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Marking Time with Mike Alverson

Dan Blaufuss | August 2009

    During a typical Friday afternoon dress parade, Com­mander Michael Alverson (U.S. Navy, Retired) can be seen directing The Regimental Band of The Citadel, its 80 cadets marching with distinctive silver instruments before guests visiting the school’s campus in Charleston, South Car­olina. The Citadel is a state school – a college military academy – that offers degrees in five academic areas but none in music. Yet under Alverson’s watch these past five years, the music program has flourished and grown in popularity, attracting bright students who are excellent musicians and want to take part in band as they pursue academic degrees.
    Alverson’s musical life has been tied to military bands ever since his days at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville where he received a bachelor’s degree in music education. He followed the footsteps of an uncle as well as a cousin and immediately joined the Navy after school, but instead of auditioning for a Navy band, he signed on for an administrative position when a recruiter said he had to play five instruments for the Navy Band and he played only four. He later found out the Navy Band required an audition on only one instrument – and the playing had to be exceptional.
    Naval life for Alverson has included being a member of the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters in Wash­ington D.C., which is the official Navy Chorus, performing with a fleet band in Orlando, Florida, and teaching at the Armed Forces School of Music. He directed professional musicians in the Pacific Fleet Band, the Atlantic Fleet Band, and the U.S. Naval Academy Band. He was also the music director and coordinator of the Virginia Arts Festival’s Virginia In­ternational Tattoo in Norfolk.  
    At The Citadel Alverson oversees the Regimental Band and its performances at numerous parades, formal ceremonies, winter holiday celebrations, athletic events, and special programs. A colorful Citadel Pipe Band, which has 30 to 35 pipes and drummers, is also part of the music program. In 1991 both ensembles performed at the Edinburgh (Scot­land) Military Tat­too during its month-long music celebration, and recently both ensembles were invited to perform in the 2010 Tattoo, an event Alverson anticipates with much excitement. The groups have a standing invitation to perform at the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo in Canada.

There is no music major program at The Citadel. What was your first reaction to directing the band and how do you compensate when students are not music majors?
    I had been spoiled by directing superb, experienced musicians my entire career, so working with high school graduates who did not have extensive musical experiences or backgrounds was new to me. I had to do a lot of research. I have always believed that if your players are not as strong as you would like, the director has to find music that makes the ensemble sound good. By the end of the first rehearsal the playing should sound respectable, and the students should be playing with confidence, to a point where they start listening critically.
    The first step in the process of being a new director is to guide students to where you want them to go. I’ve been fortunate to be able to do that. From a musical standpoint, the cadets here want to learn; they want to get better and expand their musical knowledge. Now, we are rehearsing some interesting music, including some difficult works.

What specifically can band directors do beyond selecting music that will get students excited about rehearsing and practicing?
    Students who feel a director’s excitement  become excited. I believe in using words of encouragement that build a sense of confidence and show I believe in my students and what they can do.
A director should never demean students. I keep encouraging them and pushing them, and I avoid using false praise, saying something sounded great when it didn’t. I like using the phrase “We’re almost there” because not everyone plays a crescendo with the same dynamic change and intensity or interprets the articulations as written. It’s also important to let students know if you are dissatisfied, but that comes later, once the band members show they can perform up to the level I expect; some students get lazy or don’t focus on the music.
    The hardest part about being a band director is sustaining the patience to do well. You do that by keeping the energy and spirit alive. Many middle school and high school band directors are facing enormous budgetary and scheduling difficulties with only a minimum amount of support from administrators. The combination will drain you. As a band director, never lose sight of your vision for your ensembles. I believe you should have a realistic vision with a defined, written set of goals for each band. If you don’t have a document like this, create one. Most important, keep it handy and read it often. This will help you to stay focused and keep any problems in perspective.
    Now, when freshmen cadets sign up for band, the performance standard is already set and they have to meet that standard. Once students understand what a director wants, they can begin the process of development and advancing their level of playing.

You mentioned you did a lot of research at one time. What areas did the research include?

