The Beginnings of WVMEA Solo and Ensemble Festivals

NOTES DA CAPO by John L. Puffenbarger, WVMEA Historian

Winter 2008


Historias note: The author of this article, Jim Andrews, is a native of Elkins and a 1954 graduate of Marshall University. He was band director at Hurricane and Point Pleasant High Schools, the first chair of the WVBA Solo and Ensemble Committee, and president of WVBA. In 1965, he became state supervisor of music. In 1973, he joined the Arts and Humanities Division of the Department of Culture and History from which he retired as director in 1988. He currently lives at The Villages, FL, where he plays trombone in the New Horizons Concert Band. I asked him to write this article on the beginnings of the WVMEA Solo and Ensemble Festivals.)


Solo and ensemble training was not prevalent in school music programs of West Virginia in the early 1950s. In 1954 when I began teaching, the only organized solo and ensemble programs and festivals were in schools in the Wheeling area. By the early 1960s, solo and ensemble programs existed in most school music programs, and there were twelve regional solo and ensemble festivals in which hundreds of students performed.


Harold Gothard was band director at Poca High School for several years when I began teaching in Hurricane. We became friends and talked a lot about the teaching of music. On one occasion, we discussed how we worked with students on solo and ensemble literature, which led to our bringing students together for a Putnam County Solo and Ensemble Festival in the spring of 1955. We had over 100 students from Poca, Hurricane, Buffalo, and Winfield schools playing and being critiqued by professors from Marshall. The festival was a success, and the students had a most positive experience. To the best of my knowledge, at that time, this was the only county solo and ensemble festival other than the ones held by counties in the Wheeling area.


When I returned from military service in 1958, the Putnam County festival had grown under the leadership of Harold Gothard, Frank Jones, Raymond Parkhurst, John Frost, and other teachers. The quality of performances was higher and the number of participating students had grown. Individual judges for woodwinds, brass, and percussion were engaged to grade performances by the students.


The WV Band Festival had also changed dramatically. No longer was there only one festival in Huntington. Instead, school bands were divided into several regional band festivals and also participated in one of four area state band festivals. Bands in Putnam County were in Region XII, along with bands in Mason and Jackson Counties, and the Milton Band in Cabell County.


The band directors in the counties met twice each year to develop plans for the festivals. In 1959, the directors developed a plan that included both junior high and high school bands and a regional solo and ensemble festival. Sight-reading became part of the band festival in 1961 and, at the time, only Region XII and the Wheeling area bands had a sight-reading requirement. Band directors in Region XII included Jim Porter (Ravenswood), Harold Gothard (Poca), Tom Reed (Wahama), Frank Jones (Hurricane), John Frost (Winfield), Ron Ross (Ripley), Pat Wisman (Milton), and I was then at Point Pleasant.


The Putnam County and Region XII solo and ensemble festivals got quite a bit of attention from other band directors. Around 1960, the board of the WV Bandmasters Association asked me to chair a committee to explore and develop a plan for organizing solo and ensemble festivals in each of the twelve regional festival locations. Committee members that I can recall were Loren Mercer, Bill Doer, Hank Meyer, Harold Gothard, Fred Meyer, Ron Wood, Bill Randall, Leland Arnold, Ken Gleason, Al Frey, and Bob Hill. A plan was developed, and each committee member was asked to present the proposal to band directors in his region.


I can only recall the reaction from band directors in the Huntington/Kanawha region, where I presented the plan. There were comments that a program like this would take too much time, and some even questioned if we were trying to turn the music program into a "conservatory." Eventually, the region approved the plan unanimously. Even those who questioned the idea voted for it, stating that they appreciated the fact that a plan was presented and that it was a good plan. The solo and ensemble committee reported approval by the directors in each region. The plan was later presented to and approved by the WVBA, and a regional solo and ensemble program for instrumental students was in place.


The plan asked for local schools to hold festivals and to send only students with high scores to regional festivals. Many directors were unfamiliar with graded solo and ensemble literature, so sources for obtaining lists were included in the plan. Application forms were part of the plan, along with guidelines that included information about the length of solos and ensembles, piano accompanists, and information for selecting judges and ideas for administering each festival. One of the side benefits of these festivals was that they encouraged schools to seek out pianists from the schools and communities to accompany the students.


The regional solo and ensemble programs flourished and, in two years, captured the attention of the Secondary Schools Activities Committee. I got a call from Gordon Eismon, who was head of the SSAC, asking questions about the festivals. Apparently, some principals did not know what was going on. Buses were being ordered and teachers and students were traveling to solo and ensemble festivals that were not on the SSAC list of approved activities. A copy of the plan was sent to the SSAC. Gordon Eismon attended several of the regional solo and ensemble festivals and later called me to say that he was impressed by these programs and how they were administered. Soon afterward, the SSAC approved the regional solo and ensemble festivals, and they became official.


One part of the solo and ensemble plan called for regions to submit tapes of the outstanding soloists and ensembles for consideration as honor finalists to perform at the WVMEA annual conference. The solo and ensemble committee formed a group of jurors to hear the tapes. The 1964 WVMEA conference was the first to present honor finalists. These students performed for conference luncheons and prior to major clinics. The Williamson High School Stage Band, under the direction of Bill Barrette, was the stage band finalist and also appeared at the 1964 conference. The 1965 conference featured performances by honor finalists from vocal, orchestral, and piano organizations as well as stage bands.


My recollection of more than fifty years ago (1955-1965) and the beginnings of solo and ensemble programs and festivals probably omits the names of many individuals who contributed significantly to the development of this outstanding program. I apologize. Those who followed and continued to develop this valuable educational program are to be commended. Solo and ensemble programs provide each student with the skills and knowledge of the literature needed to continue performing individually and to consume music intelligently for a lifetime.