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Festivals of Music: Virginia Beach 2018

Mike Lawson • Features • May 11, 2018

The 2018 Festivals of Music Virginia Beach event was held April 27 and 28 at the L. Douglas Wilder Performing Arts Center at Norfolk State University.

The facility was as beautiful to listen in as it was to view. Participating schools and their directors included:

Dover High School – Dover Plains, NY: Justin Stockslager, Nicholas Sowul

Honeoye Falls – Lima High School – Honeoye Falls, NY: Andrew Vetter, Mark Borden

Marple Newtown High School – Newtown Square, PA: Michael Massimo

Plum Senior High School – Pittsburgh, PA: Andrew Bronkaj, Bethany Loy, John DeLuce

St. John’s College High School – Washington, DC: Kathryn Fernandez, Kenneth Hammann, Scott Douglass

After attending the Friday festival, I was able to speak to Festivals of Music executive director (and frequent SBO contributor), Tom Merrill about their approach to producing student music festivals.

I was very impressed with the Wilder. How did you find that venue and how long have you been there?

This is our third season there. We had a gentleman who joined us from a festival company that went out of business who said, “The festival company I used to work for had this great venue.” I Googled it, saw the images, and thought, “We need to get into this hall.” I called them immediately. It still happened to be available for all four of our dates that first year, so we grabbed it.

I was able to see Friday’s festival performance at the Wilder. Every group that performed was wonderful.

We have some really high-quality groups that take part in our festival now. We have some long-time groups that have been with us for many years with well-established programs. Their teachers are taking that great advice they’re getting from the adjudicators and using it to help improve their programs. That’s really why we exist. We’re about furthering music education and making sure that we’re providing an educationally-viable experience.

When you choose a venue, how important is the sonic environment?

We’re talking about groups that may have a very nice auditorium at their home school, or they may be playing on the gym floor in a multi-purpose room. Our aim is to give them a venue that hopefully is nicer than what they experience at home, not just from the visual aspect but also from how they sound.

If I were a band director and a retired colonel who conducted Pershing’s Own for the U.S. Army was my adjudicator, I’d be scared to death. Did they know who is going to adjudicate them beforehand?

They do. We’re really fortunate in Virginia Beach because, inherent to the area, there are so many retired and active military band people who are phenomenal. Back to your statement about being scared to death, the funny thing is, Colonel Palmatier and Colonel Pulver are both very approachable people. You’re putting my band director hat back on me for a minute. “Oh, my gosh, the guy who used to conduct Pershing’s Own is gonna hear my band?” But the thing of it is, he’s so great with those kids. And that’s one of the reasons we keep bringing them back is because they relate to those kids, they know how to talk with them without talking down to them, they don’t get an ivory tower mentality. They’re really very approachable, and down-to-earth with the expertise that they’re sharing.

Do you think the band directors work their students harder knowing who is judging?

If that were me, yes, I would definitely have an awareness for that and I’d make sure the kids understand the status of the people that they’re working with. One of the things that we always look for is somebody who has that high-level experience, if you will, whether it’s a university, a military band, but also experience working with high school groups, whether they taught in high schools, or conducted all-states, and honor bands, because we want them to be able to communicate, and have that kind of perspective.

Your onsite staff, led by Ramon Villa and his wife Lisa, ran a flawless event.

Ramon and Lisa are two tremendous people. They’re both retired Marine Corps Band members and they run a tight ship. But they also are very musically-involved. Their whole family, their kids are all musicians. Their son has been one of the top all-state trumpeters in the State of Virginia for a couple of years in a row now. They get that part of the life too. It’s not just about running people through an event. It’s about what they’re doing at the event.

Can you tell me about this special software/tablets that the adjudicators are using?

That is a completely built-from-scratch system called FestivalsEdge. It makes things easier for the adjudicators, it makes things easier for the directors. They’re tablets, and the adjudicators login, hook a mic up to it, and do their recording for each group on them. They are prepped ahead of each festival with all of the information on the groups uploaded. They do their scoring all on it. When the festival is done, it’s all uploaded up to our website.