    It focused on teaching techniques, such as how to teach articulation. I never had the chance to apply the information I learned in music school to teaching because after college I went straight into the Navy and worked with professional musicians. Fortunately my director friends were helpful when I asked for their thoughts on any number of subjects. I’ve had fellow directors and musicians come in and work with sections of the band to let the students hear a specialist on their instrument. That has been a great help.
    The band community, particularly in the Charleston area, is highly supportive. It’s been helpful for me to be a part of the group and to know that there are those ladies and gentlemen who I can call on just for advice. It’s a very cooperative area in which to be a band director.

Which areas of music instruction did you struggle with the most?

As a trombone player, I was lost when it came to helping the reeds. Knowing a clarinet player had a problem and needed suggestions fixing it was difficult. I had to relearn how to teach articulation and tonguing, all the things high school band directors and college band directors have to know. It seemed new to me.
    The biggest asset to someone accepting a position like this is knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and finding people to help. When students feel your energy and en­thu­­siasm, their energy and enthu­siasm grows; it becomes a foun­dation for building a program. In my case, I’m told that it is working.
If there is any advice I could give to a band director moving into a new position, it would be to sustain your energy. You have to have the smiles and a personality that says, “We can do this to­gether.” It is a collective effort.

When you get frustrated or a rehearsal doesn’t go as well as you would like, how do you keep that energy going?
    I rethink my approach, perhaps finding a new way to present a subject, or reevaluating the music I’ve se­lected. If a piece doesn’t work, I go through the library and find something else.
In terms of sustaining the energy, you may want to get away from what­­ is causing the problem and re­charge your batteries. A happy home life and a supportive family will keep the energy going as will a new musical outlet, such as joining a community band. When I examine a problem or talk to others about the different areas I am trying to improve in my students, sometimes I spontaneously come up with a gem of a concept that connects with students.
    For example, one time I used the concept of rap to convey a syncopated rhythmic passage that some of the band members had a problem with. When I did that, it seemed that the light bulb came on and that rhythmic passage locked in. The band was a little shocked that I even knew about rap. It comes down to putting a concept into terms or examples that young people relate to, and the more you do it, the more adept you become at teaching.
    I like to explore the words and terms that I use so that if I’ve already explained an idea, I can find another way to express it, helping students to play a certain passage conceptually. The age group is different because the cadets are 18-22 year olds at the college level. I’m very fortunate in the respect that they are incredibly intelligent people who happen to be majoring in chemistry, physics, and electrical engineering. I can talk to them on a little higher level.

How often does the band rehearse and how many times each semester does it perform?
    Until 2008 we had only two morning re­hear­sals a week. Last Sep­tember that changed when the school changed its scheduling and for the first time I had the opportuntity for one-hour rehearsals during the day, five days a week.
    The Regimental Band plays the musical honors for military parades when the entire brigade or battalion passes in review in front of the general or important guests. We play a march or two to get the entire Corps of Cadets out on the parade field followed by other martial music and the national anthem, and we play Scotland The Brave with the pipe band as we pass in review.
    We perform one formal concert in the spring, and the fall schedule includes a brass choir performance at the Summerall Chapel, which is a beautiful candlelight service for all the cadets. Of course, we perform at homecoming for halftime, and we have an annual performance titled “The Citadel Story,” which is a narrative about The Citadel’s history with a musical background that is performed on what is called Corps Day in the spring.
    In addition to The Regimental Band, we have a superb pipe band – two units of pipes and drums –  directed by Captain Jim Dillahey, a graduate of The Citadel. He is an excellent teacher who has shared many insights of cadet life with me. My guess is that the majority of people have heard only bad pipers because I always hear, “How can you stand that sound?”
    It’s hard work to play the pipes. One of the big areas Jim stresses is intonation. Before the pipes perform, he’ll spend up to an hour tuning them. It has to be right. Jim is a perfectionist, and the result is the fine reputation of the pipe band and the improved overall musicianship of the program.
    The Regimental Band and The Citadel Pipe  Band perform together as well as separately. Band Company is its own entity, meaning the bandsmen live together on the same floor of the barracks; they rehearse together and eat together. You talk about a big family – this is it.

