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Passionate Teachers, An Interview with Andy Pettus and Leslie Welker

Dan Blaufuss | November 2009


    The Hillcrest High School (Tuscaloosa, Alabama) Band Department has received numerous awards and honors, and the Hillcrest Wind Ensemble will perform at the Midwest Clinic next month. High school director Andy Pettus and Hillcrest Middle School director Leslie Welker share their thoughts on what it takes to build a strong program.

What criteria do you use when choosing music for your ensembles?
    Welker: Andy and I expect more from students than they think they are capable of doing and when they find out that they can do more than they thought, they get excited. Students develop a love for music early and that enthusiasm is only intensified at the high school level.
    Pettus: You cannot be afraid to take risks. Many people too often look for music based on the weaknesses in their current ensemble, maybe a weak oboe player or a poor section. Those are valid considerations, but I take almost the exact opposite approach. I pick music based on what will push students and force them to step up. It’s scary sometimes  for me and them, but you have to be willing to take a chance. Music is not about having a perfect string of top ratings, it’s about giving students the musical experience they deserve. I always try to find pieces that will push students. I don’t care about the grade level. The music just has to be of great artistic merit.
    Last year we played a piece that is fairly contemporary, Schwantner’s . . . and the mountains rising nowhere. Many told me that high school students wouldn’t get excited about it, but I was committed 100% of the time and preached about what great music it is, even though most people might not understand it. Students are still talking about the piece. They loved it and want to do another piece just like it. It comes in part from the daily message from the podium that this is worthwhile music.
    Regardless of grade level, great music is difficult to play beautifully. The differences between the grade levels have more to do with technical difficulty, but for all music, tone production and phrasing are paramount. I preach less about technique and more about the musical line as well as capturing the composer’s intent. When students are driven more by the artistic imagery than they are by technical demands, the problems get solved more quickly. We have gotten away from teaching music as an art form sometimes.
    Welker: I feel the same way. Middle school playing involves more technical correction because I am teaching the basics, but I also use imagery because it works with students. You get so much more accomplished that way. At the high school level there is more inspiration, but at the middle school level I have more of the perspiration.
    When I am listening to recordings of new music, it takes about five seconds for me to determine whether the music is something I might be interested in. Once I start narrowing it down, I make sure that all my sections are busy and challenged, and that includes percussion. I love percussion and am upset if I see an ensemble in which the percussion section sits for a large portion of the concert.
    I avoid watered-down music; I want students to play good music that may be slightly above their ability level. As we work toward that goal, students get excited to play something that is difficult. That doesn’t mean we never play less demanding pieces. We’re going to play one this year that provides an excellent opportunity to work on phrasing. 
    Pettus:  I spend hours anguishing over music selection; it is probably the most important decision I make. When you put music in front of students you tell them that it is important and worth learning. As I told a colleague, it’s like going to the grocery store: you have aisles of tempting junk food, but in the long run it is not good for you. Good food takes longer to prepare, but the benefits are much greater. The same is true for music.     You have to sift through the junk to find the great pieces.  I think back to Frank Battisti’s article about determining band music of serious artistic merit when I look for music to play, and I have talked with people I really respect about what is great music.
    Between the two of us, we read quite a bit of music. When I put away music at the end of the year, we have read hundreds of pieces, not just a handful. Playing a great amount of literature keeps students engaged and interested and is key to students becoming better readers. We certainly work to perfect music for a concert, but I feel it is important to never let students feel like they have mastered the music and we are just cleaning for the next gig. I spend well over $10,000 a year just on music. Music is our curriculum, and students’ music education depends on the music I select, no different than an English teacher selecting worthwhile books to read. I have some students who are listening to band music on their own and suggesting pieces to me. I am thrilled that they are thinking about band music outside the classroom.

What are the daily rehearsal routines for your ensembles?
    Pettus: My first block class is the wind ensemble. We meet for an hour and 45 minutes every day. My warm-up consists of long-tone exercises and quite a bit of singing. I’m a big believer in audiation. Also we do some breathing exercises, scales, technical exercises, and the circle of fifths. I try to vary the routine to keep students listening. We will spend 15-20 minutes on exercises and play a chorale to help students listen across the ensemble. I don’t conduct a lot during the chorale so students learn chamber music skills and careful listening. Then we get into the pieces we are working on at the time.
    Most of the time students are in their own bubble, concentrating only on themselves. Initially, I will encourage them to listen to their entire section and match up with others on similar instruments. The next step is asking students to figure out who has the same part as they do. This guides students to discover similar parts in the rest of the band. Then I ask students to think about what role their part plays in the music – whether they have the melody or just a supporting harmonic idea. If they are not the most important idea in the music, it is still essential to make the part fit appropriately. We don’t spend enough time helping students to be good accompanists.
    Welker: My rehearsals have to be fast-paced. Our class periods are 50 minutes instead of the block schedule, so I don’t have much time. With beginners, I avoid having them play a long, tedious exercise and instead ask them to work on a specific aspect of musicianship, such as careful breathing, using just a note or a short segment their method book. I also believe singing is extremely important, especially for brass players, who at first have trouble distinguishing pitches. 
     With the seventh- and eighth-grade band we do many of the same things and also work on all the major scales. We sightread almost every day, and I keep students playing every moment I can. By the end of eighth grade they should have all 12 major scales memorized. I avoid too much board work because students lose interest fast; I do as little explaining as possible and try to get them playing immediately. 
    Pettus: In the second block I meet with the concert band, made up mostly of 9th and 10th grade students. This year I have an assistant who is taking that class and follows the same format I use with the wind ensemble. My third block is the jazz band. We will do some of the same warm-ups with the jazz band, although we also do quite a bit of work on improvisation techniques and different jazz scales as well as play over some Jamey Aebersold progressions. We will play through several different scales, such as Dorian or a blues and talk about the theory behind each as well as what types of chord progressions would sound good behind them.
    From day one, I emphasize that everyone should improvise. I’ve noticed with beginning improvisers that they are more worried about selecting the right notes, and there is not much variety in the rhythms. You don’t have to pick a lot of notes to have a great solo. Sometimes I will limit students to one or two notes and have them solo with those limitations.

