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Felicia Warren-MacNaught of Mac Williams Middle School

Mike Lawson • Archives • September 12, 2012

By Eliahu Sussman

Fresh off a performance as one of the featured ensembles at the American School Band Directors Association’s annual convention, the Mac Williams Middle School band program in Fayetteville, North Carolina is flying high. The band boasts some 340 students in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades – out of 1,200 in the student body – and is led by Felicia Warren-MacNaught, who has been the band director at Mac Williams since the school first opened in 1995. MacNaught is a proud local, having begun her teaching career at the same junior high school she attended as a child – which closed to make way for the middle school she now teaches in – while also assisting the band program at nearby Cape Fear High School, her high school alma mater.

Three times recognized by governors of North Carolina for teaching excellence and a 2010 Women Band Directors International “scroll of excellence” honoree, MacNaught uses sheer determination and a fast-paced teaching style to transform absolute beginners into accomplished players. In a district where few students have the opportunity or means to take private lessons, it’s tough to say what is more impressive: her string of consecutive Grade II, III, and IV superior ratings or the vast number of students she sends to her all-county and all-state honors bands each year.

SBO recently spoke with the accomplished director about how she has built this program from the ground up and maintained such incredible musical consistency, even while working with a constant influx of beginners.

School Band & Orchestra: How is the band program at Mac Williams Middle School organized?

Felicia MacNaught: The band program starts students in sixth grade. We usually have about six classes of beginners. There are also three classes of intermediate band (second-year students), as well as two advanced classes of eighth-grade students. We range between 130 and 150 beginners each year, and we have a total of 340 in the band program with all three grades, out of about 1,200 students at the school. We have just started the 17th year of this school’s existence, and I have been the band director here the entire time.

SBO: What’s the performance schedule like for your beginners?

FM: The beginners usually do a performance halfway through the school year – a winter concert – and then we have a spring concert, as well. The students that do really well in beginner band usually get moved into the performance band, which is the group that plays at the state festival or adjudication event each year. I refer to that as our “integrated band test.”

We do pep band in the fall, where I combine all of the seventh and eighth graders. (We call that the “Big Mac Band” because it’s the Mac Williams Middle School and I’m Felicia Warren-MacNaught.) That band plays for school sporting events, out in the community, at the elementary schools, and we also perform a concert with the high school band at the high school for senior night.

Many of our students try out for all-county and all-district band, as well as participating in the state adjudication. We usually host the all-district auditions at our school, which is convenient for us, although we also have the largest number of students in the district trying out. The top cut of the district auditions for the North Carolina Honors Band. Our school sent the second most students to the North Carolina Honors Band of any school in the state this past year. We usually perform Grades III and IV music at our state festival.

SBO: And you also work at Cape Fear High School?

FM: I’m assistant marching band director at Cape Fear High School, which is involved with Bands of America, as well as the Grade VI wind ensemble, and Grades IV and V concert band. I’m the teacher that starts a lot of these students in the sixth grade and then teaches them all the way through the high school.

SBO: It must be great for the students to have that sort of continuity. 

FM: One of the most important things about this program for me is that I am from here; I graduated from this program myself, and now I teach here. We have huge parental support, and I think that’s helped by the fact that I actually went through the program. I’m teaching some of my high school classmates’ children, and I hate to say it, but I’m teaching some of my former students’ children, too, in the younger band.

SBO: Having grown up in the area and then starting a new program, what was your approach to getting the Mac Williams band up and running?

FM: In North Carolina, we used to have junior high schools that were seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. I came back from college and taught for nine years at the junior high that I had gone to. Then I got engaged and took an educational leave of absence, moved to England, and got my master’s in flute performance at the University of Kent. During that time, they built Mac Williams Middle School. They also changed over to the middle school concept during the year I was gone, consolidating two junior high schools into a middle school of sixth, seventh, and eighth grades.

When I first got back from England, I visited every fifth-grade class in the district. Many of those kids knew me already – even though I’d been gone for a year – because I grew up in that community and I had been teaching there for nine years. Then I stepped into a new school with a classroom of students that had several different levels of abilities and attitudes about what was supposed to happen in a band program.

I set very high expectations for the students from day one. I made the band an important part of the camaraderie with the other teachers and what goes on at the school. Our pep band is supportive of the school in general, and particularly with our athletic department. I have always had a lot of students who are involved in athletics in our bands. When I was studying music education at college, I also ran varsity track for a year. My son, who is in the band, also plays two sports, and my husband is a former professional hockey player, so I can appreciate the demands of athletics.

SBO: How would you describe your teaching style and what are some of the lessons that you’ve learned throughout your career that have enabled you to achieve the success that you’re currently enjoying?

FM: It has taken my entire career to get where we are right now. I’ve had to constantly refine my own teaching ability and skills to get all of those kids to do what I need them to do. I’m very competitive, I’m very determined, and I just don’t do well with the word “no.” I’m kind of a jokester at school and I try to help out everyone in every area, but you have to be someone that will never give up.

What do I wish I could do better? I wish I had the patience to sit down and learn computer skills better. I’m a high-energy person; I’m not someone who can sit down for very long. One of the beneficial things about the program that we’re in is that it is high energy. The students see a goal with every activity that we do. It’s extremely important that the children understand that what we’re doing is something that’s going to improve their individual skills and benefit them personally.

I’m old school. Where everybody else is using advanced technology in their class – and I know those tools can be extremely helpful – I’m all about the very basic fundamentals like tone quality. Those basics have to be established in order to get a good sounding band. The first comment out of everyone’s mouth when we play is, “Oh my gosh, your tone quality – you sound like a high school band performing.” Well, I may not have changed my method books in years, but we spend time on tone production, breathing, and things like that. The kids have to learn how to tongue, articulate, accent, breathe correctly, and know what sounds good.

