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For the second time in three months, the Busy Bee Band & Honeybees have been featured in a prominent national magazine. For over 60 years school band and orchestra directors have depended on The Instrumentalist for practical information to use with their ensembles.  The articles written by veteran directors and performers cover a wide range of topics, including rehearsal techniques, conducting tips, programming ideas, instrument clinics, repertoire analyses, and much more.  Each year The Instrumentalist also conducts original research to investigate developments in music education, including changes in school budgets, fundraising, and block scheduling.  Each month new music reviews guide directors to selecting the best music for their students.

In their June 2007 issue, The Instrumentalist features an article highlighting the accomplishments of Earl McConnell and the Busy Bee Band & Honeybees entitled "Skyscrapers and Aircraft Carriers, An Interview with Earl McConnell by James M. Rohner. Here is the story of a band that travels throughout the country but makes its greatest contribution at home in the hills of West Virginia.

Skyscrapers & Aircraft Carriers

An Interview with Earl McConnell

By James M. Rohner

When the band from East Fairmont High School earned a perfect score at the West Virginia state contest in April, this success continued a tradition of excellence that dates back to the 1960s. Director Earl McConnell joined his father on the podium in 1976 and has remained at the school ever since. He knows that many people would never expect a successful music program in the economically depressed coal country of West Virginia . McConnell credits the community, where many former band students now have children in the band, for providing unflagging support. "The local businesses and families have come together to support this band financially and spiritually. They have helped us reach goals that bands in other communities might not reach."

How does your program draw such enthusiastic audiences for its performances?

Our biggest event each year is the Follies, a full-stage production that uses our 180-piece band and dance team to play Broadway turns and popular music each year. My father and mother started the show 35 years ago and knew that a concert hidden in a stage show would draw large crowds. They were right, and our 800-seat auditorium is sold out for all four shows each year. This year the crowd loved hearing a saxophone quartet playing the Pink Panther theme accompanied with film footage of the cartoon character. We also included one of our spring contest pieces, Canadian Sketches by David Shaffer.

Our Honeybees dance team is known for its accurate moves and choreography that fits the music. A lighting company from Pittsburgh handles special effects for the show. The Follies this year included selections from West Side Story in honor of that show's 50th anniversary. Several students were selected to wear leather jackets and perform a scene as the Jets onstage. A choreographer from Point State College in Pittsburgh worked with these students for six weeks to help them learn the moves. Their performance opened the second half of the show and it brought the house down.

One of the most memorable moments in a Follies performance occurred in 2004 when we honored Woody Williams, a World War II veteran from our county who earned the Medal of Honor for heroism on Iwo Jima . We presented a short video with the band playing stunning music by John Williams from the movie The Patriot . We showed a picture of Williams receiving the medal at the White House from Harry Truman and then a current picture.

As the song ended and the video screen went up, Williams was standing on stag flanked on each side by three marines in dress uniforms. The crowd erupted. He moved forward and talked to the audience about his experiences at Iwo Jima and what America means to him. It was unforgettable.

How long does it take to plan such an elaborate performance?

The planning lasts all year but really starts up after the Tony awards and the Oscars are given each year. I also want to determine the popular movies that have had versions of the music released for concert band. The theme each year is nailed down in December or January after I have seen the new music available at the Midwest Clinic. After the program is selected, we rehearse until the performance in late March or early April. We generally rehearse on Tuesday and Thursday night and add Saturday morning rehearsals in February. We have to schedule our work on the Follies around the state basketball tournament.

Once the show is over we start preparing for the state-mandated band festival. I will try to program one or both contest pieces as part of the Follies. Sometimes a concert piece will not fit in the Follies so we have a few weeks to learn it. Out of 180 students in the band I will pick a small wind ensemble to play for the state contest. Our groups have earned superior ratings in 32 of the past 36 years.

When did your group start taking trips?

Our students have traveled every spring since the 1970s to locations ranging from Toronto to Orlando . Last year we took a memorable trip to New York that included performances at Rockefeller Center and from the deck of an aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Intrepid. Having taken groups to New York several times, I knew making arrangements would be difficult compared with locations that cater to school bands. I wanted to have the group perform at Rockefeller Center but kept having difficulty.

Just when it seemed that the performance was set our contact with the company that owns the building took another job. We pressed on and asked Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia to write a letter supporting our performance. He has been a strong supporter of our program and shortly after he wrote we became the first school band to play at Rockefeller Center in 40 years.

