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Band Music Is My Passion, A Conversation with Ed Huckeby

Marc Decker | March 2018

    Ed Huckeby’s career has included roles in higher education and arts administration, most recently as President of Southwestern Christian University in Bethany, Oklahoma, until his retirement in 2014. Prior to his appointment at SCU, he was Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of Music at Northeastern State University-Broken Arrow (OK). Huckeby was also an arts administrator for Tulsa Ballet Theatre and is Emeritus Professor of Music at Northwestern Oklahoma State University where he was Music Department Chairman and Dean of the Graduate School for more than two decades. He spent eight years teaching instrumental music in the public schools of Oklahoma, where his marching, concert, and jazz bands won state and regional acclaim. His success in the public schools led him into the college teaching ranks, where he became internationally recognized as an outstanding music educator and composer of over 200 published works for concert and marching band. Huckeby was inducted into the Oklahoma Bandmasters Association Hall of Fame in 1996, and he has been a clinician, adjudicator, and conductor for instrumental ensembles around the world. 

What did you learn from your years teaching as a small-town band director?
    My first job as a band director was at my small-town high school. I graduated in 1966, and my band director moved to another job in 1967. Unfortunately, there are directors who can destroy a program in a year, and that happened at my school. Just before my third year of college, the superintendent contacted me to say that he could arrange for me to come back part time as the band director. I was thrilled, and the university worked with me on it. So, I was the band director in my hometown during my junior and senior year of college. I directed a beginning band and a high school band, the latter of which had players in grades 7-12, plus some sixth graders. I was in the high school band when I was in fifth grade, so that tells you the size of the town. The running joke was that in good years the population would break 1,000; it typically hovered around 997. 
    When you have such a wide range of ages and experience levels, it is sometimes difficult to pick music, adapt it for younger players, and still challenge advanced students. Finding the middle ground takes a great deal of creative effort and adaptation of the literature. I think this is where I learned how to write for younger players, using the skills developed under the guidance of my college band director, Don Gant, and music theory teacher, Charles Tracey. I wrote most of our fundamental exercises, and I also wrote my first composition during my first year as a teacher. It has never been published and probably never will be, but it was basically an imitation of Francis McBeth. It was successful enough that when I moved into my second position, I actually used the piece with my junior high band, and it worked quite well. We earned a I at district contests with that little piece.

What advice would you give a director taking a job in a small town?
    One must be resourceful, often with little or no assistance, so the first step is to seek as much help as can be found. I always advised my students when I was teaching in music education to seek out the people who are successful as mentors. That’s probably the first thing for young directors. Most directors who have been around for a while are eager to share information and help newcomers.
    The second piece of advice would be to stick around. Giving some time to a location is important to the success of the program and the success of the director. Make a commitment for some longevity, not just a year or two. A band program is only as good as its director, but the longer you can stay and build a program, the better the program will be. One of the things I found most tragic about both new and seasoned directors was that they tend to move from small district to small district, and there is no stability. There are circumstances that require people to move on, but sometimes young people are too eager to move and don’t allow themselves to mature, musically and otherwise.
    Have a plan and be organized. Go into the classroom with a strategy for daily improvement. No music program will develop through a scattershot approach to building musical literacy. I have instruments in a music garden outside, and an acquaintance from back in high school recently donated a flute for it. When we picked it up, she said, “I’ve never told anyone this, but I never actually learned to read music or even play the fight song.” How tragic that someone who was in band her entire school career never learned to read music. That goes back to my generation, but there are still both instrumental and choral teachers who teach primarily by rote. I think we fail the students if we don’t teach them to be musically literate. 
    The key to this is sequential learning. I encourage directors to find materials that will help them build sequentially in their teaching and help their students learn sequentially, so they can build music literacy skills. The turning point in my music career as a performer happened when I was auditioning for a district band as a ninth grader. My director said, “If you want to do really well on this audition, learn all of your major and minor scales and be ready to play any scale.” I did as he told me and played well on the audition. That was the point where I understood that there are some fundamental things that you have to know. Obviously, scales are one of them. Start with Bb major and work out from there sequentially in both directions. I just finished writing a piece for young band that starts in F, but modulates to C, Db, and Ab just to help the teachers get outside the boundaries of Bb, Eb, and F.
    Rhythm is another fundamental area of music literacy. I use what I call the constant eighths in teaching rhythmic literacy. This means that the eighth note is constant in 99% of our literature. 
    I think pushing the students toward more literacy in the keys and then, of course, teaching fundamental rhythmic understanding is important. If you inherit a program with students who cannot play scales and cannot read rhythms, meet them where they are, but do not keep them there. Start with these basics, but do not neglect the nuances of dynamics and phrasing. There are many well-organized method and technique books on the market, and I have written a sightreading series designed to help students improve their technical and music literacy skills. Young directors should take advantage of the tools that have been developed to make music teaching – and music learning – more efficient and effective.
    Do not forget to have fun and help your students have fun while they are learning and making music. This does not mean that chaos should reign; the fun comes from making good music. I also think it is important a director understands that instrumental music is a social experience for many students. In some cases it is the most important social experience they have. When I conduct an honor band, the first thing I tell students is, “I want this to be a good musical experience, I want you to have fun, and I want to have fun.” Those are the three criteria that I set out for groups I work with.
    I do not think a person has to give up discipline or classroom management to make music. You can make music and keep students occupied if you plan appropriately. Inexperienced teachers have discipline problems when their focus is on two or three people rather than the whole ensemble. Kids get bored. The director has to have a plan to work with the individuals or sections who need help, but it is also important to keep all students engaged in rehearsal. 
    Finally, and most importantly, do not forget your family. I have seen too much burnout, which is often caused by directors failing to recognize the most important things in life, like faith and family.

