Elon Jamison, director of the Ferndale (Mich.) High School Golden Eagle Marching Band, shares his thoughts on competition, his career and his band’s three-peat as state champions.
For the past three years, the Ferndale (Mich.) High School Golden Eagle Marching Band has finished first in Flight III of the Michigan Competing Band Association (MCBA). How has this success affected the band and community? Halftime Magazine recently caught up with head director Elon Jamison, who discusses his emphasis on musicality as well as his philosophy on competition.
Halftime: What do you love most about marching band and being a director?
Jamison: It’s getting to go through the process that I like best. All the people involved are people that I respect a lot. By that, I mean the rest of the staff, the parents who are heavily involved and the kids. The performance and competition side is really cool, and we enjoy it, but it’s the process and spending the time creating a show with them that I really enjoy. The concept that goes into it and the process to make it into a finished product: that’s the best part.
Halftime: Where did you go to school? How has that affected you as a director?
Jamison: I got my undergrad in music education and bassoon performance at Northwestern University in Evanston [Ill.], and then I did my master’s in wind conducting at Michigan State [in East Lansing]. Both experiences prepared me quite well. I worked with some fantastic professors, and I learned from them both in terms of content and how to motivate. I learned where the bar should be set in terms of excellence.
Halftime: How would you describe your teaching style?
Jamison: I try to be inspiring, but not by any dog and pony show. For the kids, what they see is what they get. I try to demonstrate that you don’t need to put on an act.
Certainly I want to get to know the kids, and knowing those individuals helps me do my job, but at the same time, we—students and teachers—are in service of the music. That’s sort of my ethos when it comes to marching band as well as concert band. The music comes first.
I’ve had many people throughout my career say marching band is a horrible thing, that it’s anti-educational, that people are only interested in winning and sacrifice the music. So I try really hard to do just the opposite. I see my job as making sure that we are as true to the music and honest to our interpretation of it as we can be.
Halftime: What has marching band taught your students?
Jamison: Hard work pays off. It’s taught them that it’s the process and relationships you build in any activity that are important. You’re never going to say, “Gee, I wish I’d spent more time at the office.” You want to make sure that the time you spend doing anything is worth your while. The kids that walk out of our program are better for it. They’re smarter, better lateral thinkers. They’ve been forced to use all parts of their brain and body at the same time.
Halftime: What is your philosophy on competition? Do you believe it is important for high school bands to compete?
Jamison: Our society is a competitive society—we compete for jobs and contracts; we compete to get into college. To deny that is doing our young a disservice. At the same time, though, if you look at the front page of the BOA [Bands of America] rulebook and the MCBA rulebook, there’s a statement about the dangers of competition.
To a certain extent, I think we’ve gotten ourselves caught up in those dangers these last three years. I’d never say we regret winning three state champs in a row—of course, I’m so proud of our band—but it’s so tempting to lose sight of what’s important. It’s the process and the people, not just winning. It’s a fallacy to assume for one moment that if you don’t get first place that you’re unsuccessful.
That’s what we’re trying to keep sight of this year. We could win a fourth, and that’s great, but band is supposed to be about fun.
Halftime: How does it feel to be defending state champions of the past three years? Is there a lot of anticipation?
Jamison: It feels good; there’s no question. The parents, staff, students and community have really gotten behind us, especially the first year. The police gave us an escort out of town going to state finals. We have a sign on all the major streets that says “Welcome to Ferndale, Home of the 2004, 2005 and 2006 State Champion Marching Band.” And that’s pretty cool. But at the same time, it’s hard to be on top. You’re the band that everyone’s gunning for.
Photo courtesy of Elon Jamison. All rights reserved.