A Commitment to Excellence

Mike Lawson • Archives • May 13, 2009

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What exactly is it that makes a high school music program great? Is the success of a school’s band or orchestra measured through victories at national competitions? Or is it found in something less tangible, such as a program’s commitment to providing the very best opportunities for its students?

At Avon (Ind.) High School, take your pick. The school’s bands are the reigning champions of such prestigious events as the Bands of America Grand National Championships and the Winter Guard International World Championships. Yet, according to Avon band director Jay Webb, being successful isn’t all about winning; it’s achieved by sticking to that ever-so-basic philosophy of being the best that you can possibly be at whatever it is you do. Don’t settle for anything less than being the best, trying the hardest, and making the most out of every opportunity you earn. This sounds simple these concepts are hardly revolutionary yet few educators have the drive, desire, and resources to take a program to the national level. And according to Webb, one’s accomplishments can only truly be measured by matching up against the very best on that national stage.

SBO recently sat down with Jay Webb to talk about what it means to have a commitment to excellence, and the motivation behind it all: the significance of competing at the highest level both for him and his students.

School Band & Orchestra: Would you mind sharing a bit about your own musical background?
Jay Webb: My dad played guitar and my grandfather led the singing in church. There was a piano in my grandmother’s house and I used to bang around on it. I was just naturally driven towards music.

In school, I began playing when I was in junior high, in Orlando, Florida. I started out on saxophone, then switched to trumpet, and then switched to percussion, all within about a one-year period. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to play, but once I got into percussion, I was pretty much hooked on that.

In high school, I played in just about everything: marching band, concert band, I played sax in the jazz band, I played trumpet in another concert band, played percussion in the top band. What really got me going in band, though, was joining the Florida Vanguard Drum & Bugle Corp. When I started playing with that group, my outlook on everything really changed.

SBO: How so?
JW: It’s just that it was so exciting and so discipline-oriented; there was something about that that appealed to me. Watching the drums move in unison, the sticking, the hands, the rudiments, the technique that was necessary that level of detail was something I’d never seen before, and I really bought into doing it. From there, that really propelled my career.

Once I graduated from high school, I wanted to march in really a top-notch level corps, so I ended up moving to Bayonne, New Jersey to join the Bridgemen Drum Corps. They were one of the DCI elite corps at that time. I was there until I was 21 and that experience really changed who I was.

SBO: At what point did you start thinking about being an educator?
JW: I probably first thought about it in seventh grade, and then didn’t think about it again until I was 24. [laughs]

When I was 24, I was in Bloomington, Indiana. I’d been recruited to come here and teach the drum corps. Things fell through after a couple of years, and I really had to take assessment of what my life was like, and think about what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. Playing in the drum corps, just traveling around the country and performing, wasn’t really a life that I could sustain. So I decided to go to college and pursue a music degree. I started at Butler University, in Indianapolis, studying Music Ed. For a while I thought I wanted to play in an orchestra somewhere and teach college, but when I was getting close to graduating, I was about to turn 30, I realized that I’d prepared myself to be in this life as a teacher. I was ready to do it, so I just kind of took the plunge.

My first job was at Sheridan High School, in Sheridan, Indiana.

SBO: Can you tell me about that experience?
JW: It was a JR/SR program, and a very small high school. They’d had some success in their marching band program, but when I got there, there were only about 23 kids participating. We went to a contest, and probably were not very strong. I made a few mistakes, but I was able to learn through trial and error. I also spent a lot of time talking to some of my mentors. One of my biggest supporters was Tom Dirks from Center Grove High School, where I had taught the drum line for six years while I was in college. Working with Tom, I really learned a lot about how to run a program.

At Sheridan, I started trying to emulate those things I saw at Center Grove. During my second year, we had 45 kids in the band, did pretty well, and came close to making the state finals. The year after I left, the program ended up making state finals; I think they finished fifth. I was pretty pleased with what I was able to start building there, even though I didn’t really finish it.

SBO: What prompted you to move on?
JW: Sheridan was really kind of a rural community, and I’m more of a city kid. It was hard for me to just exist out there, so I was looking for a school that I might be able to build a little bigger. Sheridan is still a very small school, 20 years later. I wanted to go somewhere where I could build a program in the manner of Center Grove.

When the Avon job became open, it was one of the two schools that I was looking at.