What inspired you to begin composing?
    I have had an innate desire to create music since I was young – first on the guitar, then the piano – and after starting on cornet in the fourth grade, I fell in love with band and band music. I knew by the time I was in junior high that I wanted to pursue music as a career. I started writing for my bands out of necessity and found it inspiring to hear the notes that came from my head produced on instruments. It’s still a thrill for me every time I hear one of my compositions or arrangements performed, whether it’s live or an audio or video recording. My passion is to write music that will help players succeed as they learn to play and enjoy music. 

How did you get your first few works published?
    I owe a lot to Andy Clark, who is now CEO of the C. L. Barnhouse Company. In the early 1980s he owned the Norman Lee Publishing Company, a small firm in Wichita, Kansas that specialized in marching band music for small schools. Andy and I became acquainted while I was band director at Northwestern Oklahoma State University. As a graduate, Andy returned for homecoming events and one day I casually mentioned that, if at some point his company began publishing concert music, I would like to submit some pieces for consideration. Ultimately, my first published work, Antecedium, was one of Norman Lee Publishing’s best sellers in 1986. 

What advice do you have for band directors interested in composing?
    The most important thing I have found is that you just have to start. I wasn’t born a composer. Just like learning an instrument, the best way to perfect your skills is to practice. I don’t have a set method I use or a set approach. Sometimes I start harmonically, sometimes I start melodically, sometimes I start with a concept, a non-musical idea. You just have to start. It’s not always a flash in the night. It’s a matter of sitting down and doing the work.
    Take advantage of every opportunity to write or arrange for your group or for someone else’s ensemble. Be sure to have an avenue for performance, or you will get frustrated writing something that nobody ever hears. If you think you have written something that should be available to others, submit it to a publisher for consideration. Just going through the process can be rewarding, even if not accepted for publication. I was in my mid-30s when I got my first piece published.

How can young composers make connections with publishers and promote their music?
    Seek out publishers that match your areas of interest and expertise. It is important that a new composer is able to write for young ensembles as well as more advanced groups. Publishers must reach a large market to be successful, and a majority of the market is music designed for young ensembles. Based on my experience, it is much easier for someone to get the attention of a publisher if they have good original material, rather than only arrangements. Also, it is important to have a clean and accurate score, as well as a good recording – even if synthesized – for submission. Some young composers try to self-publish, but it is challenging to reach a broad market in this way.

