Origins: Dr. James Wells Pioneering the Festival Landscape

Mike Lawson • • March 7, 2016

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You may not know him, but it’s quite possible he changed your life. Dr. James Wells is one of the early pioneers in the music festival arena and leadership development through music education experiences. After spending several years as a high school band director in Oley, Pennsylvania, he moved on to become the longtime director of bands at West Chester University where he led the Incomparable Golden Rams Marching Band. With his leadership, the ensemble became an innovator as one of the first college marching bands to utilize the new “corps-style” marching techniques that were happening in the drum corps circuit—employing such things as curvilinear and asymmetrical drill design, roll step techniques, front ensemble percussion and rife squads that would spin and toss their equipment.

Part of his philosophy while at West Chester was creating a collaborative, leadership-oriented atmosphere where the students could contribute their ideas into the marching band performance. Many of the university band students were members of the Reading Buccaneers Drum Corps, and this was where some of the first ideas of incorporating the corps style design practices into school bands originated. This had far-reaching implications to the music education world. Much of the team behind the 1980s Garfield Cadets/Cadets of Bergen County dynasty were members of Wells’ marching band. One student in particular, a young drum major out of Delaware by the name of George N. Parks, changed the dynamic of band leadership forever.

In the summer of 1970 Wells also founded the West Chester University Marching Band and Band Front Conference. This was an opportunity for directors to develop more effective teaching techniques and interact with leaders in the field, and is an annual workshop that even today continues to influence music educators. It was also the catalyst that set into motion other programs that would come later, such as the George N. Parks Drum Major Academy and Band Leadership Training Programs…programs that have touched countless lives and likely set hundreds of music educators onto their career path.

“I think I always had the ability to encourage people, and I think that’s why I was always close to the guy in behavioral psychology at Columbia. It seemed to be natural that you’d use all those concepts and ideas about leadership, and that you’d try to incorporate them into what you would do with people.”

Glen Brumbach, whose doctoral work includes a study of Wells and his influence on the music education world, recounts a story that demonstrates Wells’ approach to working with people. A high school tuba player, whose only encounter with Wells was performing in a district honor band he conducted in 1969, auditioned for the tuba professor at West Chester and got accepted. One day while sitting in his high school classroom, he was summoned to the office where a man was waiting to see him. “So he goes down to the office, and it was a uniform guy. And he was there to measure Denny for a uniform for the West Chester marching band. (Wells) wanted to make sure that there was a uniform to ft him, because he was a big guy. And Denny said, ‘If Dr. Wells can remember what I looked like from that festival, and was that concerned, then I’m going to West Chester.’ That’s an example.”

However, it was his work at Oley Valley High School that first began the chain of events that would lead him to the world of music festivals. The performance quality and reputation of the band led to an invitation to perform a half-time show for the nearby Philadelphia Eagles back in the 1960s—an interesting proposition, because the band had never done a half-time show. The reason being, the school had no football team. Ever up for a challenge, Wells wrote a show for the band to perform at Franklin Field—the old University of Pennsylvania stadium.

Acquaintances made during that experience led to Wells adjudicating parades, and around 1970 an offer to help develop a festival to be known as the National International Music Festival. This was one of the first to incorporate both marching bands and concert bands into the experience, and Wells’ relationships in the music education world helped bring in legendary names such as Bill Moffit to adjudicate the ensembles. During this time, Wells was busy not only with his work at West Chester, but also pursuing a doctorate at Columbia University. “I remember when I was getting my doctorate, I would teach at West Chester in the morning, jump a train at Paoli and run in at night, and I’d get home about midnight or 1:00 AM. And be back at West Chester at 8:00 AM the next morning.”

As the 1980’s approached, the original festival was beginning to show signs of foundering. A travel company, World Travel, had been started by Wells to facilitate the travel for the many festival adjudicators in attendance—but the festival itself was under staffed and lacking quality in many areas. “Generally the many facets of running a festival were weak. Best sites, best adjudicators, best staffs and quality awards and ceremony were needed. I felt there was a need for sight reading in music education.”

