Earl McConnell, Jr.
Carrying the Torch
School Band and Orchestra - April 2009
by Denyce Neilson
In 1966, band director Earl McConnell, Sr. joined the faculty of East Fairmont High School in West Virginia. Known for his uncompromising principles, stern direction, and dry sense of humor, McConnell took the East Fairmont High School band in a new direction. Ten years later, his son, Earl McConnell, Jr., joined his father at the helm as assistant director, eventually going on to take over the program. What began as a mission and a dream of Earl McConnell, Sr. became a family affair and a lasting legacy for his son and the Busy Bee Band & the Honeybees of East Fairmont High School. Using the lessons learned and inspiration from his father as a springboard, Earl Jr. paved his own path as a band director by bringing new technology, along with continued success to his music program.
In a recent SBO interview, Earl Jr. discusses carrying on his father’s legacy and traditions, while bringing the program into the 21st century.
School Band & Orchestra: Your father was the founder and director of the Busy Bee Band and Honeybees from 1966-1988. Did you always want to follow in his footsteps?
Earl McConnell: Yes. Before he came to East Fairmont High School in 1966, his first teaching position was at the cross-town rival, Fairmont Senior High School, from 1948 to 1958. Being born in 1950, I can barely remember, at age seven or eight ,watching him march down the street at the State Band Festival in Huntington, W. Va. and me breaking loose of my mother’s hand to run and march with him and the Polar Bear Band down the parade route. In fact, there is a photo of that moment that my mother has kept for years.
SBO: Did your parents encourage you to become a music educator?
EM: The encouragement was for both my brother and I to follow what we wanted to be, but we were both in the band. And ironically, by the time we entered high school, my dad had already transferred to East Fairmont High School, and a former student of his had taken over the band at Fairmont Sr. High and became our band director. I followed my dad into the band world, and my brother became a sound engineer and works for a large company in Baltimore, Md. that designs and builds sound systems for major venues.
SBO: Where did you go to school?
EM: I received my bachelors degree from Fairmont State University and my masters in Music Education from West Virginia University.
The Busy Bee Band & Honeybees marching in the Azalea Festival Parade in Norfolk, VA
SBO: And how did you end up teaching at East Fairmont High School with your father?
EM: Following a three year position in Grafton, W. Va., the assistant director’s position at East Fairmont High School opened, so I applied and was hired as the assistant band director.
SBO: What was that experience of working with your father like?
EM: Well, my dad’s idea was that we should be co-directors. And so as not to confuse the students with two directors with the same last name, I became known as “Mr. Mac” and he was called “Mr. McConnell.” Prior to our first rehearsal together, 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 instead he said, “I’m going into the background; you will be on the podium. It’s your turn.” It stayed that way for 12 years until his retirement.
SBO: When your father said he was making you the central figure, were you surprised?
EM: I was very surprised I really just wanted to come in and do what he wanted to do – provide background support. I think he felt as though, at that point in his life he had be doing this for twenty something years, and maybe I would connect better with next generation.
SBO: What was going through your mind – fear, joy?
EM: A little bit of both. We had lived that program as a family, my mom, my dad, and I. So, when he said, “There can only be one person at the podium, and that’s going to be you.” I just about fell over. It was during that time that my father had also started taking the group on various trips, including visits to Pittsburgh, which is about 90 miles north of Fairmont. A turning point in our program happened at a 1977 Band Spectacular at a Pittsburgh area high school. Following our field show performance, the director of entertainment for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was in attendance, invited us to apply for a halftime performance at Three Rivers Stadium the following year. Because of this chance meeting at an out-of-town performance, we ended up playing Steeler halftime shows for 20 consecutive years, and in a few instances, we even appeared for playoff games. It was quite an honor.
SBO: In terms of moving your music program forward and utilizing technology, you have created a pretty sophisticated Busy Bee Band Web site. How long have you had the site?