The directors are able to log into their account and print off recap sheets. They can print off the awards information. They click on a link to the judge’s recording and instantly, they start listening. It’s an MP3 file. To our knowledge, it’s unique to Festivals of Music and Music in the Parks.


The level of experience of the adjudicators was impressive. Colonel Thomas Palmatier’s military career spans more than 37 years and he was the Leader and Commander of The United States Army Band “Pershing’s Own,” the largest military music unit in the United States. He has been a clinician for Festivals of Music for over 25 years. Colonel Bruce Pulver currently serves as the Commander of the U.S. Army School of Music. His previous assignments include: Commander of the United States Army Europe Band, Deputy Commander of The United States Army Field Band, and Executive Officer of the Army Ground Forces Band. He once taught in public schools as both a middle and high school band director. Doug Gately is the director of jazz studies at the University of Mary Washington and is the director and conductor of the jazz ensemble, concert band, and various chamber groups. He is the principal instructor of applied studies in flute, clarinet, saxophone, and jazz piano. He’s played with Doc Severinsen, Arturo Sandoval, Dizzy Gillespie, Henry Mancini, Natalie Cole, Aretha Franklin, Tony Bennett, and more. He was a member of the U.S. Air Force’s jazz ensemble, the Airmen of Note.That’s one well-qualified group of judges. But in spite of that, they were not intimidating to the student musicians, or their directors.

During a break at the festival, Col. Palmatier and I sat down for a few moments.

How does one go from being a band kid to conducting Pershing’s Own for the U.S. Army?

I would like to tell you there was some great master plan, but there really wasn’t. I went to the Crane School of Music in upstate New York. They pride themselves in being a music education school. I went on to graduate school at Truman University in Missouri. In 1977, I had my master’s degree, but I felt like I wanted to play more, so I joined the army with no intention of staying. I was just going to do three years, get some money together so I could get my doctorate and then, maybe, go into college teaching. I also felt like, compared to my peers, my colleagues who had gone into higher education teaching, that I was serving a larger purpose as well. Not only was I getting to play music, but I’m just doing it for something that I really believe in and serving the nation. I came in as a private. I took the long way around, but I think that was good because I learned something at each one of those steps. Not every single day did I jump out of bed saying, “Wow. I can’t wait to go and make music today.” And not every single day did I jump out of bed and say, “Boy, I want to go be a soldier today.” But there was not one single day where I didn’t want to do one or the other. And most of the days, I wanted to do both.

What motivates you to be so involved in adjudication and music education?

I feel very strongly that those of us who have the opportunity to work with higher education or professional groups, that if we’re gonna go out and tell public school band directors how to do their job, we need to spend time in the classroom, too. When I’m home, every opportunity that I get, I substitute teach, and I don’t cherry pick, I don’t go in to only do wind ensembles. I did a sixth-grade band last week where I felt like I needed a whip and a chair. I mean, it’s a very tough job. Some places have things are set up for success, but in some places, God bless those band directors and orchestra and choir directors who are doing their very, very best to bring music to people when they have obstacles put in front of them, whether it be scheduling of facilities or all those other things.

I judged my first festival over 25 years ago, and as long as military duties would permit it, I was allowed to take leave and do these things. I was struck right away by how, yes, it’s a business, but [the festivals] really seemed to care about the music and the musicians, they cared about the quality of the adjudication, particularly, the Festivals of Music because it involves clinics. They are allowing us to do longer clinics if that’s what the directors want.

Each director gets to choose how long of a clinic they want. I love kids and I love music, and I love musicians. So, it’s easy and you don’t have to fake it. Throughout my career, I did a lot of clinics for free. My music education roots at Crane, I kept in touch with those.