He had heard about someone in Texas who owned a theme park and would bring marching bands in and let them play, so he decided to make a break with the previous festival and reached out to the entertainment director at nearby Hersheypark. It was 1981, and in collaboration with his brother Richard—a music professor at Kutztown University—Music In The Parks came into being.

“It seemed like a great idea to have groups perform and then have a fun time at a park. It was a valuable end of the school year evaluation with the park being the social aspect.” After that first year, the performances were moved out of the parks and into nearby schools in order to provide a better concert environment. Dorney Park in Pennsylvania and Great Adventure in New Jersey were also added as locations.

His next goal was to offer a premium program with the best nationally known judges of the time, and to make it a motivating experience for directors and students with worthwhile sites and an inspiring awards ceremony. He also wanted to provide leadership offerings, in line philosophically with his work at West Chester. This led to the creation of Festivals of Music in 1982. The first site was the convention center at Ocean City, Maryland…a remarkable facility with a fortunate coincidence: the new event director there was same person who a year earlier was the entertainment director at Hersheypark who helped launch Music in the Parks.

“That was our first one. It was real successful, about 5,000 people right of the bat. And I remember doing an awards ceremony there, and I remember a fire department official standing at the back with me saying they were going to close us down if we didn’t get those people out of there and somewhere else. (chuckles) And that’s how we started.”

Wells had tapped into an obvious need, and was approaching it with musical quality and a focus on education. More locations followed quickly in the next few years, among them Williamsburg, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Atlanta and Orlando. It would eventually grow to the current 12 cities, with more projected to be added in the coming years.

And in regards to nationally known judges, he started at the top—hiring the legendary Dr. William Revelli of the University of Michigan.

“In the early days, I was always interested in bringing in the big names, because I felt that was excellent advertising. And Bill Revelli was really helpful because he not only would do the adjudication but would stay and do the awards ceremony. He was very helpful. He stayed with us, he always wanted to be there and say something at the awards. He always talked about how great music was for students.”

The early years of Festivals of Music reads like a “Who’s Who” of the band world. Colonel Arnald Gabriel. Dr. Frank Battisti. Bill Moffit. Anthony Maiello. Gordon Henderson. Just to name a few. “You’ve got to say the right things. That was the great thing about Revelli and Gabriel…they knew what to say. Revelli went to those awards ceremonies. Here’s a guy who was recognized as probably the top among band directors, and there he is talking to you. Those kind of motivation things carry some weight. That’s what you try to do at the awards, and it’s just another extension of the educational process.”

It was a workshop event sponsored by McCormick’s Enterprises that introduced Wells to yet another key collaborator in those early years—Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser.

“I went to one of the McCormick’s events…and Tim was up front and doing the talking, because he’s top notch at that. That’s his business, so I got to know Tim. And when he started Attitude Concepts for Today, that’s when I brought him to West Chester to do the (summer) clinics, and had him do a session or two with the marching band.” When Dr. Tim joined the Festivals of Music events, he would act as an adjudicator and often emcee the awards ceremonies as well. When his busy schedule allows, to this day he still occasionally participates in the festivals.

With this monumental growth, changes in the structure of the organization were needed. Because it was impossible for the office staff to travel to all the festivals, trusted site staff personnel were hired to manage and execute the festivals— a practice that continues today. But the office staff was still doing double duty, not only planning the details of the festival but also the travel details for the groups attending. It was time for a change that would allow growth, and ultimately provide a point of pride for the organization.

“I said; ‘We’re going to divide this. Everybody doing festivals and travel is ridiculous. We’re not going to do that anymore.’ And no one agreed with me—they said that was crazy. But we separated it, and of course it was the right thing to do. I didn’t have any great ‘lightning bolt’ or anything, but it just made sense. You’re either going to be a travel agent or you’re going to do the festivals right, and that’s what we did. So the separation was what I thought was necessary.”