SBO: What was the Avon band program like when you arrived?
JW: Basically, all of the band, guard, and percussion students met in one class, during first period. There were about 100 kids, total, and they all took marching band at the same time. That first year, we ended up getting what we consider a division 2 at the regional level. The people that were here before me were trying to build more of a jazz program and, in doing so, they were really de-emphasizing marching band and concert band. My goals were to revitalize those areas. I was hired specifically to bring the marching band back to the prominent position that it had enjoyed in the ’70s and ’80s.

Avon High School Marching Band at a Glance

Location: 7575 E County Road 150 S, Avon, Ind.
On the Web: www.avonband.com
Students at Avon High School: 2390
Students in the music department: 350

Ensembles and Participating Students
Marching band: 250
Wind Ensemble: 60
Two Jazz bands: 50
Four concert bands: 180
Two guards: 51
Two drum lines: 70

Recent Notable Accomplishments
Seven-time State Champions for Marching Band
BOA Grand National Champions 2008
Winner of the Sudler Shield for Marching Band 2007
WGI World Champion 2009 World Guard
World Guard State Champions for 2002 2009
WGI National Champions for World Drum line 2002

Bob Row, the man who hired me, had been at Avon for 25 years. At one time, it had been a small farm school that had over 225 kids in the band program just a gigantic percentage of the school population, maybe 40 or 50 percent of the student body participated in the band. They really wanted to get back to that level of notoriety and public image.

SBO: So what were your first steps toward rebuilding that culture?
JW: It was really trying to initiate a pride in our own product, a commitment to excellence. I split the concert band into two groups meeting at the same time, and I had the choir teacher help me out. I’d give him specific information about what I wanted during each class. I had an assistant, too, and we worked with the junior high school program. We would have someone come in and instruct the color guard, and I was also teaching the drum line. I was kind of going crazy until I was finally able to convince the administration to split the marching band class into four separate classes, so I could start teaching properly and meeting the needs of the kids.

It was a learning experience for everybody. I had a vision of what I wanted us to be, and I had to sell my vision to the band boosters, the parents, the kids, and our administration. Fortunately, they were very supportive in those day as far as helping me try to teach them how things should be. Once the program started on the right track, and it took a few years, then the band really started to grow.

It wasn’t until my fifth year that we actually were successful and qualified for the state marching band competition.

SBO: It seems that sometimes it can take quite a few years to build a program up to the level that a director envisions when they start at a school. What is it that takes so long? Is it just sowing the seeds in the student body?
JW: That is one aspect, sowing interest among the students, and another is creating the necessary resources to maintain a great program. One of my biggest challenges today is what we call “feeding the monster”: providing the resources needed to sustain this kind of a program. It takes a long time to convince and educate administrators about your needs and the necessary tools that fit into the realm of your school culture and environment. Also, you have to get the kids to buy into the level of work ethic and commitment. Kids can do pretty much anything you teach them. If you can teach it, they can do it. It took us a while to teach the kids exactly what they were capable of doing. The other critical step was developing a staff that could meet the needs of the students and the program.

SBO: What are some of the specific resources that you had to put into place in order to get the band program up to speed?
JW: For one, our facilities have been a big part of it. Avon is one of the fastest growing communities in the Midwest. Our facilities were way behind the times, but since I’ve been here, we’ve built a new high school, and more recently a new Fine Arts wing. We’ve been very successful at amassing instruments and uniforms, the infrastructure of the band program. It’s also critical to have the kids and their parents buy into the need for really top-level designers and instructors. That really has made the biggest difference: we have some of the best designers in the country right here at Avon. With the instructional staff we have in place, our students are getting a world-class experience.

SBO: Speaking of that world-class experience, what are your goals with the program?
JW: I really have a national perspective of what a band program can be, and what we’re trying to do is be world class in every area of our program. I would love to run a concert band that plays like Marcus High School in Texas and a percussion ensemble that’s as good as any one in the country, like the ones in California.

SBO: Besides the obvious of “It’s great to be great,” what are the primary benefits of being on the national stage?
JW: I think it comes down to a little bit about who I am. When I was in high school, I remember hearing about MBA (Marching Bands of America), only there were no schools in Florida that participated in it. I talked to my band director at the time and asked him why we couldn’t do something like that. He replied, “Oh, you don’t want to do that; it’s way too much work.” That comment sat with me for a long time. When I started playing with the Bridgemen, we were able to do some incredible things from a standpoint of being the best at what you are in the activity. In those days, we were trying to be the best drum line in the world, the best in the drum corps arena. I learned some things: in particular, why not aspire to achieve the best that is possible?