It’s very easy when you’re working with top-flight professionals to lose touch with that. It’s also very easy to start thinking you’re better than you are because you get out there as a conductor while you have the most amazing players in the world. They’re gonna make anybody sound good. But you don’t know if you know what you’re doing until you’re working with a group of middle school kids or high school kids where you have to teach, you have to inspire. You’ve got to do the whole nine yards. You can’t just roll out and say, “Okay, play better.” I love working with kids, you know. It’s nice seeing that light go on, that smile when they realize they sound good, it’s great.”


These school music groups traveled long distances to participate in the Festivals of Music Virginia Beach 2018 event. Plum Senior High School brought several with them for the instrumental portion of the festival including their symphonic band, concert band, string orchestra, jazz ensemble, and marching band. One of their directors, Bethany Loy, joined me for a quick discussion in-between each performance.

How many groups did you bring to Festivals of Music Virginia Beach this year?

I’ve got three concert ensembles here today, and then we have marching band tomorrow and we have our orchestra and chorus program, too. The philosophy with my program is that the concert band is the core of the program. And here, we have our symphonic band and our concert band. Tomorrow, we have our marching band here, too. In my teaching day, I have two jazz bands of two levels. I just this year started teaching in the junior high, too. I’ve been wearing a lot of hats lately.

How long have you been bringing them to Festivals of Music?

This is my sixth year at Plum. I went to Plum, met my husband in ninth grade band. We participated in these programs when we were students. We have been traveling every other year since I started at Plum, and the last two years, we’ve been to the same festival two years in a row through the Festivals of Music. The festivals, the venues, the adjudicators have all been really strong.

How have things been going this year?

One thing that was notable here this year was the rehearsal space was great. It was a band room, it was carpeted, and was a pretty dead room. It was a great place for us to warm up in because the mistakes were very easy to fix, and we could go over some things before they went into the hall where it was much more live and a lot more forgiving, if you will. So that whole process was great for us. I mean, that was something that I really appreciated. The one trouble for us is we traveled yesterday, so these students didn’t play for a day. And that’s kind of tough being in a new place and having not played. We missed a day of rehearsal. I always tell them that success is when preparedness meets opportunity, my college band director, Dr. Bundy, said at Penn State. You know, if you’re prepared, and that opportunity presents itself, that’s when things happen. I think it was cool to see some of that come to fruition.

The students can’t have the level of understanding of how qualified these adjudicators are, but you do. Does that intimidate you when you’re getting ready for the festival?

A little bit. These festivals have shaped me as a young educator. I try not to let it freak me out, because the kids will walk as we walk, and I maintain calm. I use their input as professional development for me. One of the things Colonel Palmatier said to us today was, “I’m glad your band director knows to use an A for woodwinds and a B flat for brass.” That was something he nailed me on last year. Those kinds of experiences are a benefit to my students.

But also, my students are benefiting through my professional development. My colleagues John and Andy, the orchestra and the choir director, they’ve been teaching 20 years. And this is year six for me, so I’ve got some catching up to do to keep up with them. They’re amazing musicians and phenomenal teachers.

That’s helpful to me, too. One of my favorite things is when the adjudicators get in front of the kids and tell them, sometimes verbatim, exactly what I tell them at school. Then we leave and I’m like, “See? See? Told ya.” So that’s always really good. And sometimes all it takes is hearing it in a different way or from a different person for it to make an impact on a student. The next day at the awards ceremony at Busch Gardens Williamsburg’s Royal Palace Outdoor Theatre, Loy’s groups swept the honors in multiple categories. I made the drive and arrived just as Ramon and Lisa Villa were setting up the trophies at the amphitheater. They were excited about the day’s event. It was easy to understand why, because the performances during the festival were great, and the kids were full of excitement as they made their way to their seats. The bands from each school were supportive and applauded as other schools won, even in their disappointment at not winning. It was smiles across a thousand faces that hot afternoon throughout the ceremony. And when it ended, they poured into the theme park for a well-earned day of roller coasters and other rides.

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