Glen Brumbach states, “The claim to fame of this festival is that you had music people putting it together rather than travel people. That’s the strength of it. Before it was travel companies, now it was music educators creating the experience.” The change created the EPN Travel Service branch of the Educational Programs Network. World Travel, the original travel company which had initially been created to arrange travel for the festival adjudicators, was now led by Wells’ son James and focused on corporate travel. That organization is itself a separate success story for the Wells family, growing into one of the largest travel companies in North America.

Wells has seen a number of changes over the nearly 35 years that Music in the Parks and Festivals of Music has been in existence, influenced by musical and non-musical factors alike. Marching band adjudication was popular in the early years, when some schools had marching band as a year round activity. However, shows became more complex and economic and scheduling factors created “holes” in the formations when students would be unable to attend the tour. By about the year 2000, there was little demand for field show adjudication. Parade marching band is still offered in some locations, and is especially popular in Virginia Beach.

Recent years have shown an increase in smaller, more diverse ensembles. Mariachi groups, guitar ensembles, steel pan ensembles, renaissance choirs and others are being added to the roster of captions. There are also offerings in select locations to include winter guard and indoor drumline opportunities. What this diversity provides is more opportunity for school music departments who travel with all of their ensembles to have a performance experience for all of their students.

The emphasis on standardized testing, and limiting time out of school, has also had an impact. “The festivals, at one time, we had to have them over three days: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The Thursday was mostly jazz. But that has sort of compressed because they don’t have the time, for one thing.” There has also been an observation of the social aspects of the tour gaining importance over the musical aspects, but also a hope that with the new standards incorporating music as a core subject a pendulum swing back to the importance of having a musical focus to festival participation and touring may be on the horizon.

One of the biggest positive changes has been the ability of technology to streamline and ease the process for both the director and the festival organizers. The adjudicator comments have evolved from cassette tapes, to SD chips, to now being completely recorded on electronic tablets from which audio comments and scores are downloaded from the festival website at the completion of the festival. Their unique FestivalsEdge is an all-encompassing system that takes the participating directors from signup to recap score sheets in a paperless and user-friendly system.

Reflecting upon the past 35 years, Wells feels that some of the greatest success of Festivals of Music has been going from almost zero to being one of the nation’s foremost programs of its kind. He also points to the student experiences of adjudication and clinics with giants in the field like Revelli, Gabriel and Battisti as being significant. “I think that’s another thing as far as the clinics are concerned. They are a great motivator. We had a jazz guy in Washington from George Mason—he used to take his sax and take it up on stage and talk to the kids, and then play a few licks….It really is a motivator, stuff like that. I think that’s another important teaching factor that kids sometimes don’t have an opportunity, except at certain times, to see things like that.”

He feels that the benefits a festival experience provides to a school music program and the students and directors involved is that of another avenue for the directors to encourage, evaluate and motivate true musical growth. It provides teaching and learning opportunities through evaluation by vetted music educators. It should encourage proper student behavior on and off stage, recognizing and congratulating outstanding performances by deserving groups. Finally, it must be one of the high points of the year for each attending organization and encourage future student participation and growth.

What does Wells, a pioneer in the field, see in the future? “I believe that music educators will continue to work to prove the importance of music education, and work toward quality performance and teaching music within the performing organizations. This should result in Festivals of Music continuing to offer truly educational experiences and being a partner in student growth.”

He has seen many changes since those early days in Oley. The landscape has evolved time and time again, both in terms of style and repertoire as well as the importance of advocacy and leadership. The organizations he founded continue to evolve as well, finding new ways to provide support and remarkable performance opportunities for school music programs and the students who benefit from their participation. Dr. James Wells has not merely been a witness to the evolution of music education, but rather an integral performer who has shaped and guided the course as surely as a great conductor interprets a musical phrase from the podium. The leadership philosophy and musical excellence he fostered at West Chester University in those early years created a ripple effect of educational and performance programs that continue to influence and change lives yet today.

Tom Merrill is the executive director of Festivals of Music.


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