SBO: There are certainly many technical demands that go into learning each instrument.

FM: It’s so important for the director to be able to produce a good sound on all of the different instruments. There have been many times when I have to grab an instrument out of someone’s hands to model a particular passage and show them how it’s done. From there, the student plays it, and we talk about how it was different and what we can do to get that part to sound better. You know that phrase, “To beat a horse to death?” You just have to be constantly able to come back the next day and think about how to fix any issues that you find. You have to ask yourself, “How can I get that child to understand that he isn’t tonguing correctly, or there’s something off with his breathing or the placement of his hand?”

Over the years, in trying to make things better, I have involved other people. We have a trumpet player who recently retired from the President’s Own Marine Band and moved into our area. He actually contacted me, offering to come out to tutor some students, with the idea that he would get a trumpet studio started. He never did start the trumpet studio; yet, he comes once a week to work with the brass players – beginning and intermediate trumpet players – or individuals, however I line it up for him.

Not very many of my kids can afford private lessons. Out of our 340 kids, I may have 10 that pay for private lessons on their own. But through the fundraising that we do, at least they’ll get a sectional from a professional clarinetist or saxophonist. I also have some of my former students who have graduated from high school come back to help us. Even at the high school, there were probably 15 seniors who had just graduated and came to band camp this summer to help line the field, work with drill and work on individual marching skills, organize the breaks, and so on.

The program is just so deep with family participation. On our pit crew alone, there are a handful of families who don’t even have a kid in the program anymore, yet they come out and go with us on all our trips, help us with all of our activities and fundraisers, whether it be the middle school or the high school.

SBO: Speaking of band camp, do you have any tips for starting off the school year on a strong note?

FM: At the end of the school year, I start thinking about any changes I might want to make to our band contract. That’s something that outlines the behavior that is expected of the students, and they all have to sign it at the beginning of the year. With that document, everybody has those expectations on paper.

The very first day of school, I welcome everybody and I give the older kids the schedule of events, which includes performances, rehearsals, try outs, and everything else. Being prepared with the schedule and the expectations has made things much easier for me. Our program is strong because we all have such high expectations for every child I teach. I’m not just asking any one person to behave in a certain way; I’m asking 340 kids to do the same thing. Being organized, knowing what you want with your program, and knowing how to do your own time management are so important to starting the year off right.

I work especially hard at making the new kids feel welcome early on. When they come from a small elementary school into this middle school that has 1,200 kids, it scares the bajeezus out of them. So when they make a group of friends in the band, they know that band is going to be a class that they can take every year from sixth grade on through high school. They develop a strong relationship because the band is consistent.

As I said to the principal of our school this summer, this band has deep roots in the community. The strength of it comes from parent involvement, teacher involvement, and administration involvement. A lot of that comes from my fellow teachers, who are supportive because they have children in my band program. In fact, all of the principals that I’ve ever had have enrolled their kids in my band, too.

SBO: How do you keep the band consistent when every year you have a whole new class of beginners?

FM: The sixth graders are new, and when I get them, I try to make them comfortable immediately. The idea is that if they know that they are a real part of the program, they’ll want to continue each year, and they will feel safe.

We do fun activities at the beginning of the fall, where the pep band plays at the home football games, we play in the community, we play at high school senior night, and other things like that. When kids who have graduated come back to the school and help me with my practices, the newer kids in the band see how much fun the older kids have had. We do all of these fun things early on just to get everyone excited about being in the program. Even just giving kids a band t-shirt – my goodness, you’d think we had given them a 50-dollar bill!

At the end of the school year, I go around to every elementary school and demonstrate all of the instruments for the students, hand out information pamphlets for the parents, and give them a chance to fill out a form requesting a first and second choice of instruments (so we don’t have 50 thousand drummers and two tuba players). Then at the beginning of the year we have a Sixth Grade Night for all the incoming sixth graders. Two hours before that happens, I’ll have a beginning band night, where I have an educational rep come from a local store – usually Music & Arts, they sponsor many of our activities – and show off all of the different instruments to our beginning students. We’ve also had people from performing groups like the Boston Brass come in to work with the kids. And that night, they all get to try their first and second choices, with mouthpieces, actually holding the instrument, and then we give them a professional recommendation as to what they should start with. That way, they already know what they will need before the school year starts. And I reach out to any music stores in town and give them a list of the method books we use, so I know that the students will be able to find what we need.

SBO: In the bigger picture, what role do you think music plays in education? 

FM: Music is emotion. It involves the left and right sides of the brain. It involves positive behavior because we’re involved with many different areas of dedication, hard work, community service – skills that you learn. And the music is only a part of it. You have to be able to get along with people as a part of a team. You have to realize that whatever chair you’re in or whatever part you’re playing is extremely important for the overall success of the group. It’s not just one person alone out there. As I say, “band is a team: together everyone achieves more.” Starting with the sixth grade, we have the same kids in the classes all the way up through twelfth grade, and it’s just a big old family.

SBO: What’s the most rewarding element of music education for you these days?

FM: I enjoy watching those students develop, with many of them not knowing anything about music when they get here, and then seeing them excel and get better and better at an activity that they might never have been involved in if somebody hadn’t been pushing them. When those students stay after school for rehearsals, they’re learning how to work, and how to achieve something. Having the opportunity to be in a program where kids learn how to achieve something on their own, where they say, “Gosh, I really can do this,” and then having the next level be a little harder, and so on – that is rewarding. The growth between the beginners and the students that then go on to the high school is incredible. When I rehearse the Wind Ensemble at the high school, and I see those little eyes looking at me over their music stands, playing Grade VI music and understanding and enjoying it, well, it’s pretty cool.

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