Is the march always the same or do you work up a selection of pieces?

    I rotate the marches, giving cadets everything from American, British, and German marches to some contemporary music. Recently we performed Carl Teike’s Old Comrades, the week before it was Kenneth Alford’s Colonel Bogey, and the week before that it was Sousa’s Washington Post. I don’t believe in repetition. I put a new march, Walter Finlayson’s Thun­der Song March, in front of the ensemble yesterday. It’s a neat march and by the end of the rehearsal, the band was doing a fine job of it. If I put a new march in front of the band on Tuesday, generally it is ready to perform by Fri­day, which was the case with Old Comrades.

Tell us about the history of The Citadel. As I recall it was founded in the 1800s.

    The Citadel was founded in 1842, but the Regimental Band was form­ed much later in 1909. The Citadel Pipe Band, the program’s other ensemble, dates from 1955 and has 30 to 35 pipes and drummers; recruits come from the fresh­man class, most of whom have never played bagpipes before. The Pipe Band now has its own tartan, which is registered in Edinburgh, Scotland.
    The Regimental Band and The Citadel Pipe Band form Band Company, one of 19 companies that make up the Corps of Cadets. Enrollment at The Citadel is about 2,000 under­graduates and 1,000 graduate students. Women were admitted to The Citadel in 1996 and comprise about ten percent of the corps members.
    Gender has little influence on the instrumentation of the band because its members are people who simply love music and who are excellent at performing; they just want a career in another field. This year I have many male flute and clarinet players.
    The principal flutist this year is a wonderful musician whose playing is conservatory caliber; she is going on to a career in the Air Force. I have a tuba player who was all-state, and he is a history major. A trumpet player from New York City was principal trumpet with the New York City Youth Symphony.

Does any particular branch of the military or service run The Citadel?

    The Citadel is based on Army ter­minology and traditions, but only about 30% of the graduates go on to a career in the military. The freshmen are called Knobs; and they go through an intensive week of orientation, a kind of boot camp, before the rest of the Corps of Cadets return in mid August.

With no music majors, how do you go about recruiting for the band?

    Recruiting is just that. We have a limited number of scholarships, so there are some fundraising projects and funding support to attract players. It goes back to the old saying, “If you build it, they will come.” That is what we are doing here because both the administration and the alumni association highly support the music program and our plans for the future.

What did you learn from the Naval Academy Band and the other high-level groups that helped you as a new instructor at The Citadel?
    Patience – and that is from a military perspective. Professionalism. Knowing the fact that we don’t give up. Military people face challenges; the cadets face difficulties here every day from a musical standpoint and a leadership standpoint.
    When you have this number of young men and women together, there will be personality differences and differences in background that need to be worked out. Cadets learn to face those challenges and deal with them. Many of my military experiences taught me well, and I am thankful I can draw from them.

What do you anticipate for the future of The Regimental Band at The Citadel?

    The musical opportunities here are continuing to expand. The band has received invitations to national events this past year, and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Scotland would like the entire band to perform in 2010. One of my goals is for each class to take an extended trip and give a major performance at an important world-class event.
    I would like to expand the size of the Regimental Band and Pipes. Currently we are at 110 members combined in both ensembles, but to be viable for recruiting and public relations for the school we should have 130-140 members. The band is attracting many out-of-state players, and I have commitments from 11 all-state or all-region musicians for this fall.
    I have an excellent band room, and we now use all-silver instruments – even the saxophone line is silver. With uniforms that are blue, grey, and white, the silver jumps at you. I am able to purchase high-quality instruments with the budgetary support to make it happen as well as with donations from alumni. The program is also receiving more financial support for additional scholarships.
    I’m thrilled to be here because some neat things are happening in the music department. I look forward to Sunday nights because on Monday mornings I can go to work.