How did you get your first job in administration?
    I was fortunate enough to secure my first university job as a band director at Northwestern Oklahoma State University when I was twenty-seven. I worked hard to prove myself that first year in higher education and was named the music department chair in my second year. That was my first taste of administrative duties, and I found that it was a natural fit. Over the next decade I completed my doctorate and was able to step into several academic administrative roles, including Graduate Dean, while still maintaining my composing and involvement in the world of band music. For the most part, I was an administrator by day and a composer at night, weekends, and holidays. Even when I was hired as the university president at Southwestern Christian University in 2009, the Board of Regents understood that composing band music and traveling to support my music was an important part of my professional career and personal life. 

How can band directors build better working relationships with their administration?
    Like many young band directors, I confess to occasionally having tunnel vision in my early days. One of the most difficult but important things to learn is that the school’s calendar and ultimate existence does not revolve around the band program. Be considerate of other teachers and your students’ time. This is where rehearsal efficiency and effective use of time is important. Try to understand the global perspective of the administration. Superintendents and principals inherently do a lot of juggling as they attempt to do what is right for students, teachers, staff, board members, community, and constituents. There will be times when you may ask and not receive. If that happens, stay positive and move on. 

What has changed in our profession since you began teaching?
    The most dramatic changes have been cultural shifts in family dynamics, which can make it difficult for teachers to place educational and disciplinary demands on students and receive parental support. This makes the role of the music teacher even more important because of the special and sacred bond that exists between music teacher and students. Many music teachers become surrogate parents and thus have a significant and lasting impact on their students’ lives. I still maintain contact with my high school band directors to this day and many of my former students stay in contact with me. 

What are the keys to gaining your students’ trust?

    Honesty and transparency are important to young people. Do not try to fool them into thinking that you know more than you know. That is especially important for young teachers. I always told my music education majors that they would learn more in the first six weeks teaching than they would in four years in a university setting. The degree is important, but there is so much more to learn once you have the degree in hand and begin applying the principles that you learned. There is so much that can be conveyed to students, but sometimes people will try to fake their way through. A much better approach is to say, “There are some things I do not know that we are going to learn together” or “If I don’t know something, I will find out from someone.” Kids are pretty smart, and they can figure out if you’re trying to twist their arm on something. Be up front. Be transparent.
    Perhaps the most important thing is to be a good person students can emulate and see as a role model. It is tragic when we see teachers abusing children or getting themselves into trouble in whatever setting they might be. Teachers need to be role models and ought to maintain higher standards than someone who might not have a young person looking up to them. These are important criteria for teachers going into the profession. 

Where do you predict music education is heading over the next decade?

    Each year brings new technological advancements, and each is an opportunity to use new tools in classroom instruction. These advancements aside, I am concerned about the place of music education within our schools. There is plenty of research to support the importance and need for music education, but education as a whole is often overly focused on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) to the point that the arts are not a priority. As music educators, we must maintain a constant vigil to assure that the students of the future have the opportunities we had to express ourselves through music. 
    Music advocacy has always been difficult, and it continues to be difficult. I encourage people to get involved – know their legislators and know their administrators. Understand that the administrator has to have a global perspective, but at the same time, the school districts that place a great deal of emphasis on the arts do so because the music teachers do a good job with their programs and have emphasized to the administration, parents, and community how important music is by create a good product.
    In many small schools the arts get pushed aside, but even in small schools, directors who work hard at selling the arts to the community receive a great deal of support. Schools are driven by the community. If the community members can relate to what is happening in the arts programs, then they will support the arts and communicate that support to the board members who oversee the school. Advocacy is a matter of conveying the importance of the program to the community and administration and having a good product. I see arts programs being lost where the arts people do not develop good products. If they do not teach music literacy and if they waste time and resources, then they have nothing to sell. Get students engaged in the love of the arts. It continues to be a challenge, but keep conveying the arts’ importance to the people who need to hear it. This is a difficult job. 

What have been the most memorable moments of your teaching career? 
    There have been so many great moments: receiving marching, concert, and jazz band trophies and seeing the faces of the young people who were involved; getting a team-signed game ball after my university marching band performed at a Kansas City Chiefs game on national television; having the opportunity to conduct the U. S. Navy Band as they played my music; guest conducting internationally; experiencing the publication of my first band composition and more than 200 more since that time. I am always excited when I hear great recordings of my works and see the beautiful finished products that come from the Washington Winds and my publisher, the C. L. Barnhouse Company. Band music is my passion, and I hope to be able to write inspiring educational music for many years to come.