What are the secrets to working together?
    Pettus: We feel quite comfortable with each other. Neither of us has it all figured out or ever will. The two of us together are stronger than we were apart. If you are not communicating frequently between the high school and middle school you are setting yourself up for disaster. I see this happen a lot because people get caught up with daily problems. Our students see that we have a great working relationship and that makes them feel comfortable as they make the transition to high school.
    Welker: Andy and I have similar philosophies, and that is one reason we have such a successful program. I have the same demands on a lower scale so when students move on to the high school, they have an idea of what they are supposed to do.
    Pettus:  This is extremely important. We try to take all distractions out of the mix. Picking great music and going at it really intensely is our focus. If students know what to expect on the first day of high school because it is consistent with junior high, there is better retention and students are more excited as they move up.  
    Welker:It takes a good sense of humor. We have the best time together because we are on the same wavelength. We laugh a lot and don’t take ourselves too seriously. We are very down to earth. Because of that, if I don’t like something Andy is doing, I am not afraid to tell him.
    Pettus: It is important not to be territorial. Last year we went up to the National concert band festival in Indianapolis. I had Leslie conduct one of the pieces with my top group, and she will be doing the same at our performance at the Midwest in December.
    Welker:  I feel like when I go over to the high school, students still consider me one of their teachers. We are a team.

What is the best way to get balanced instrumentation?
    Welker:  I do not exclude beginners from any instrument. I try to balance out each year based on who I am losing. If we are losing players on an instrument, I may try to make that instrument extremely attractive to beginners, perhaps playing them up a bit when I visit the grade schools. This past year I had a couple of talented first-year oboists. We went over to the elementary schools and they were so persuasive in presenting their instrument that I must have had 50 people say they wanted to play the oboe. I ended up with three good oboists in my beginning band.
    Pettus: When they get up to high school I sometimes have to sell students on trying something different. I like to compare band to baking a cake; it takes the right amount of all the necessary ingredients otherwise it won’t be as good.

Who were the biggest influences on your teaching?
    Welker: I can think of two who were particularly important to me. My beginning band director in Asheville, North Carolina, was Patricia Garren. She inspired me by being a tough teacher who had high expectations. That pleased me to no end. I was an overachiever to begin with, so playing difficult music with someone who would make sure that we learned it was exciting.
    The other person was my husband, Gerald Welker, who was Andy’s director at the University of Alabama. He was the most influential person in my life. I can think of no one who was more passionate, knowledgeable, and inspiring when it comes to creating special music. He was a wonderful role model.
    Pettus: I studied with Gerald Welker when I went to college. He was demanding and intense, but so inspiring and a musical genius. He helped me take the next step, which was to go to the University of Miami, where I met Gary Green. Mr. Green challenged the way I thought and taught me so much about literature and studying. His high standards are in the back of my mind all the time.
    My high school director, John McCombs, taught me more about life than anyone else and gave me many opportunities. During my senior year the band was so big at my small school in rural Alabama that it was impossible to rehearse with everybody so he split us into two groups and asked me to rehearse with one of them. That is what gave me the taste for music education and inspired me to become a band director.
    Because band directors have the same students for many years, every weekday and multiple weekends, the influence we have on these students is tremendous. In some cases they may have more respect for us than their own parents. The things we tell them stick. Therefore my main focus is to be the same good role model to my students that my great mentors were to me.

Why is it important for directors to be passionate on the podium?
    Pettus: People say that I’m passionate, and some might call me eccentric on the podium. However, I’ll do whatever it takes for us to be true to the music. My enthusiasm on the podium is not for show. It’s truly how I feel about creating music. Many people have taught for a lot longer than I have but I can’t imagine feeling any different 25 years down the road. There are many distractions from teaching – fundraising, parents, keeping the rehearsal room clean – but the most important thing is to get up on that podium and go at it.
     Passion is the glue that holds it all together. Some days it’s tough, but the most important thing I can do when I step in front of students is to be energized and truly committed to the music I put in front of them. That’s one reason music selection is so important.
     Students have to see and sense both the energy that you’re trying to get across and what the composer wanted to say with this music. It doesn’t matter if rehearsal is at 8 a.m. on a Monday. I tell students that our work is not just about concerts or one special day when we are suddenly going to make wonderful music. It is about every day you touch that instrument, at home or school. You are a musician with burning desire to play wonderful music from your soul. When you know how you want the music to sound and are really passionate in its delivery, students are inspired to play artistically.
    Welker:  If teachers are not feeling the passion, maybe they need to listen to some new music to find something inspiring or reevaluate what they are doing in rehearsal preparation. The teachers who are unafraid to try something new are the ones who are going to develop their students into potentially great musicians with a love of music. 
     There are enough mediocre band directors. It is so easy for them to get mired in things that don’t matter that they fail to see the bigger picture. If something is not working, it is their job to reinvent themselves. We never know who among our students will become a director and carry on the torch, so it is important for us to ignite passion within our students. Andy and I cannot imagine doing anything else with our lives.