all those students play, watch them, and teach them.

I think it’s great to have the students come in and play for you instead of a machine. I really do. It builds a bond there, especially if you let them know up front you’re not going to stammer at them, that you’re there to make them better. That’s how I eased fears with my students. I always said, “I’m not going to make fun of you or scream at you.” One time, I had a student come in and who started to play something and she started shaking. I said, “Marsha, I’ve had you in my class for five years, why are you scared?” She answered, “Oh, I’m not scared. I just want to please you,” and boy, that was a definitive day. I learned a lot from that lesson.

Regarding technology, band directors have got to keep up. I know that. If I were comfortable with SmartMusic technology, I would use it to help them learn solos. I would use it to help them learn different passages of music, but at the same time, I would never forego having them play something for me directly. The best thing I see that technology could do is help with mentoring. I have had directors send recordings over email to troubleshoot and even a couple marching videos. Soon we will be able to rehearse another person’s band from our own home computer.

SBO: What’s the most gratifying aspect of being a music educator?

DW: When I see my students do well in the classroom and onstage, it’s just heartwarming. I get more nervous going to band concerts and watching my students perform than when I used to be onstage. I don’t mind explaining that to you. I guess it’s kind of like having a parent who’s worried about their child passing an ACT or SAT test. That’s the reward: seeing them really flourish and being more efficient at a young age then I was.

Dr. DeJournett on Mr. Willson’s Legacy

Although Mr. Willson is still the director of bands at Ole Miss, in 2010, Dr. Bill DeJournett, a former student of Mr. Willson’s and later an assistant director at the university, was named the head director of “The Pride of the South,” the Rebel Marching Band. Dr. Dejournett shares some thoughts on David Willson’s influence and legacy.

I came to Ole Miss in 1995 as a doctoral student and had a graduate teaching assistantship working with the band. I had come from a very competitive drum corps background. I remember it clearly: I spent the first three or four weeks trying to wrap my head around Mr. Willson’s teaching approach because I’d never seen anyone approach teaching band quite like he did. It was totally different from anything I’d seen and I didn’t understand it at first. After about three weeks, the lightbulb went off and I said, “Aha! I get it!”

Mr. Willson is a teacher who breaks things down to the absolute, easiest-to-digest morsel. He’s very efficient. That was one of the things that really impressed me about his teaching during my early days with the marching band here. There was very little standing around or wasted time. He still does this to this day – he will not step onto the podium unless he has a detailed lesson plan, down to the second. And when I say “to the second,” I’m not exaggerating.

Also, he’s very student-centered. He’s as worried about the third-part clarinet player from Painted Post, Mississippi as he is about the first chair, all-state band trumpet player from the best program in the state. That has influenced my teaching immensely. I got to soak in everything that he did. I got to pick his brain about a lot of things. I listened to some recordings of his high school bands, and I quizzed him on how he did things. I played horn for him for two years and I was able to wrap a lot of his teaching up and put my own personal spin on them. When I finished up here, I got the job as the band director at the Colorado State University, where I was for three years. 

When I told Mr. Willson that I got the job, he said that the number one thing I had to do was have my first band camp speech ready. He said, “I can dust off one of my old ones and you can fix it up however you want.” And that’s what he did. I modeled the band camp speech at Colorado State after the one he had given me, and when I got out there, I imagine it was like me coming to Ole Miss and seeing David Willson for the first time, they had never seen that approach before, so I think it took them by surprise. However, even though I was new and I was young, they immediately saw that I had a plan, a vision, and the roadmap to get us there. So they immediately piled on, and that made the transition there really smooth. I largely credit that to the speech I got from David Willson.

As far as my own teaching, on the one hand, I am a student of David Willson and he taught me much of what I know and have had success in applying. I don’t want to be a David Willson clone, but I also don’t want to stray too far from the way things have gone for the past 18 years. 

David Willson’s greatest legacy is the literally hundreds of band directors who he has taught or mentored throughout his career. He has always responded to anyone who ever said, “Hey, I need some help. Will you come down to listen to my band and give me some pointers?” As far as students he’s taught directly, I’d say that probably 85 or 90 percent of the band directors in the northern half of the state of Mississippi were his students at one point or another. And that’s great because we are now able to pass on his teachings and the philosophy that he imparted upon us when were students to the next generation of music students and teachers. 

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