EM: We were probably one of the first West Virginia high school bands to pursue a Web site, beginning in 1995. With the growth of this new medium, we took care to update equipment, so as to be on the cutting edge. Prior to our trip to the Rose Parade, I convinced the boosters that a $1,000 digital camera would enhance our trip to California. Our Web site coordinator, Mike Swisher (Busy Bee Band alumnus 1996) traveled with our group and posted daily photos of the students” activities during the trip. And parents, who had computers or shared with others, could see the various sights and activities their children were experiencing. But even better was the fact that each evening, we sent a “photo of the day” to our hometown newspaper, and the following morning a full-color photo of our group appeared above the fold. And on January 2nd, our paper featured the band again, front page, full-color, marching in the Rose Parade simply because we understood the power of digital media and took the financial risk. It also helped that we had purchased a media pass for Mike to climb a scaffolding tower along the parade route to get the picture. From that point on, the boosters understood the invaluable necessity of digital equipment and the need to continue our Web site. The incredible number of hits each day to our Web site during the trip to Pasadena numbered in the thousands – with many coming from previous graduates of the Busy Bee Band from all over the world reliving their memories with the band and proudly watching the culmination of many years of building the program to this level and sending best wishes to all of us at the Rose Parade.
SBO: The Web site has a multimedia library where visitors can watch performance videos, download MP3s of the Busy Bee Band and Honeybees, and there are also links to performances on YouTube. How has using this technology helped or hanged your music program?
EM: In 2005 Mr. Swisher, decided to digitally re-tape at least two decades of halftime shows (mostly Pittsburgh Steeler games) and began placing them on YouTube. Even some of our more recent performances and stage shows, such as “Busy Bee Band Follies,” have been made available. It’s not unusual to receive an e-mail from a graduate of 10 or more years back thanking us for highlighting their field show from the past for them to relive.
SBO: Do you have any concerns about using social networking sites in a public school?
EM: Put it this way, before I can run a photo in a newspaper or put anything online, I have to make sure that kids are not on a certain list. I have had certain parents sign up and ask me to not allow their child’s picture to be seen at all. However, if it is from a distance, a performance on a field, that is fine. They just don’t want any close-ups.
SBO: Is that why you only use YouTube, because it is strictly performance footage shot from a distance?
EM: Yes, exactly. I am very concerned about the privacy of the individual student and the comments that could capriciously and anonymously be made about someone in this organization. As you know, there is a lot of junk on the Internet – some crude, rude stuff. I just don’t want any of my kids on Facebook saying that they are in this band and having someone reply with, “Hey your band sucks and so do you.” Why even open that door?
SBO: The band is called the Busy Bees and then there are the Honeybees and a Queen Bee. Could you explain what the Honeybees and the Queen Bee do?
EM: The Honeybees were patterned after the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. The style of dance and especially the kickline has become their trademark. Another trademark of the Honeybees is a short hair length which is styled to go no further than just below chin level. It truly sets these young ladies apart, even when not performing. Since the Honeybee line is an audition-only selection, those girls trying out for the eighteen or nineteen coveted positions know in advance that if they are selected, they are to abide by the Honeybee hair style. And of course with every band needing a field commander, there was no question that the title of Queen Bee would fit perfectly with the Bee lingo. My parents came up with the Busy Bee, Honeybees, and Queen Bee names.
SBO: Your music program has such a rich history and, of course, your father’s legacy. Could you talk about that a bit?
EM: 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. One of his lasting legacies is the Busy Bee Band Follies. It is unlike any high school concert that you have ever seen. In fact, this year will mark the 37th annual event, and our 750-seat auditorium usually sells out for four performances each spring. The show is based on Broadway themes, popular hits, medleys of popular artists, television, occasional patriotic flavor, and several show-style dance themes featuring the Honeybees. His philosophy was to stage a show with added stage designs to feature the Honeybees and/or some band students along with a professional lighting package to give the audience the feel of a Broadway style show. It must work, because we seat between 2,800 and 3,000 patrons every year in the high school auditorium for our concert. Even our local newspaper editor has stated, “We know spring is here, when the talk around town is that it’s time for the Busy Bee Band Follies!” It’s a little like Broadway in Fairmont. And of course to belay those critics concerned with our not performing legitimate band literature, we answer that with our participation in the required West Virginia State Band Festival held each May. Our record for recent adjudications shows consistent superior ratings for 24 of the past 26 years with our group performing grade five and six music for a panel of three adjudicators. My dad’s philosophy was to play music that will allow audiences to enjoy music of various genres and fill the house to the point that your spring concert runs for three or four performances. His philosophy was to allow hard working students to grow and mature through music education. We run a no-nonsense organization with a dress code and a requirement that boys keep their hair cut above the collar.
SBO: Why the restriction on hair length?
EM: It makes for cleaner cut appearance. These are the rules and students know that coming in. This is an elective; students elect to join the band. If they don’t want to cut their hair, they can’t be in the band.
SBO: Did the no-nonsense discipline come from your parents?