That’s why we’re involved in the Bands of America and that’s why we’re involved in Winter Guard International; that’s why we send tapes to the Midwest Band and Orchestra Clinic. It’s all because I want my kids to have a world-class experience in everything that we do. That’s really what my philosophy is. And the only way to assess how are doing is to find the very best programs in the country and see how we stack up against them.

SBO: So you’re in favor of competition in music education, then?
JW: I feel really strongly about this: competition is one of the greatest things that we teach kids. I have never shunned away from it; I have always embraced it. It is up to educators to keep it focused on the positive, and it is my responsibility to promote a system of excellence, work ethic, and dedication that creates an end product our students can be proud of. And the kids have been proud of the end product every single year, even as that product kept developing over time. Although the product has changed pretty dramatically over the years, the students’ experience has stayed pretty consistent. On Facebook and other Web sites, I get in touch with past band members and it’s always interesting to see how they’ve grown and developed and the things that they have taken with them from the band program beyond just music. It’s absolutely critical that we not only embrace competition but also teach it correctly and not get wrapped up in trophies or first place finishes, but in the process of a commitment to excellence. That process is what changes kids.

SBO: Thinking along those lines, as an educator, how do you measure success?
JW: I measure success in different ways. I get to see those kids for a very important four-year span in their lives, from ages 14 to 18. For the most part, I try to assist my students with the process of maturing, finding their voice, discovering who they are, and learning about themselves and how to interact with each other. I usually interview every prospective band member before he or she joins the program so I can get to know him or her a little bit. Success comes for me when I look in their eyes during the last weekend I see them on senior night, at graduation, or the last weekend of the school year and I see how they’ve changed since the first time I saw them in my office their freshman year. That’s where I measure success.

A Commitment to ExcellenceSure, my band room has a ton of trophies in it, we have all kinds of banners, and we’ve had all kinds of success, but that’s just an end product to doing things that we believe in trying to be world class in everything that we do.

SBO: Last November, you won the Bands of America National Championship, and your program received the highest overall score ever given out in the finals. What can you tell me about the process of putting together a show of that magnitude?
JW: It’s really a team effort. I have a visual consultant, Danny Wiles, who’s been with me now for 12 years. I really trust his instincts. Jay Bocook, a very famous arranger, arranges our music. We have visual writers who come in and assist with various aspects of the program.

SBO: Are those folks on staff, fulltime?
JW: They’re basically consultants, although Danny Wiles runs our color guard program, which has also had a tremendous amount of success. He’s basically in charge of the visual component, which is one of the elements that propelled our scores at Grand Nationals and other achievements that we’ve experienced in the past few years.

Those are just a few people we have a great staff of about 20 that all work together, and they are some of the very top educators in the country. Dean Westman has been a part of our staff, he’s from Texas, Stephen F. Austin, and he’s now the orchestra director here at Avon. Matt Harloff, who’s the captain head for the Carolina Crowns, is my assistant director. These are fulltime staff members. We have some fantastic talent and experience in our instructional staff. Our kids get some of the best teaching possible, as far as the marching arts are concerned.

SBO: There must be logistical complications with a faculty of that size. How do you handle it?
JW: Basically, what I learned from Tom Dirks at Center Grove was to surround yourself with great people, give them the resources they need to do their jobs, and just let them do it. I’ve followed that idea, and it’s been fantastic getting everyone involved because we have a great working relationship and we all trust each other throughout the process. We each have our specific areas of expertise, but we’re all working towards the common goal, which is achieving our potential.

SBO: What do you hope pops into the minds of your former students when they think of your band program 10 or 15 years after they’ve moved on?
JW: I’m sure if you asked my former students about me, they would say, “That guy was crazy!” [laughs] But once we got past the funny stories and the good times, I’m hoping they’d talk about the way I taught them to be respectful of themselves, the environment, of each other, and the opportunities that we have.

I’ve always treated music as a tool to reach kids that might not be reached in other ways. And I hope that through my teaching, my students will have gained a lifelong appreciation of music, but I also hope that they’ve gained a lifelong appreciation of life, and living your life to the fullest. Because that’s what we do at Avon: We go full out all the time, give 100 percent. That’s what it’s all about.

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