I run a no-nonsense organization with a dress code and a requirement that boys keep their hair cut above the collar. The students always wear dress clothes on trips; denim is not permitted. Our appearance makes a strong impression on the public. Students know what our rules are before they sign up for band. Every once in a while someone will try to challenge the rules but I do not bend. Some people also complain that you cannot impose these types of rules in a public school, but I remind them that band is a voluntary activity. If you do not want to look or perform the part, you can go somewhere else. I feel that if Ohio State University can have clean-cut band students with every one looking impeccable, our students should strive to meet that same standard.

On one trip our clean-cut appearance actually led to a surprising extra performance. On a visit to Washington , D.C. I arranged for the students to be photographed next to the marine memorial depicting the flag-raising on Iwo Jima . The students knew of Medal of Honor winner Woody Williams and I wanted them to see the statue in person.

From there I took students over to the brand-new World War II memorial, which was due to be dedicated just a week later. A park ranger stopped us and asked us to perform for about 1,000 people visiting the memorial. We played various patriotic pieces for the crowd, which included many veterans. We may have been the first high school group ever to perform at the memorial. You never know what is going to happen with a band on the road. If an opportunity is available, the best course of action is to take it.

What are the keys to making a trip run smoothly?

It is essential to have a group of parents trained to help you run a trip. I choose the chaperones and require all of them to attend band camp in the summer to meet students and learn how we operate. We take students to a big 4-H camp in the mountains for six days to learn all of our drill and music, prepare our half-time show, and start work on a pregame show. We have had up to 12-15 couples working as chaperones each year. The chaperones implement the rules and keep the band on a schedule. They also help out with a big cookout and dance on the last night. Good communication is also important for a trip. We have purchased some great radios that allow communication with all of the chaperones within a three-mile radium. This makes it easy to load up the students at a specific time.

Many hotel chains will not take high school groups anymore. When I make reservations for a trip I always refer people to our web site so they can see how well-dressed our students are and where they have traveled in the past. Many hotel managers have sent letters praising the behavior of our students. These letters are particularly helpful when I am making arrangements for the next trip.

How much fundraising occurs for the program each year?

Our biggest fundraiser is a semi-annual citrus sale held since 1994. We have sold 2,700,000 pound of oranges and grapefruits since then. We earn $25,000 in profit from the December sale and a second shipment in February adds $15,000 to the total.

We also print an annual ad supplement in the local newspaper. Friends of the band can have their names printed on the page for $2 and businesses can buy an ad for $10. If each of the 180 students sells two $10 ads and 15 names, we raise $9,000 in profit. The ad typically runs on the day of the last big football game against our cross-town rival. The ad page also highlights recent band trips, photos and band members. Twenty businesses pay $100 a piece to cover the cost of the page.

The trip to the Rose Parade in 1999 was our biggest project ever but the community rallied to donate money for the trip. It was humbling to receive a $5,000 donation from a former student who was in the band when my father was the director. After all of our fundraising the cost per student for the five-day trip to California was just $500, including airfare. The band has been around for so long, with the same last name on the podium, that one man described us as "the stable part of the community that we can always count on to make us proud and educate our students." Those were the kindest words I have ever heard about the program.

When did your father start directing the program?

He started teaching at East Fairmont High School in 1967 and changed the name of the band during the early years. Band then it was called the Bee Band for our school mascot. He said, "if we are going to get this program going, we have to be busy as a bee." We have been the Busy Bee Band and Honeybees ever since.

My father also started taking the group on various trips including visits to Pittsburgh , which is about 90 miles north. At one band show, the director of entertainment for the Pittsburgh Steelers invited us to perform at a halftime show. Because of this chance meeting we ended up playing periodic halftime shows for over 20 years. In a couple of instances we even appeared at playoff games.

I joined the program in 1976 and taught with my father until he retired in 1989. When I first started he pulled me aside and said, "There can only be one conductor. There has to be a central figure." I fully expected that he would be in charge but he said "I'm going into the background; you will be on the podium. It's your turn."

As we worked together I learned many lessons not taught in school. He emphasized performing regularly and making the band an important part of the community. As a World War II veteran he always had the band perform in the annual Veteran's Day parade. Some directors say no to numerous requests to perform at community events, but our view is that a band that relies on the community for fundraising and support should perform when asked. My father also taught me not to break up the band into small groups. Students feel like they have been benched on a sports team when they are left behind while others perform at an event.

Earl W. McConnell Sr., band booster president Richard Hackett, and Earl McConnell Jr. in 1981.

I also learned from him that the appearance of a group speaks volumes. People see our group before they ever hear them play. Just having shoes shined, hats on straight and hair above the collar wins over a crowd before you have played a note. When we did start playing my father aimed for enough power "to scare bigger bands and really intimidate little ones."

  • James M. Rohner is editor of The Instrumentalist. He earned degrees from Colgate University and Tulane University.

 

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