EM: Yes, it did. It’s not that we are so strict. It’s just that we have rules that we use when we perform and rules that we use when we travel. When we were getting ready to go to the Rose Parade, we realized how many people would be watching that parade. The first thing that I worried about was: Here we are from West Virginia and over the past few decades, the media has really done a number on West Virginia – all Appalachian, don’t wear shoes, et cetera. I had to tell my kids, “You are going to set an image for this state that hasn’t had a very good image. That’s why we have to look our best." When we travel, guys are in shirts and ties and girls in skirts or dresses. When we perform, there is no hair on the collar, even for girls. I have told the kids and parents that representing this state is quite an
honor, and we, as a band, can not do anything to diminish the image of this state. This state already has enough problems with image.
SBO: So when the band travels to perform, do people expect you to show up in overalls and no shoes or something?
EM: Yes, they do! My students are not allowed to wear denim when we travel. If we were a band from New York and were wearing denim people would say, "Oh, just another group of high school kids." We sometimes perform in South Carolina and we usually take a break at a mall. My band kids really standout from the rest of the kids in the mall. People always come up to me and ask, "Where y’all from?" I say, "West Virginia." There is always a look of disbelief on their faces and then they usually say, "Kids don’t dress like that. They must be from a private school." They really can’t believe that these young ladies and gentlemen adhere to a dress code yet are a product of a public school system. I learned from my father that the appearance of a group speaks volumes. He would always tell me, "People see our group before they ever hear them play a note. Just having uniforms cleaned and pressed, shoes shined, hats on straight, and hair neatly above the collar and/or up inside their hats, wins over a crowd before you have played that first note."
SBO: I think it’s wonderful that you take such pride, but at the same time it’s a bit disheartening that you have work so hard and go that extra mile to break these stereotypes.
EM: Yes, but I have always felt like it has been a mission of mine, especially when we got on a national stage. Someone out there watching the Inaugural Parade will hear that the next band is from West Virginia and they will instantly think, "This is going to be horrible," or "It’s a wonder that they are wearing shoes." Unless you are from this state and have had to read so many denigrating articles, you wouldn’t understand. I can take you to Kentucky and show you some of Appalachia and poverty, but there is also Louisville, the Kentucky Derby, and money. That’s the difference.
SBO: What do you think the students take away from the no-nonsense approach and this sense of pride that you try to impart?
EM: The biggest thing is that they have a sense of pride and confidence. I’ve had kids tell me that when they went for their first job interview they thought, "Well, if Mr. McConnell was going to tell me what to wear, I would have my hair cut short, be wearing a tie, and my shoes would be shined." I think education should do more than just educate in reading, writing, and arithmetic. Part of education is also learning social graces, how to behave in public, being on time; it’s a growing process.
SBO: It’s a confidence builder as well. When they go on that job interview, they will dress well, but I’m sure it goes deeper than that. They are going with that sense of pride.
EM: We hope. Our mission is to prepare kids for their future, and to be honest with you, I think we do more of that than actual music training. The band is the vehicle through which we use to do this.
SBO: What has been your proudest moment as a music educator?
EM: I have been very blessed with many proud moments. When you consider the performances by this organization at two Presidential Inaugural Parades, the Millennium Tournament of Roses Parade in 2000, it has been an incredible journey. As I recall these performances, I would have to say our first Presidential Inaugural Parade in 1989 was my proudest moment. My father was still living, and our invitation from the Presidential Inaugural Committee for our group to represent the state of West Virginia, in front of a world-wide television audience, as well as the President of the United States, I felt gave credence to what my parents had envisioned and strived for. And for me to tell my father that his program, which he originated in 1969, with only about 100 students, was going to march down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the most well known address in America and represent our state, still stands in my mind as the defining moment for this program. And from that point on, with the credibility and world-wide TV coverage, the program would continue to grow and build and carry on his legacy in so many more prestigious events. My daughter Kate tried out for the Honeybees in her sophomore year and was accepted. And then she became Queen Bee in her senior year. That year, the band traveled to Washington D.C. and was able to play at the World War II Memorial, which was a thrill. It was very touching to have my daughter there with me.
SBO: Do you have any advice for other music educators?
EM: Build your program with great care. Band directors should be overly prepared and efficiently organize so that students don’t feel that they are wasting their time to be part of your group while you take their time to solve a problem that you could have prevented. You may not have a great budget from your school system, but as I stated earlier, some directors say "no" to numerous requests to perform at community events, while our view is that a band that relies on the community for fundraising and support should perform when asked. The more your band is actively involved within the community, the more the support and respect it will receive.